Vino in Vegas (April 17, 2014)
Las Vegas is living proof that nothing succeeds like excess. It's a city that looks as if it was designed by architects high on speed and obsessed with numbers. But then numbers is what Las Vegas is all about – at the gaming tables and in the record books.
The self-styled "Entertainment Capital of the World" has a population of two million inhabitants. Last year it played host to 47 million visitors. There is no escaping the fact that you are here to gamble. Just to drive home this imperative you're confronted with banks of slots at the airport – even before you've picked up your luggage.
The epicentre of this gambling activity is The Strip, a demented 6.8-kilometre stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard South which is technically outside the city limits. Here you will find fifteen of the world's twenty-five largest hotels offering you your choice of 62,000 rooms.
The Strip is aptly named because when I was walking it in November I was hustled every ten paces by men and women thrusting cards of naked women into my hands. These merchants of flesh wore green T-shirts emblazoned with the words, "Girls, Girls, Girls. Delivered To Your Room in 20 minutes." (I refrained from asking them if that claim was not honoured did the girls come free – like Domino pizzas?)
As with most hotels along The Strip, the Mandalay Palace has its own wedding chapel which, I guess, is a necessary service since there are, on average, 315 weddings a day in Las Vegas. (The city doesn't offer statistics on divorces). But more importantly, for my predilection, this hotel is home to what is arguably the most dramatic wine cellar in the world. Located in Charlie Palmer's Aureole restaurant, it houses more than 50,000 bottles of wine. Imagine a glassed-in, stainless steel tower rising to the height of a four-storey building. It features, among other vinous treasures, all five First Growth Bordeaux from the 1900 vintage and verticals of Châteaux Palmer, Margaux, Léoville-Las Cases and Lafite. Add to this California offerings such as Caymus, Beaulieu, Dunn, Chateau Montelena, Joseph Phelps and Silver Oak dating back to the 1970s and extensive verticals of the world's most coveted producers such as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Gaja, Penfold's Grange and Château d'Yquem. But what completes the spectacle are the "wine angels." Wine angels? Think scantily-clad Victoria's Secret models wearing harnesses attached to wires that make them appear to fly up the cellar wall to retrieve the bottle you ordered.
A short shuttle bus drive from The Strip you'll find Rio Suites (3700 West Flamingo Road), which also boasts a gigantic wine cellar. The crown jewel here is a vertical of Château d'Yquem, a bottle from every year between 1855 and 1990. Like everything else in Las Vegas, they're for sale; the price is two million dollars. And then there's the bottle of 1800 Madeira that once graced the cellar of Thomas Jefferson at Montebello. Or the bottle of DRC Romanée-Conti 1994 that could be yours for $28,750. Among other curiosities in Rio Suites' cellar is what was once reputed to be the largest bottle of wine in the world - 27 litres of California's Dry Creek Vineyard Reserve Merlot 1995, the equivalent of thirty-six bottles of wine. (That record, incidentally, has subsequently been broken many times. The current champion is a fifteen-foot-high bottle that contains 1,850 litres of Icewine, produced by Wang Chen Wines in Liaoning, northern China.)
The antidote to Vegas is a 40-minute, mind-clearing helicopter ride to the Grand Canyon. The elemental dignity and timeless beauty of these rock formations stand in stark contrast to the Strip's strident hucksterism and endearing vulgarity. There is a purity and calm in the desert which makes it an ideal place for a wine tasting. Our helicopter touched down on a plateau and, seated at a picnic table overlooking the Colorado River, I tasted a range of Jacob's Creek wines with their Australian winemaker, Bernard Hickin. The only other experience that came close to this was tasting a Wegler Oestricher Lenchen Riesling Spätlese 1976 in a small plane flying over the vineyard that supplied the grapes.
On the way back to Las Vegas we flew over Boulder City, one of two places in Nevada where you can't gamble (Panaca is the other). Boulder City, 32 kilometers from Las Vegas, was built to house the workers who constructed the Hoover Dam. Gambling here was prohibited when too many man-hours were lost because of the workers' gambling and drinking habits.
It's ironic that there should be a luxury hotel in Las Vegas called The Venetian which is built on the site of the old Sands Hotel. Because Venice is a city you have to visit before you die. For very different reasons, the same could be said of Las Vegas. This time I came away having lost $9.82 and a corkscrew that was confiscated at the airport.