It's been a hot, ugly summer in New York City; the dogs of August ran wild in snarling packs this year and all I remember for weeks on end is squatting in our one air-conditioned room with cats and boxes of wine, dreading having to emerge into the sauna that was the rest of the world. When the mercury hit 95 outside it was 110 in our kitchen, and the air was hot and thick as [please fill in your own personalized metaphor for the hottest, thickest thing you can think of].
So the strange cold snap that descends for the Labor Day weekend is welcome, if also tinged with irony--finally we want it to be hot so we can have a last fling with summer at the beach and it's sixty degrees outside? Feh. So it is that a group of slightly frazzled New Yorkers assembles at Manhattan's storied Café Loup (the only storied establishment that's open on Labor Day) to welcome Rob and Ilene Adler to town with a celebratory jeebus.
When Lisa and I arrive we find only the ever-punctual Jay Miller, but we're soon joined by Greg dal Piaz and Michelle DeBaldo, Bruce Fogelberg and "Good ol'" Bradley Kane. While we get the jeebusworks set up and await the arrival of the guests of honor we start in on the whites and fizzies.
First up is an Alain Robert Le Mesnil Champagne Reserve 1979. Smells a little bit like toasted marshmallows, hints of honey and baked lemon thrown in for good measure. Tastes flattened-out, lightly fizzy stuff laced with maple syrup and toasted bread notes. Odd. Seems to be slipping away, more of a curiosity than anything else.
Here's a Castello di Spessa Pinot Bianco Collio 2000. Smells rather neutral, subtly yellowfloral with very light gravel-in-the-oven notes underneath, traces of banana and honeysuckle above. Nice weight and balance in the piehole, the midpalate turns pleasantly polleny-gingery, but there's a distinct lack of vibrancy. Is this oaked pinot blanc? The wine has that freshness-sapped-by-wood feeling along with a light hint of ashtray underneath that becomes more pronounced with time and air. "Tastes like... an Italian white," says someone. Not bad, but doesn't do much for me.
Jay's attempts to win me to the joys of Trocken riesling continue with a Müller-Catoir Riesling Haardter Burgergarten Spätlese Trocken 1998. Hard at first, takes some getting used to, but eventually achieves a pleasing level of Muscadetishness with my softshell crab. Minor oenopiphany: I think I've been approaching these wines in the wrong way. Instead of expecting them to be riesling, if I think of them as sort of a second-tier Muscadet and accept the hardness for what it is then we can get along and I don't have to reach for the sugar packets. A decent enough stand-in if there is no real Muscadet to be had.
At last, here's Rob and Ilene Adler coming through the door, just in time for a Weingut Joseph Biffar Riesling Deidesheimer Herrgottsacker Spätlese Nontrocken 1998. Smells of ripe yellow apples, lemon and beanbag chair. Tastes pretty sweet, plump baked-apple fruit with a lemony zing, rounded mouthfeel. A pleasantly Rubenesque little riesling. Kane is having his usual "This wine has PLENTY of acidity!" argument, this time with Greg. Greg is right--it has enough, barely.
We welcome our distinguished visitors and settle quickly into gender-segregated ends of the table, the women huddling together to talk about sports while the men cluster to discuss stemware and fashion. Greg has a lovely Aloha shirt on, a wood-buttoned classic that puts my own nouveau-styled model to shame. He suggests that we both need to have our hair done--he may be right, mine's been unmanageable lately.
Since our guests hail from the Golden State we decide to make them feel at home and start off the reds with a Cal cult favorite, a Scott-Clark Cellars El Niño Grenache-Syrah California 2000. Kane says "HEY, I was going to bring that too--I had it in my hands!" It seems that beautiful minds of all stripes can think alike.
Oh, the wine. It's softly and sweetly aromatic, cran-raspberry hints with an underlying earthiness. Light bodied and cohesive, the 2000 is more pillowy than the racier 1999--not as concentrated, but it sacrifices nothing in the way of straightforward flavor and honesty. Silky, easygoing, "Ooh, what a nice little wine!" says Jay. It's not one to age (drink it while you're waiting for your '99s to come around), but it's drinking well right now, and right now is when I'm drinking it. Probably why Scott-Clark is one of the three mailing lists I'm still on (Turley and Marc Angeli being the other two).
Rob, discussing a style of California pinot that is apparently gaining favor with the goblover crowd, uses the term "Zinot Noir," which I find amusing enough to write down.
Next in line is a Bodegas Montecillo Viña Monty Gran Reserva 1982. Another light, easygoing wine, this obviously has more secondary development than the El Niño, but resembles it in many ways. Smells of light stewed tomato/baked beans/baked beans/red berry/cherry/dust/baked beans/dust/tempranillo/tempranillo/tempranillo. There's a good fresh spine of acidity but the dusty fruit is very feathered at the edges; it spreads out langorously in the piehole, a half-dozing Persian cat, and the happily faded midsection flows into a baked-brick finish. Very nice, and the early consensus favorite. "And it cost about ten bucks when I bought it!" pipes Greg happily. We congratulate him on his econovinous savvy and sing a quick round of "For he's a QPR fellow," splitting right down the middle on the "which nobody can deny/and so say all of us" dilemma.
Lisa, telling a story of some kind to her cogenderists, leans down the table towards me, snaps her fingers and demands I make a particular quacking noise that our cat makes. I do so, and my colleagues quickly vote me the second most pussywhipped winegeek in the New York metropolitan area (does pussywhipped take a hyphen? pussy-whipped? these are the things they never teach you in zany wine writer school). I accept the honor with the humility that is my trademark. Then we spend the requisite period speculating on the reasons for Theresa Iverson's recent unannounced hiatus. The group consensus is that it's probably Kane's fault. He accepts the role of scapegoat with grace.
Here's a second Spanish wine, which may be a record for a noncamblorized jeebus, a Prado Enea Muga Rioja Gran Reserva 1970. Medium ruby color, browning lightly at the core and turning towards amber at the rim. Prettily aromatic, a slightly threadbare noseblanket of yam-tinged red fruit laced with hints of fruitcake, beef broth and the spines of nineteenth century reference books. A little lean in the piehole, crisp and rather ethereal--the hushed red fruit seems on the verge of fading, but is still present for now. The finish is quiet and lovely, the last few notes leaving the impression of an old burnished stairway banister.
The waitress brings the main courses, except mine is something entirely different than what I ordered. Outraged, I demand satisfaction in the strongest possible terms. Eventually they bring me what I ordered, sparing everyone the humiliation of having me throw a tantrum.
Here's a little brown one, a Talenti Brunello di Montalcino 1995. Dark, tight smellies--black cherry and espresso dregs, flickers of earth and Indo-European spice. Aromatically rich but somewhat monolithic at this point. A sip, and it's the same picture--coiled and brawny black cherry fruit comes right at you, turns towards sour cherry as the midpalate tightens up, then turns dark and smoky on the puckery-tannic finish. Great balance and cohesion, young and tight as a drum but lots of potential.
Kane, perhaps a little intoxicated, loudly accuses me of inaccuracies in my tasting reports. I am taken aback--credibility is after all the keystone of my incisive brand of wine journalism; if you take that from me I have nothing. I demand he be specific--he thinks for a moment, then claims that I placed him at the Coulée de Serrant/Savennières tasting two years ago even though he was elsewhere! Well, I'm startled that I did that, but I shut up until I can race home and check my records. Naturally, I did no such thing; his memory is playing tricks on him once again.
My heavens, it's a yet another Spaniard! Cims de Porrera Priorat 'Classic' 1996: Rich, layered nose that gives much away but keeps much in reserve. Dark blackberry-plum fruit laced with shoyu, humidor and tar. A sip, and it's dense and coiled and hard, rough around the edges, like drinking a freshly-tarred road. A dark, brooding brute of a wine, rich and concentrated, with a weighty mouthfeel and enough structure to get by. After about four hours of air it reaches an estimated 6% openness. I first tasted this three or four years ago at the Llivus Español when Jamie Goode was in town: it was closed and tight then and in subsequent samples it's done nothing but close down tighter and harder. Either it will implode into a vinous singularity or it will need a long, deep sleep to come around. Give it a few years, reinvestigate.
At this point an interesting triangular conversational event happens. Let me relate it as best I can...
The scene: I'm sitting right across the table from Kane. Jay is to my left, Greg to my right. Greg is carrying on to Kane about how the acidity in the Cims is shrill and dominant, really all you can taste in the wine. Kane agrees emphatically that the wine is all acid. Perhaps two minutes later Jay, who is just getting around to tasting the wine and hadn't been listening to the earlier talk, mentions the plushness and low levels of acidity in the Cims. Kane vigorously agrees that the wine is acid-deficient.
Impressed, I point out this unlikely series of events to all concerned. Our man claims that he learned his wily techniques at the knee of Jeff Connell, Master of Agreement. Baloney! I say.
Speaking of which (ripping transition, eh?), here's a Château Musar Lebanon 1990: Medium-light ruby color, slightly cloudy and browning lightly at the rim. Smells sweetly decayed, leathered red cran-raspberry fruit laced with fallen leaves and a strong whiff of vinegar. I normally don't mind volatility, but this is a little much, even for Musar. A sip, and feathery cherry-pit flavors spread out on my tongue, nibbly acidity rises in the middle and mingles with bricky plum-cherry flavors, then remains humming away brightly on the finish as the fruit flickers out. Medium-light bodied and loosely knit, this seems quite mature for a wine of its age, resolved and heading for the downslope. A antihero wine, difficult to either like or dislike. Rob claims the label says "Horrifying UC Davis Since 1966." I look, but fail to see that.
I mention that recently I saw fellow NYC geek Tony Fletcher on MTV's 'Hundred Biggest Rock n' Roll Scandals' opining about Keith Moon in a most learned fashion and bearing a vague resemblance to Sting. There is an awed hush, then an impressed mutter, then another awed hush.
Hey look, it's an Olga Raffault Chinon Les Picasses 1997. The last few bottles of this that I've chugged down had been showing signs of closing down shop and going to sleep; this follows the trend. It's very quiet and lightly piney-stony; the robust fruit of a couple years ago is now reticent and a little bleary-eyed and the rocky edges that had been submerged are starting to show as the cran-cherry stream recedes. Even so it's friendly enough and not as angular as the '96 was at a comparable age. Sleep well, little Chinon, see you in a few years.
I've written the phrase "Jay has an order of Burgundy Wowee" in my notebook sometime tonight, but I have no recollection as to what it means. As I'm pondering this Greg announces, apropos of nothing, "I've always suspected women go shopping together because they're really lovers." I begin to suspect we've all had quite enough to drink, but there are sweeties to be sampled and duty calls.
Zeni Moscato Rosa Trentino 1997 Smells sweetly Robitussiny, glossy red fruit with cocoa and raisiny notes underneath. Simply red, medium sweet. There is a cough-syrup quality here but there's good balance and enough dark fruit and cocoa to pass muster.
Greg hangs a bundle of twisted wire from the Champagne cork on the back of Kane's shirt when he isn't looking. Here's a wine you don't see a lot, a Domaine des Baumard Quarts de Chaume 1992. Medium gold-amber. Smells honeyed, hints of orange rind, apricot and quince jam. Medium sweet, only the vaguest trace of botrytis. Loosely knit, smooth and cohesive, it nevertheless has a baked-apple quality and seems older than I'd have guessed. Decent enough, just not much character and not particularly interesting. Guess that's why you don't see it a lot.
With the opening of the last bottle there is much rejoicing, for we have against all odds continued our unprecedented run of TCA-free jeebi, a run that has carried through the entire summer. Jay brushes away a single tear, but the mood is quickly broken by Kane's somehow damaging Michelle's thumb. She glowers down at him as he fumbles between rationalizing and apologizing. Lisa yanks on my arm, "She's going to rip him to pieces, let's get out of here before the blood starts to flow!" and we hotfoot it up Sixth Avenue to safety, never looking back once.