The aromas in SFJoe's hallway are palpable: spicy, meaty, smoky. My nostrils twitch; bursts of Pavlovian ack-ack fire off inside my mouth. Crowd noise seeps through the brushed metal door. We pause to gather ourselves before knocking, the deep breath before the leap.
Lisa and I are here at Châteauneuf-du-Joe to honor both the birthday and the official departure of our Latin Liquidator, who, with better half Josie and new twin bundles of joy, is soon to flee the helter-skelter of big city chaos for the colonial ease of tropic plantation life.
It's always difficult for me to accept changes to our little incestuous New York City demimonde, and this is a big one: without our Liquidator, who can be counted on to reliably convey to Kane the information that he's a fucktard? Can Jayson Cohen step up to the plate? Can we arrange some kind of trade with the Boston geeks for one of their young attack dogs, or perhaps an aging veteran with a bit of pop left in him? These are the kind of unsettled thoughts that are tumbling around my sluggish, sober brain; I can only hope that a few dozen glasses of the good stuff will help add clarity.
And so we knock, and here's our host hallooing cheerfully and we're inside and there's SFJoe's pal Victor, hanging at the kitchen bar with the inestimable .sasha. Over in the dining room table ghetto are Greg dal Piaz and the irrepressible Bradley Kane. Manning the burners are Josh Raynolds and Mary Louise, up to something sinister and tasty and seared-fleshish.
"Quick, you'll want to try some of this Grande Côte before it's gone," says our host, pouring me three fingers of Francois Cotat Sancerre Chavignol 'la Grande Côte' 1989. Very fragrant, plumeria and hay, touch of vanilla, touch of lime rind. I wonder aloud whether there's a trace of botrytis here, but then again I do have an active imagination. A sip, and it's broad and unctuous, tongue-coating and very rich, with a noticeable burn innervating the long finish. This is really tasty, distinctive wine, but it's also hot and rather oversized--Shrekish stuff that's just happymaking, a noisy drunken party in my mouth, the kind the neighbors call the police on.
Sudden alarm as Kane, next to me at the table, seems to be having some kind of seizure--squawking, twitching, eyes rolling back. St Vitus' Dance? Lisa reaches for her Haldol, but it turns out he's just performing a kind of interpretive dance on how much he's enjoying the '89 Cotat. We hold our applause until his last triumphant gurgling whoop, "BEST!! SAUVIGNON!!! EVERRRRRR!!!!!!!" He's got the physicality down well, committing fully to the role of 'Man Deranged By Pleasure,' but his voice is still being choked off by throat tension--something he'll need to work on before the next performance. But I don't want to quibble; he's come a long way from his old WINE OF THE NIGHT! WINE OF THE NIGHT!-shrieking days; this is very convincing work, showing some real growth.
I dig out the trusty Hello Kittyª notebook and raise my pen, poised to create magic. "This is the Grande Côte, right?" I ask, the bottle being across the room. Ixnay, says Kane, still flushed and gasping from his theatrical exertions, merely the generic Sancerre.
"Strange, SFJoe claimed it was the Grande Côte. And he's often right about that kind of thing."
"Not this time."
"It's the Grande Côte, Brad," says Jayson.
Kane shows us 'Indignant.' "Absolutely not!" he barks. He jumps up, runs over to the bottle. "Oh." His cheek twitches. "Well, who reads the fine print, anyway?"
Greg, Jayson and I slowly raise our hands.
Here's our attentive host once again, passing by with a SFJoe Special Mystery Red Wine. As it goes around the room the consensus is clear: Beaujolais, Beaujolais, Beaujolais. The only argument left is over which Cru, with a clear majority voting Fleurie, some Moulin-‡-Vent, one lone holdout for Julienas. Before it comes round to me SFJoe reveals it as Dashe Zinfandel Potter Valley 2007 (Barrel Sample), which brings a lot of blank stares.
"When did they start making zinfandel out of gamay?" someone asks.
I finally manage to get a pour, and I see what they mean. It's a translucent medium-light garnet color, and there's a dusty-plummy-strawberry character to the aromatics that are indeed gamayish. It's light and happily briary-juicy, a coy little wine that goes down very easily, almost the complete opposite of the last half-dozen Dashe zins I've tried, which favored size and brute force over anything like finesse. What a charming little wine! Where can I get some?
"This has a realness to it that ought to please the Terroir Taliban," I opine in my best Modulated Baritone Expert Voice. "Really, it has the earthy whiff of a Dressner wine."
"Maybe we can convince him to import it?" suggests Jay.
SFJoe nixes that idea: "There's only about four hundred cases; Ellenbogen's buying a hundred and another hundred's already spoken for. It's just not made in huge Dressnerian quantities." General dismay.
Jayson wanders back from the kitchen, pours himself a glass of the Dashe, furrows his brow: "Old Coudert?"
Here's a Jean-Marc Brocard Chablis Bougros 2000 (magnum). Smells lightly apple-pear-vanillaish, restrained aromatics. Tastes like chardonnay, lightly creamy, flavorful and medium crisp and rather simple and edgeless. Competent and drinkable but not terribly interesting.
.sasha's going on about the Grande Côte too. All this lovin' brings out the contrarian in me: "It doesn't taste to you like it has a shot of vodka in it?" I ask.
.sasha mulls this over. "Well, it's certainly a big wine, not shy--"
"No, but the burn, you don't find it distracting? Not that I want to be the skunk at the garden party."
I'm feeling a little like I'm peeing on people's cornflakes, so I shut it down and move on. Why the negativity, Coad? Why the inner monologue? Who are you talking to? Why am I calling me 'you'? Goddamn, I'm not right in the head here. Must settle. More wine, please.
Rumors of a bottle each of Francois Cotat Sancerre Chavignol Rosé 2006 and Pascal Cotat Sancerre Chavignol Rosé 2006, tickle my ears, but by the time I track the bottles down the F. is empty and the P. has only a few drops. I'm told the F. is better.
Kane commences giving me shit about the two things he always gives me shit about: 1) Why aren't I posting more notes, and 2) What's going on with my hair?
"The well's run dry," I snap. "I'm tapped out, no juice left in this lemon. See, look there--I can only come up with trite, hackneyed metaphors. I've been working on the notes from our anniversary party last September for seven months now, nothing's coming. I think I'm done. And your inappropriate fascination with my hair is starting to skeeve me out."
"You're growing it out again, aren't you? AREN'T YOU?!"
"It grows all by itself, Brad, it needs no intervention. I'm not actively doing anything."
He glowers at me across the table. Can somebody open something, please? Now?
Ugh. Jay Miller's prized bottle of Clos Roche Blanche Rouge Côt Touraine 1998 is hugely, horrendously corked, the kind of corked that makes your gorge rise; rotten onions ain't in it. God, if we'd only known about fake corks back then, this lovely wine could've been saved. Pity.
Greg's parted ways with Astor, which pisses me off because he was their last hope after Connell left. "So we'll be seeing you at Chambers soon?" I ask.
"I guess that's the trajectory," he sighs.
Here's a Château Musar Lebanon 1991, and it's a joy to smell, leathery cran-raspberry smellies laced with spicy cinnamon and bark and crushed brick hints, all lifted and brightened by a good whiff of that trademark Musar volatility. It's a medium-lightbodied wine, but has great vividness of flavor as well as a great sense of composure. There's a touch of smoked meat here that I don't remember from previous bottles, but it just adds another layer of complexity. Really delicious; I could finish the bottle myself. But when I try there are objections from others, who seem to find that selfish on my part.
Josie has new hair, a bob. She's so sporty! We of the winegeek tribe, why are our women so much more attractive than our men?
Somehow a Giovanni Mascarello Barolo Monprivato 1971 ends up on the table in front of us. Ooh damn, this smells flickery-rich, dried cherries and tar and roses, warm gravel and a curious hint of smoked meat. Tastes nervy and taut, honed to a fine point and stripped of all fat. Very pretty, lithe and lovely midlife Barolo that suddenly makes the table the place to be. The geeks who have been clustering in the kitchen swarm down on us lowland table-dwellers, stealing our women and salting our fields, not to mention draining our Barolo. We are powerless to resist.
Hey, there's John Gilman, who's one of those people that everyone you know knows and they all assume you know him too so they're always talking about him like you know him but you actually only crossed paths for about an hour at some point seven years or so ago at SFJoe's old place and so on. Hi John Gilman!
The curious hint of smoked meat that has been pervading the last wines is suddenly explained, as Josh presents his smoky thai pork, as well as charcuterie of some kind, and there's also a 'deconstructed reuben' spread that is pure genius. Damn, this brings me back to high school dates, reubens and fries--that was the height of culinary pleasure then, and so is this now. I must steal it for some future event that no one here will be at to rat me out. Hey, are those tiny pork sliders?! Man oh man.
Bodegas Riojanas Rioja Gran Reserva 'Monte Real' 1968. Nice whiff of VA gives the aromatics a boost, under that there's gentle sweet redfruit, light cedar hints. Tastes light and lithe, easy and smooth, velvety-soft redfruit with a lot of primary flavor. It's very nice, but it's strangely undeveloped after forty years. I have the urge to bellow "FORGERY!" but I remember the last person to do that was quickly wrestled to the ground and hustled into the back room for a "talking to." In fact, I think that was Oleg. Has anyone seen him lately?
I look around for Lisa to give her some of the Monty, but she's AWOL. After some searching, I find her back in the movie room watching a cartoon about surfing penguins in the company of two moppets. I'm not sure where she found the moppets, but they're awfully cute. Maybe Joe rented them for the evening? Moppets frighten me, so I make my excuses and head back to the dining room, only to see an ocean of bottles moving from hand to hand, endless bottles, one after another, no end in sight.
There are too many fucking wines. TOO MANY FUCKING WINES!
Deep breath, calm calm, let's just focus on one at a time. Okay, here's a A. Rapiteau-Mignon Volnay Clos des Chênes 1969. Light, beguilingly flickery aromatics--sandalwood, preserved cherry, old bookspine dustiness, dried leaves. In the piehole it's lightbodied, fading but still nervy at the core. More interesting to smell than to taste, it's sense of perfumed decay carries the rather thin flavors into an interesting place. Nice.
Jayson's paranoia about Dressner, always alarming to those of us who care about him, is beginning to become pathological. He's now become convinced that Dressner is tapping his phone and sending anonymous threats to his relatives in the form of electric radiation beamed into their fillings. "Tinfoil hats?" I suggest gamely, but he's not listening, wrapped up in his web of suspicion. It's like Thor all over again. Or Hoke Harden. Or especially [REDACTED DEPT. OF HOMELAND SECURITY].
My notes are getting shorter and more nonsensical. I am so far behind. I suck. Ooh, ribs! And filthy rice! Holy cats.
Wait, pause, here's a Vega Sicilia Ribera del Duero 'Unico' 1968 (magnum), a wine I've wanted to try for a good while now. This is weird, there's weird sour-milk/dank-root-cellar funkiness over the dark blackfruit. I've never had the wine before: "Is it supposed to smell like this?" People stare at me wide-eyed, frozen. Throat clearing, weight shifting, unease. Only .sasha comes across with an unequivocal "YES."
"You know, I think it's the cheap funky wood," explains Josh. "Missouri white oak, cheapest oak on the planet." Maybe. I keep my sample in a secondary glass, just in case it rallies. Please rally. It's not going to rally, is it? With a bit of time the TCA focuses itself. Fuck. Fuckity fuck fuck fuck.
"I told them it was corked when they decanted it," shrugs SFJoe.
"How come .sasha never thinks anything is corked anymore?" says Kane.
"Wishful thinking?" suggests Jayson.
"Give him some of that Clos Roche Blanche," I mutter. "That'll learn him."
Domaine Georges Mugneret Clos-Vougeot 1998. Very pretty aromatics, spicy clove-cherry-beet, touch of dark truffliness, touch of forest-floor earthiness. A sip, and it's a perfectly charming combination of bright rich flavor and ethereal lightfootedness. It's a youngster, but there's already a complexity that gives it a touch of gravitas as it tickles me under my tongue. I had no real expectations of this, not being familiar with the producer and not having Kane and his everpresent vintage charts handy, but it's drinking wonderfully tonight, rich and expressive and utterly charming. I finish my little pour and quickly hunt the bottle down and take another before the bottle's drained. Young, bright, complex, compelling. I make eye contact with SFJoe across the table and make little eye-rolling faces of delight, pointing at the bottle. He grins, nods vigorously.
Camblor takes the floor, makes a little speech about how much he's enjoyed the last eight years and how he's going to miss big city life while he's wasting away in the tropics. He thanks me for being the chronicler of his adventures, which actually makes me a little misty-eyed. Right back atcha, big guy. We make him promise to come visit, threaten to hold his wine cellar hostage (he can't ship it until the weather turns cold), assure him that he'll die of boredom in the tropics.
"I will, goddamnit. I WILL die of boredom," he declares.
"Of course you will! You must return regularly for infusions of Irreplaceable New York City Vigor!"
He agrees that he must. "You are aware that this is ON THE RECORD...?" I ask.
"So let it be written, so let it be done," he intones.
And it is. And it will be.
Château l'Evangile Pomerol 1966. Light hint of oregano over muted cedar-accented redfruit. Medium bodied, nice composure, gently fleshy mouthfeel, silky-smooth tasting, altogether tasty and expressive. Pretty decent for a forty-year-old merlot.
It's late in the evening and the manlove is flowing freely, so I let the gang in on the recent transformational change in my life. "Yes," I say quietly, "It's true. After forty-three years as a briefs guy, I've made the change. I've switched to boxers, and nothing can ever be the same." This sets off a flurry of stories--everyone seems to have a favorite briefs v. boxers anecdote.
Greg sums it up: "It's just, you know... a whole new relationship with your junk."
Speaking of which, here's a Château Trotanoy Pomerol 1966. Cedar-laced dark cassisfruit aromatics, hot gravel, trace of tar. More substance than the Evangile, more guts. Intensely flavorful, very light on its feet, very impressive showing. Not bad for a forty-year-old merlot.
Lisa is trying to set Asher up with one of her little medschool buddies. She says the name, which sounds like 'Sari' and I immediately connect it with her tall Indian pal, who is very tall and Brahmin-hot, so I'm carrying on about that to Asher, and he's like 'So, she's Indian but she's also an Orthodox Jew?'
Whoops, wrong friend. I bang my head against the wall a few times, apologize for enthusing about the hotness of someone who isn't the person we're talking about, who I've never met. Although I'm sure she's hot too, because all of Lisa's little friends are hot. The hot little doctor-chicks gravitate to her, I think they must see her as a sort of big-sister-in-hotness. It's like a little club, they've got T-shirts that say "We'll Be the Doctors Our Mothers Always Wanted Us to Marry," which is totally hot.
Lopez de Heredia Rioja 'Viña Bosconia 1968. I've always had a soft spot for this wine, despite the rather ethereal nature of its charms. It's showing well tonight, lightly balsamic-smelling, saddle leather and dried cherry notes, dust, gently decayed. Medium-lightbodied, complex and light, there isn't a great deal of focus, but the raw materials are easy to enjoy, and the dusty-cherry finish is long and satisfying. I like it.
Two bottles of '95 Châteauneuf, one large one small, have been sitting in front of us for a while now. Greg looks around, sees nothing else coming our way, opens the big bottle, offers me a pour. "Hey wait, why did you open that?" squeals Brad.
Greg fixes him with a level gaze and speaks slowly, as if to a small child: "Because it's been sitting here in front of me for an hour. Because I want to drink it. Because I want to compare it to the other '95 Châteauneuf. Because opening bottles is something that we like to do at these events, Brad."
Kane squirms uncomfortably.
The question is so obvious that I have to ask it: "Bradley, why did you bring the wine if you didn't want anyone to open it?"
"I thought there were going to be like fifty people here. It's my last magnum! Or maybe my second-to-last...."
"Well, too late now," I sigh. "I guess we might as well pour that big baby out. Or maybe someone could make a nice reduction out of it...?"
Kane is not amused. I take a very very small pour of Vieux Télégraphe Châteauneuf-du-Pape le Crau 1995 (magnum). Raspberry jelly, root beer and burnt toast aromatics, there may be a touch of old leather swimming around somewhere in there as well. Tastes like liquid jam mixed with sterno, hot and spiritous and flaccid, quite unpleasant. Who ages Châteauneuf, anyway?
Here's the other '95, a Domaine du Pegau Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Reservée 1995. Muted, rather stewed redfruit aromatics, smells like a raspberry-tomato-bubblegum reduction, with a hint of smoke and crushed brick thrown in for good measure. Tastes soft and fruity-fleshy, there's an initial wave of warm plump redfruit, but it turns soft and squishy in the middle and a slightly overbaked flavor creeps in and lingers on the finish, along with a flash of boozy heat. Seems to be collapsing in on itself, not terribly nice, but not a total disaster. Probably should've been drunk a while back.
Lisa corrals me back to her den of moppets (who, it turns out, are owned by Josh and Mary Louise) and introduces me as the surfboard expert who is actually from Hawaii, where they invented surfing! (There are surfing penguins in the movie they're watching.) I offer to teach the moppets a new word: skeg. They don't seem terribly impressed. In fact, I think I make them nervous. They fidget and glance at one another uneasily until I leave. I think they smell my fear: moppets are scary, especially blonde ones, I can't get Village of the Damned out of my head when I see one.
Heading back into the mercifully uncomplicated land of drunken adults, I find SFJoe prowling the edge of his kitchen, asking "What's left? What haven't I tried?"
"Have some of THIS!" says Brad, proffering a very large, very full bottle of Vieux Télégraphe. SFJoe takes a pour, sniffs, sips, turns pale, spits inky purple wine all over his high-tech chrome sinks.
"Ohhhh my god, that is FOUL!"
I cluck sadly, "You probably shouldn't have opened that, Brad. Lost on this crowd."
"FOUL!" wails Joe from the kitchen. "ICK ICK ICK YUCK PFUH PFUH PFUH."
As I'm helping Joe clean up the purple spray I spy an almost-untouched bottle sitting on the kitchen counter and turn to him, "Hey, why hasn't anyone touched this? Is it nasty?"
Joe peers at the bottle. "Oh, this crowd's nothing but a bunch of label drinkers--they saw the label and couldn't be bothered to try it."
The label's no masterpiece of graphic design, but it's not THAT bad. I can be bothered to try it, and I am. So here's a Bodegas y Viñedos Alion Ribera del Duero 1996. Hey, it's Spanish zinfandel! But seriously, folks, it's big and ripe-smelling, darkly berryfruity and well laced with smoky wood. It's broad-shouldered wine, dense and tongue-coating, attributes that probably won't endear it to this crowd. Really though, it's pretty decent if you don't mind the bigass hootie style. And reader, if you know me, you know I don't.
"Joe, you might want to try the Alion quickly--after that Châteauneuf it seems almost restrained...."
My notes are rapidly becoming drunky and freesociative. The next reads merely: "'96 Mauro--soft, squishy, warm pool of squish, bullet in the brainpan squish."
After that, there are only squiggles, purple stains and random letters. I remember Kane waving around some dessert wine, but I'm too busy idly stroking Greg's chest hair (which is lush and abundant) to pay much attention to it.
"Fuck, we're old," sighs Greg.
"Old-ER, you mean," I suggest.
"I know what I mean," he snaps. Grumpy old coot.
All things must end. We rise and make our farewells, but as I head out the door I'm laden down with goodies--periodic table coffee mugs, packets of ribs, bags of tiny pork sliders, containers of filthy rice. "It's like Oscar swag for foodies," I bleat, baffled at the largesse.
As we stagger off down the hallway Camblor's voice echoes after us: "Bradley Kane is RETARDED! Kane is a complete fucktard! Kane, get a soul, you fucktard!"
May it ever be thus. I can't help but smile, eyes moist.