The email comes in from Dressner on the morning of the event: "My God!" he says, "There has been more time and organization spent on this dinner than on the Charles/Di wedding!"
Sadly, this is only a mild exaggeration.
The notion was born months earlier in the head of gamay enthusiast and internet recluse Andrew Munro Scott: "Hey," he wrote, "I saw this Times review of this crazy place in Jersey City--it basically sounds like an all-night fourteen-course jeebus at somebody's house. AND IT'S BYO! If we turn the organization over to the girls, it might actually happen..."
Thus was conceived the epic Jeebus at Fifteen Fox Place.
So today's the day. Months of preparation on Lisa's part have come to fruition: a motley group of dissolutes and ne'er-do-wells assembles under the big clock at Journal Square and tramps as a body through the grimy, rainy streets of Jersey City to ring the doorbell of the three-story house on a residential sidestreet. She has sent us ahead while she waits for the last few stragglers, and I am entrusted with the password: "SFJoe sent me."
The hostess and waitresses' eyes go slightly wide at the procession of people trooping in, deep-laden with boxes of stemware and seemingly endless bottles of wine. "My goodness..." say Marylou, our chaperone for this evening, momentarily flummoxed. "We're wine geeks!" chirps Andrew, by way of explanation.
"Well!" She exclaims. "Let's see exactly what it is that 'wine geeks' do." Oh you will, I think to myself, you will.
We all smile and try to look innocent.
As we settle in, Marylou is collecting coats and stemware boxes that might impede her travel around the outskirts of the table. I pass my empty Spiegelau box towards her, but as I do it begins to slip from my grasp. I clutch at it, but only manage to grab the corner, watching in slow-mo as the box tumbles onto the stemware-laden table, landing with a tinkling crunch.
It's only one water glass, but the room is silent, embarrassed at this shabby introductory display. All I can think to say is "Jeez, I usually don't start breaking stemware until after I've had a few glasses of wine." There are some appreciative chuckles, but as she picks up the pieces Marylou seems troubled, perhaps wondering if things are going to go downhill from here.
Okay, shake it off, let's get the ball rolling with a Reichsrat von Buhl Weissburgunder Pfalz Sekt Dosage Zero 1999. Smells warmly floral, yellow pear, white flowers and minerals, touch of creaminess. Tastes smooth, very smooth: creamy fizzy-pear fruit up front, tart yellow apple and yeasty bakery hints emerging in the middle. Lovely and seamless, a pure wine that makes me wonder what I've been missing by ignoring German fizzies. A birthday gift from a chick sommelier pal, this is sweetly subtle and charming stuff.
From the sublime to the ridiculous, with a Zind-Humbrecht Pinot Gris Herrenweg de Turckheim 1997. Lush tropical-floral aromatics: mandarin orange, pineapple, plumeria, smells like a gift shop in the Honolulu airport. Tastes big and thick, richly flavored and glyceriney. There's a demisec level of sugar, just a skosh of acidity, almost overbearingly flavorful, with a light almond note emerging on the finish. It's not unpleasant, but sipping at it is rather like drinking the syrup left in the can when the fruit salad is gone. It is an interesting match with the salty anchovy-olive appetizer that's going around, though.
As Marylou bustles in with another course (two down, twelve to go), Jay masterfully finesses the dump bucket situation: "May we have a container into which we can pour our unused wine?" is the phrasing he uses. I quickly note it down for future use. Marylou cocks her head, looks uncertain. "You mean... just to pour things into, not like a... a... spittoon?"
Shock. "Oh NO, we would NEVER do anything like that! Naturally, this would just be to pour out what we don't want." Several of us mime glass-dumping motions to help illustrate the concept. She looks vaguely troubled but goes off to fetch one, clearly dubious as to how housebroken these "wine geeks" are.
Here come some hot peppers, something I prefer to avoid when I'm tasting. Instead I wait for the Marylou's next pass, stuffed sweet peppers. Let's try those with a Puzelat Touraine Le Buisson Pouilloux 1998. Pale straw color. A quiet, whispery wine, smells of ginger-lemon, white grapefruit and creme soda. Seems faded and slightly watery in the middle, slips quietly away, leaving very little impression. I need something else for these peppers.
Ooh, let's give the Thomas-Labaille Sancerre Chavignol Les Monts Damnés Cuvée Buster 1998 a shot. The wine that never failed to puzzle and intrigue me: it's been a few years, my pretty, let's see where you are.... Ah yes, yes, I remember. It's shut down now, but retains its prettiness and opalescence, a chameleon of a Chavignol. Quiet, understated and shy, it trips lightly between stony-lime aromatics and soft floral-peachiness. A wonderfully pure crystalline minerality flows through it, and as the last hint of lime rind flickers out, that stoniness is what remains. Jay swoons with delight, Kane grimaces and rolls his eyes.
There are small Dodgsonian Easter bunny figurines on the table. They go away when the 'spare-wine receptacles' arrive, but the ones on the wall stay, peering down at us like Hunter Thompson-style familiars. As I'm warily eyeing them, Kane's phone rings-- it's Dressner calling from the road. They're in line at the Holland Tunnel, still at least half an hour away. At that same moment in walk the Olegs, having made an escape from their brood by explaining that Mommy and Daddy have an important business meeting to get to. "They haven't quite caught on to the important-meeting-on-Saturday-night phenomenon quite yet," explains Inna. We cheer their ingenuity, and get down to doing whatever it is that winegeeks do.
Domaine du Closel Savennières Vieilles Vignes 1990. One of the crop of heat-damaged bottles that floated onto the retail scene a few years back, this isn't as cooked as some, but there's an unmistakable whiff of sherriness--the light almond character has a baked-nut quality to it. Robust, rich, and nutty. I did have one good bottle, back in June of '01, in the old world.
Marylou apologizes for having to serve the three missing parties: "We've got everything set up for fourteen..." We tell her just to heap the food up on their plates like picnic platters; if they're going to be several hours late it's their own lookout.
What's this? A Nereo Verduzzo Friulano 2001? Hmmm... lessee.... Pale gold color. Smells honeyed, honey laced with spicy apple-pie hints, almost muscatty, with a light citric edge. A sip, and it's got good heft, a nice dense richness along with bright firm acidity. Tastes apple-spicy, hint of orange rind, undertone of minerality, almost like a dry tokaji. What is 'verduzzo,' anyway? Andrew pipes up: "It means 'caffeine-free' in Italian.'" General merriment, light applause. Matches nicely with the Italian quichelike thingamajigs that are going around now.
Jennifer Munro Clark catches me ogling Lisa (this is America: one is still free to ogle one's wife, isn't one?) and offers to move out from between us (subtext: "Get a room."). Lisa ponders the male inability to remain focused above the shoulders, explains the ubiquity of the surreptitious eye-chest checkout to the galvanized crowd, ponders purchasing a shirt that, riffing on the ol' Jedi mind trick, says "You don't need to look at my chest... these aren't the breasts you're looking for... move along...."
Momentarily nonplussed, I mention a shirt I saw as I walked home through the recent anti-somethingorother rally: "I have the pussy, so I make the rules." I am accused of bringing this up only so I can sneak the p-word into a tasting note yet one more time, something I hotly deny. Still, I hope nobody searches the archives, they'll think I have a fixation.
Jeff explains the gay man's version of the surreptitious checkout, a maneuver that begins faux-accidentally floorbound ("My, look at the shine on that parquet!"), lingers politely midway, then proceeds quickly facewards. "See, it's a guy thing," I tell Lisa, "We can't help it!" She's not impressed.
Just in time, Jay distracts us with some mystery wines.
Mystery Wine H: Smells of dark cherries and truffle, light spiciness, some unintegrated toasty-oak hints. Tastes crisp, medium-bodied and oaky, with a swarm of aggressive tannins choking off the finish. Maybe interesting with time? Maybe not.
Mystery Wine I: Very light aromatics, cherries and dust, touch of clove. Smooth and drinkable, but rather wan and dilute. The dusty-cherry flavors are pleasant, but the wine is very unremarkable.
Jay is soliciting opinions, and he's not getting many. So I speak up, saying that frankly, I'm not crazy about either of them. I opine that Wine I is like an unremarkable generic Bourgogne and that Wine H is disjointed now, too tannic, in need of time. Jay says "I'm writing that down for future reference," and I start to suspect I've just put down a wine I've raved about in the past. God help me, just don't let it be Brun...
So what are they, Jay?
Wine H is a Thomas Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 1997. Wine I is a St. Innocent Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Seven Springs 1997. Okay, no awkward surprises there. Turns out Jay has some private vendetta with these wines that somehow involves vandergrift, it's all fairly obscure. Neither of them match well with the next course, a celestial polenta with sausage sauce, but the polenta is good enough to stand on its own.
Clos Centeilles Minervois 1992. Smells earthy-leathery, with muted red berry fruit laced with light pepper and crushed brick. Loose, layered and tangy, the fruit feathers out sweetly in the middle, then finishes with a dark sod spiciness. A supple and balanced little wine that's in a great place now, this matches wonderfully with the tiny pizzas that are circulating. Sadly, this is Andrew's last bottle. We observe a moment of silence for the passing of a legend.
As we've got our heads bowed the doorbell rings, and (finally) here are the last of the lost sheep--the Louis/Connell/Dressner contingent has arrived. Joe, ever attuned to the notion of a grand entrance, takes the opportunity to make a little speech. He points out that Connell is moving northward in a month to tend to his vines full-time, that the Olegs have finally emerged from their long triplet-induced solitude, that this is the twentieth anniversary of the first of his and Denyse's weddings, that tonight we've got both Kane and Camblor in the same room, and that we may never all be together again. He toasts to all of these things, especially "To the end of stupid internet feuds!" Then he collapses into his chair, overcome with emotion. Jay speaks up, adds a toast to Lisa's recent acceptance to med school, and, moved, we all return enthusiastically to the feast at hand.
Jean-Luc Matha Marcillac Cuvée Laïris 2001. Funky-smelling: horse barn, pine needles and red berries. Tastes tart and lean, sour-cherry and earth, with hard acidity and some gritty tannins. What's the word... ah yes, "rustic." I'm normally a big fan of mansois, but this one is a bit underfruited for me; when I drink mansois I want to really taste the mansois. On the other hand the label is a wonder, describing the proprietor's journey from priest to clown to winemaker, discussing the two cuvées that are lovingly made (neither one of which seems to be this one), and finally stating that the wine is supposed to smell like paprika. Very odd, but the leanness and acidity make it a good match with the tomato-sauce shrimp and crouton dish. I put some on my plate, and Jim informs me that I've taken only croutons, no shrimp. Geez, they're big: what's up with the croutons?
Anyway, here's a Joseph Phelps Cabernet Sauvignon Eisele Vineyard 1979. Medium muddy ruby color, bricking a little at the rim. Smells warm and velvety, light oregano and sod over a base of muted cassis-berry, dark earthy minerality underneath. Tastes wonderfully complex, a firm core of quietly ripe fruit feathering out to leathery-mineral edges. Not a big wine--there's an easygoing lightness to the mouthfeel--but one that just caresses your tongue with layers of satiny flavor and finishes lingeringly. Great California wine, and Dressner waxes lyrical. "This wine, you should spend an evening with it, all night, just spend the night with it. It's California all the way, but it's delicious." Sadly, this is Oleg's last bottle. Much discussion follows as to why you don't often find wines of this quality coming out of California from big producers these days, what has changed so much. "They pick much later now." "Their audience won't wait twenty years anymore." "It's all Steve Tanzer's fault." "They're angling for the gob crowd, the guys who want to be told what to like." "The bigger-is-better philosophy has taken over." And so on.
While we're mooning over the Phelps I notice that the two chicks near me have inched back from the table and grown whispery-conspiratorial. In fact they're peering at Lisa's phone, getting surreptitious updates on the NCAA tournament. Sports at the dinner table, ladies? Really, now.
Camblor unveils a lineup of Spanish selections: "Honest wines from honest winemakers!" he announces. That sounds promising. Let's see, here's a La Universal Venus Tarragona-Falset 2000. Deep dark garnet, purpling at the rim. Whoo, smells like a whacking big gobster, matte blackberry/plum/cassis laced with light vanilla and a prominent vein of smoky-toastiness. Ripe and broad and dark, with middling acidity and a fleshy mouthfeel. Big tannins on the finish to go along with the general outsize quality. A bodybuilder wine, it's actually quite decent in an abrasive way, but also rather exhausting--there's the vague sense that it's using my tongue for a punching bag.
Next up is a Celler Mas Doix Salanques Priorat 2001. Similar aromatic profile, blackberry/cassis sauce and toast. Not quite as big, or perhaps the lowish acidity lends a feeling of flabbiness in contrast with the Venus's muscularity. The fruit also has a reduced fruit-concentrate quality that would need some more structure to pass. I don't like this one very much.
The conversation meanders onto the new Jesus movie. Dressner apparently loved it: "I've seen it six times! I'm seeing it again tomorrow! It was hilarious! A laugh riot!" Manuel astonishes us with the news that the soundtrack prominently features the Prodigy hit 'Smack My Bitch Up.' Who would've guessed Mel Gibson was so cutting-edge with his musical choices? (Well, besides spinmeister Tony Fletcher, I mean.) The only thing that I can think to add to the conversation is the news that the video of Mel's tune was recently voted 'Most Shocking Music Video of All Time' on MTV. A puzzled but respectful silence follows this disclosure, until Manuel asks "What was number two?"
"Madonna: 'Justify My Love.'" He ponders this for a moment, then nods, satisfied.
Back to the Spaniards, with a Laurel Priorat 2001. Whiff of acetone volatility, rich ripe fruit, more cassis than blackberry, hint of graphite, subtle undertone of toastiness, more restrained oaking than the first two. Tastes leaner as well, less pumped-up but still not exactly light of foot, a light heavyweight. A few sandy tannins on the finish. A big red international-style wine (not that there's anything wrong with that), but not an uninteresting one.
Here's another second wine, a Celler Vall Llach Embruix Priorat 2001. Deep dark garnet, purpling at the rim. Smells of blackberry and plum, laced with shoe polish and toast. Big, shirazzy-style fruit and wood, very brawny and butch, a fightin' wine with its sleeves rolled up and a pack of Luckies tucked away in there. Maybe my palate is a victim of abused-woman syndrome, but I like this better than I did the 1999 (maybe it just hasn't had time to fall apart yet?).
Alvaro Palacios Priorat Les Terrasses 2001. A hint of volatility. Medium-dark garnet, purpling at the rim. More blackberry-cassis, dark earth and smoke. Tastes smooth, dark and ripe, with medium acidity and decent balance for its bigness. Turns plummy and licorice-dark on the finish. Another generic new-wave big dark wine, it hasn't got a lot of individual character, but it's decent and drinkable if, like the others, somewhat tiring.
These five wines seem to be built to be consumed in small quantities--they're simply wearing to drink in quantity; my poor palate feels wrung-out, like it's been put through a washing machine. I go back to try and distinguish them from one another, but find that on second appraisal they're all starting to taste alike. Move on, move on.
Ridge Vineyards California Monte Bello 2001. Dark cassis-berry nose laced with gravel, graphite and veins of vanilla and toastiness. There's some obvious oak, but there's also dark chewy fruit, firm acidity and quiet strength. Not a huge wine, but a well-defined and balanced one with enough velvety skin that I don't feel like a cradle-robber. Camblor calls it "cakey"; what that means, I'm not sure. After the semi-gonzo Priorats it seems almost classic, the soul of restraint. Andrew looks up, surprised. "Hey, this Monte Bello... not bad...."and makes the thumb's-up sign, but then makes the mistake of wandering down the table to sit next to Connell. When he returns from his reeducation he looks shamefaced. "I'm not down with the Monte Bello anymore," he explains. I nod, understanding, and swill down another glassful with my very decent fresh manicotti.
Here's yet another pasta dish, and another Burgundy comes around. Someone wonders why now, and Jeff says "It's not exactly subtle..." Boy is he right. The Domaine Caillot Volnay Clos des Chênes 1998 smells like pinot shiraz. Plum and clove, smoke and toast. My first thought upon tasting this: "Wow, it's a Kane Volnay!" Big, jammy and blowsy, a real West Coast Lovers pinot. Fairly low acidity, big vagueness in the middle, seems a pleasant little wine injected with Human Growth Hormone. I attempt to force some on Kane to see if he likes it, but can't really recall if I succeeded or not. Not really objectionable unless one objects to unfocused and steroided garden-hose-inflated Volnay.
Camblor slips me a book in a plain brown paper wrapper, apparently the latest hot read, something called Hedonism. I check the blurbs on the back cover... "Fast, filthy, vibrant and wild..." "Like being tied to the bed..." "Witty, dirty and totally engrossing..." My goodness. I tuck it away out of sight, hoping not to be caught out with such salacious material, just in time to sample an oversalted cheese-basket mesclun salad, the first real culinary misfire.
Domaine de l'Oratoire St. Martin Cairanne Haut-Coustias 2000. Medium-dark garnet, purpling lightly at the rim. Just a bit of horsiness, touch of the barnyard. Ripe plum-raspberry fruit, whiff of acetone, tastes dark and smoky, rather low-acid, but more fleshy than flabby. Dark licorice-tar tang on the finish. Pretty good, a big wine that's rich without being ponderous. It's not particularly complex or compelling, but it's a friendly, ripe mouthful of dark smoky red-purple fruit that does its best to go with the seriously overcooked pastry & mushroom wrapped filets. Things are going slightly awry here with the final courses.
A guest book is making the rounds. When it finally arrives in front of me I note that an earlier entry reads "What more could you ask for?--P. Finkelstein," a name that sounds vaguely winegeek-familiar, perhaps from the old Wine Asylum days? Who knew this place had already been discovered?
We're in the pause between the main courses and the first of three desserts, so there's time to catch up on a few of the stray bottles that I missed the first time past. Here's a Las Rocas de San Alejandro Garnacha Calatayud 2002. Quiet aromatics, strawberry, shoe polish, grape candy and Play-Doh. Simple strawberry-grape flavors, like Kool-Aid with alcohol instead of sugar. Ripe, but spineless and distinctly unfocused. Its only good qualities are ripeness and smoothness, after that there's nothing to recommend. My notes say "loose, pallid and vague," and that pretty much sums it up. Might be decent cooking wine, if you're not too finicky about what you cook with. Someone mentions that this is actually a cheapie, which inclines me to cut it more slack, but not that much more. A waste of alcohol intake on this night, anyway.
Château de Fieuzal Pessac-Leognan 1990. Smells strange, oddly herbal and piney, along with sour milk and dark cassis. Seems damaged somehow, something bacterial? Would that SFJoe were here to explain it to us....
As I'm trying to concentrate on the wines, snatches of conversation drift down the table...
"Joe Lieberman for President!"
"Anyone doesn't go in a car on Saturday, he shouldn't be President of the U.S.!"
"Change my pitch up. Smack my bitch up..."
I must tune this out.
Louis-Claude Desvignes Morgon Côte de Py 1999. This bottle has apparently been open for four or five days, and it shows. It's not the wine I know, so I won't bother annotating it.
Fattoria dei Barbi Brunello di Montalcino Reserva 1990. Sage hints on the nose, sour cherry, dark espresso undertones. Tight, tart and tannic, an austere wine that's a little uptight. Not giving much now, needs time.
Here's the first of the desserts, chocolate cake, so it's the perfect time for a Mas Amiel Maury Millésime 1980. Delightfully feathery-leathery to smell, dark muted berry, caramel and brown sugar hints. Tastes medium-sweet, layered and complex, with dark baker's-chocolate undertones that match wonderfully with the chocolate cake. Slightly more decayed and less berried than I'd expect of a comparably-aged Banyuls, more tawny-leather hints. Jay, grenache loather extraordinaire, approves: "If a grenache is sweet and more than twenty years old, it might have potential," he grudgingly concedes. It really does go wonderfully with the chocolate (I'd rolled the dice that one of the fourteen courses would involve chocolate).
Egon Muller Riesling Wiltingen Brane Kupp Auslese 1976. Medium gold color. Smells of light honey, whiff of kerosene, yellow apple. Tastes very relaxed, sweet and calm and soothing, with medium-low but still sprightly acidity. The taste of honey blooms with the lemony sweetness in the middle and lingers luxuriantly on the finish. A pretty wine, langorous and whispery-decadent, that just keeps unfolding, taking its sweet time. Very nice with the sweet zeppelin.
Jay insists that I write down the apparently significant words "Le Gallais," which appear in tiny four-point type in a far corner of the label. I refuse, not wanting to further encourage the German fascination with pushing the envelope of ever more arcane labelling conventions.
Deletang Montlouis Les Petits Boulay 1997. Smells of light lemon-apricot and hay, hint of pineapple, touch of honey. Tastes sweet, pallid and spineless, disappointingly dilute and watery, given the producer and vintage. Really quite disappointing. "What the hell?" I write in my notebook.
Huet Vouvray Le Mont Moëlleux 1985. Medium gold color. Rich aromatics, honey-chalk, quince jam, touch of wool. Bright and fresh-tasting with medium sweetness, almost botrytisless but with plenty of other action going on: vivid acidity supports some good heft, intense flavors, the beginnings of development. Big but light on its feet, a very nice showing.
Good heavens, is that it? The fourteen courses have run their course, and we've opened all the wines. Lisa looks around triumphantly as we finish the last of the Huet and proposes a final toast: "The wine gods have been kind--not one corked bottle!" We cheer lustily and raise our glasses high, until someone hesitantly points out that there's an unopened bottle of Marc Angeli Rosé d'Anjou 2001, perched on the sideboard like that ol' ominous bird of yore.
We grow quiet as the Angeli is opened. With the inevitability of Greek tragedy, as we all know it must be, it's brutally corked.