Yugh. Another birthday.

I'm depressed, naturally, and the usual pharmacological crutches aren't working as well as they should. Lisa decides to throw me a party, something along the lines of "Wines Greg dal Piaz and His Lovely Wife Michelle Will Enjoy, When They Arrive. Oh, and Callahan Too, When He Arrives." This seems like a theme that can't go wrong, and the food is arranged with our pliant hostess, Sweet Melissa, in the garden court of her patisserie in Brooklyn's suddenly trendy Cobble Hill neighborhood.

It's been a week of nothing but rain, and we've heard that Hurricane Somethingorother is coming our way, but amazingly enough the weather gods smile down on us once more. It slowly becomes clear that today is one of those perfect sunny-crisp New York fall days, without a cloud in the sky and with just a bit of a nip in the air, the kind of day we're lucky to get twice a year.

So we've got perfect weather. Great: I'm sure it just means the mosquitoes will be livelier tonight. When we arrive there are two couples eating dinner in what is supposed to be our garden. They've forgotten about us; this is what tends to happen when Melissa herself isn't around to crack the whip. We decide to just send some bubbly over to them and wait them out; in the meantime, familiar faces are beginning to arrive, an unusual mix of geeks and nongeeks and relatives. Will they all get along? Will there be geek-nongeek hostilities? Py jaysus, I need to drink something. Now.

There are a couple of nondescript bubblies, but after Jay Miller's recent FizzFest I'm seriously bubbled out, so I skip them. Hey, here's a Vatan Sancerre Clos La Néore 2001. Wheeoooh, chalk, chalk, and more chalk, sprinkled with lime rind. Tastes lean and pure, focused down to a pinhole of white flowers, lime and rocks. Not complex in the sense of being layered, but Intensely racy stuff of great purity, a crystalline beauty. Wine of the Night!

Okay, that's better. I spot a big bottle and grab it, but people keep coming up to me and chatting, handing me things, chatting some more. Why won't they leave me alone with my big bottle? I retreat to the far corner and open it. I'm always tetchy about uncorking magna, even more so about larger bottles. I still remember the sick feeling in my stomach when I realized that the Salmachadnezzarboam of fizz that some friends were pouring at their wedding was horribly tainted, all twenty gallons of it ruined by one extremely large but rotten cork. (Happily, there were no other geeks present, so Lisa and I just kept our traps shut and no one was the wiser.) So I cross my fingers and mutter pleasedontbecorkedpleasedontbecorkedpleasedontbecorked...

Phew. Trimbach Riesling Alsace Cuvée Frederic Emile 1993 (Magnum): Light kerosene notes, lemon-ginger and hay and yellow flowers in my nose. Tastes tight but fairly weighty; there's heft here, but the wine comes across as rather stark. Big and stark. Give it time.

Dauvissat Chablis Sechets 2001: Gone. Damnit, I'm caught up in mindless stupid socializing, unfortunately not able to ignore the other attendees as easily as I prefer. This birthday boy thing sucks.

Asher presses a bottle of old Châteauneuf into my hands. I squirrel it away: too good for this crowd.

Dressner posits that petting dogs is therapeutic. If he's trying to start a fight it doesn't work, nobody argues the point. He seems unsettled, pacing and twitching.

Château Cos d'Estournel St. Estèphe 1979 (Magnum). Medium ruby color, bricking lightly at the rim. Smells warm and bright and rather pleasantly reserved: old weathered wood and pipe tobacco, muted red cherry-cassis, a light stony undercurrent. Tastes tart and crisp up front, warms and spreads in the middle, although not as much as I'd have expected. It's rather tight and primary at first, loosens up marginally with a few hours of air but retains a shy hardness at the core. Still, there's good balance, firm acidity, layers of flavors and interesting character. Finishes with some drying tannins, a pretty and surprisingly young Cos.

Another clean magnum: today the cosmic corktaint dice come up in our favor. Luck, be a lady tooooooniiight....

We play the Brad Kane Tribute Mix CD, Lisa looking over her shoulder and fretting all the while about being busted for internet music theft. It gives us old guys a little frisson of rebellious delight to be playing pirated music in this litigious day and age. Life on the edge, man, that's what it's all about. Fight the power!

Camblor is getting on a roll, expounding on the upcoming unveiling of his revolutionary new system of rating wines with only three words, none of which can be "shit." I want to hear more, but there are howls of horror coming from a knot of geeks surrounding Dressner. Let's see what's up over there....

Turns out that Joe has brought along a sample from his continuing project to drink a bottle of the same wine every day for sixty days, a Marquis Philips Shiraz South Eastern Australia 2002. Dark purply-black color. Hmmmm... lots of unusual "fruit," the kind of "fruit" that takes the pitiably drab fruit found in nature and ratchets it up a few notches. Rich aromatics of pnooquat jam, flumskin reduction sauce and treathery-smooth jadmaniper berry, all swirled up in a snocko-spicy package: a wine that might have been concocted by Dr. Seuss's evil twin. In the piehole it's dense, creamy and limpid, resembling nothing so much as cough syrup infused with beef broth and soy sauce, turning towards an aquarium-charcoal note on the finish.

Quite unpleasant to drink, but... somehow... compelling, in a traffic-accident kind of way. I can't stop nosing at it incredulously. Mesmerizingly overtasty stuff, although (mandatory disclaimer) doubtless delicious if you're partial to the particular "fruity" style involved. "Two hundred and forty-three points!" shrieks someone from out of the darkness, who then cackles hysterically until a coughing fit sets in. We pass a glass of water into the shadows, muffled thanks drift back.

Who is this mysterious Marquis? I had no idea there were Marquises in Australia these days. I tell you though, if Dressner is drinking a bottle of this every day for sixty days, he deserves the Presidential Medal of Freedom Fries. The semirhetorical question is asked: "Does this bear any resemblance to something that grew on a vine?" No one even bothers to answer. Jay Miller turns pale and collapses into a chair, murmuring vague obscenities. Actually, this wine does resemble the ugly bottle of '95 Armagh that I frightened the foodies with a while back, so it would certainly represent a big cash savings if that's the kind of thing you like to inflict on your friends/enemies.

And it seems there's another flavor of the stuff, a Marquis Philips Sarah's Blend South Eastern Australia 2002. Same dark purply-black color. Smells a bit less freaky (or am I just getting acclimated?), purply-red, shoe-polishey and spicy. Tastes fat and ripe, chock full of lusty ersatz flavors, medium-low acidity, densely chewy texture, lots of toasty wood, falls down dead on the finish. More drinkable than the last: this isn't entirely unpleasant, but one's imagination flits inevitably to the notion of it being manufactured on an assembly line out of overripe, uninteresting grapes with Liquid SmokeŠ, beef broth and a dash of MSG added to give it that savory-spicy character. A very peculiar concoction.

I'm shaken up by these wines, and have to go back to the Cos for a time in order to soothe and recalibrate my palate. Why have they done this to me, and on my birthday? Why god, why?

"You can't step in the same wine twice."

"Except for the Marquis Phillips... it never changes."

More shrieks of anguish and disgust are erupting down the line as another bottle makes the circuit. Is it another wine from the Marquis? What fresh horrors await? No, it's a Brogan Cellars Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Lone Redwood Ranch 2000. Hmmm, cinnamon and cherry-cola nose, sort of plastic-smelling but aromatically quiet. Tastes smooth and two-tone, simple and on the light side. For some reason everyone else seems to hate it, but It's really not that bad, merely uninteresting and two-dimensional. Not even in the same league of wretchedness as the Marquis's beverage products.

Mr. Connell has brought a tiny Ridge vertical, which he deposits on the table in front of me. Let's see here, we'll start with a Ridge Zinfandel Lytton Springs 1994. Dark black-cherry/raspberry laced with shoe polish, vanilla and tar. Smooth and cohesive, a big wine with fine composure. Not all that overtly zinlike: frankly, it has the balance, warmth and solidity of a good middleaged Châteauneuf. Fine stuff, solid and warm and smoothly layered, finishing with a warm berry flourish. I get into a bickermatch with Manuel about Ridge, with him insisting the place has gone to hell. I tell him he's nuts, and that what's more, by making that argument he's agreeing with Kane's longstandingly nonsensical position. He seems momentarily stymied by this notion and retreats, cursing under his breath.

Its older sister, a Ridge Zinfandel Lytton Springs 1993, is a bit off form tonight. Odd eggy sulfurous note at first that blows off somewhat but not entirely. Just a bit riper than the '94, just a bit less crisp, ever so slightly pruney. Not actively unpleasant, but not cohesive, a wine slightly at odds with itself; its tie is askew and its shoelaces are untied. Jay: "Every element of the wine seems to have taken one step in the wrong direction." Ayup.

My own sister and her husband, who have never met geeks in the wild, seem amiably puzzled at the goings-on around them. They smile, nod and smile some more. What do you say to winegeeks, anyway? All they want to talk about is black cherry fruit and how everything is overoaked. What kind of an opinion can a normal person with normal priorities hope to have about that? Our friend Stu the Nongeek lights up a fat stogie. This doesn't go over well with the geeks. A few try the glare-mutter method of discouragement, but it falls on deaf eyes. Oh man. Maybe we should've had separate-but-equal parties? No, no, just keep drinking.

Here's another zin, a Dashe Zinfandel Louvau Vineyard Old Vines 2001. Ripe blackcherry-raspberry aromatics, suffused with dark earth and a black licorice tarriness down deep. Slightly candied, but not quite over-the-top in style. Bit of alcoholic heat, some aggressive tannins, but pillows of warm red fruit smooth out the bumps. A whacking big borderline port-styled Turleyfied zin, slightly startling after the more classically-style Ridges. I can't believe Jay Miller likes this wine. What's up with that, kids? Is Uncle Jay going all New Wave on us?

Out of the blue, Dressner asks me if I've ever sued anybody. "No," I admit, "Never been sued either; I suppose in that sense I'm not a representative American." He's fussy tonight, grousing about the mosquitoes and the cigar smoke. I point out that cigar smoke is known to keep mosquitoes away, he doesn't seem placated. I guess all that weird wine he's been drinking in the name of science has put him out of sorts. Or maybe he's being sued, who knows.

Someone brought a wine from Italy, a Montevertine Vina da Tavola di Toscana Il Sodaccio 1997. Shy aromatics, light tart cherry, hints of leather and walnut. A sip, and it's a whippet of a wine, taut and racy and compact. It's rather primary at the moment, but it has great focus and a pleasingly lean purity. Finishes long and bracingly cherried. Give it time.

Lisa's friend Vanessa the Chick Sommelier gives me a bottle of German fizz, and Connell's eyebrows perk up. "Where in the world did you get ahold of that...?" he asks, and goes on to chat about his experiences with other vintages. I make a mental note to self: Connell impressed, save wine for special occasion.

A second wine from Italy, two in one night! My goodness, it's a Marchese di Barolo Barolo Cannubi 1989. Smells lightly brown-herbal, bay leaf over a leathery sour-cherry base, traces of sod and bookspine. Tastes tight, taut and tough, a coiled spring of a wine. Give it a decade, reassess.

Keep going, keep going...

Edmunds St. John Syrah California 2001. Smells of dark plum, smoke and iodine, with some candied hints that someone (Jeff G.?) dubs 'Bubble Yum.' A sip, and there's a bit of a reduced character to it, it's dark and rich but also rather limpid, it just kind of lays there in my mouth until it rolls over and finishes with a touch of bitterness. Uninspiring wine from a producer I usually dig. Ah well, the sun don't shine on the same dog's ass every day.

Aalto Ribera del Duero 2000. Whoah. I don't know this wine, but it positively screams BOUTIQUE WINERY in three languages. Honestly, it's one of the most strikingly woody wines I've ever tasted. Just smoke, toast, smoke, toast, smoke, toast. I have no clear notion of the dark, possibly blackberried wine underneath, it needs must remain a mystery, Claude Rains behind oaken bandages. It's not unpleasant, really, not bad or weird or freaky: it just tastes almost entirely of high-toast wood.

Contino Varieded Graciano Rioja 1998. What the...? Dark purply-black color. Touch of varnishy volatility at first whiffage, smells very quiet but kind of interesting, dark blackberry, shoe polish, cocoa powder, gravel, more blackberry, hinting towards redfruit but quickly fading back to black. Tastes a little leaner than it smells, tight and dark and not giving much. I don't know what to make of it, it seems shut down but maybe it just doesn't have much to give. A curiosity.

Christoffel Auslese 2001? Gone. The geeks got to it and sucked it all down before it made it over to me.

I'm tired. I'm old now. SFJoe isn't here to keep the party rolling into the wee hours, and people are dispersing. This sucks. Where has my youth gone? Why did I fritter the best years of my life away with trivial tail-chasing? How can I have lived this long and accomplished nothing? Will I die alone and unloved, having been gradually stripped of all that I treasure, and never having been naked in a hot tub with Theresa Iverson?

Yow. Quickie midlife crisis. Shake it off, big guy, shake it off. Some days it doesn't pay to think too much, just keep the feet moving forward. Here's a Sandeman's Porto 1963: Light at the edges, fading into ethereality, but with a ruby core. Smells feathery and lightly spicy, old burnished stairway banister, cinnamon, earth and faded berry redness. A sip, and it's medium-sweet, brown-earthy flavors spread out from a muted berry/crushed brick core. Faded at the edges but still lively at the center, it's a smooth, layered wine with an air of slightly faded gentility. At forty years old, it's nearing the end of its journey, but there's still life and pleasure to be had before it fades into the twilight.

It gives me hope.

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