I was trapped on the bad side of Broadway during a Clinton-inspired police lockdown of the lower Manhattan roadways, and the Asylum crowd was waiting for me on the other side. I managed to clatter downtown far enough to dodge around the barricades and was off once more, bags full of bottles intended for the first ever East Coast Wine Asylum Offline banging smartly against my shins.
When I finally arrive I find a large crowd of New York area Asylum inmates already in the throes of an evening of straightjacket-free drunken festivization at the historic Minetta Tavern in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. There is our spiritual godfather Andrew Munro Scott, acting as master of ceremonies, gladhanding and introducing folks to one another while his trophy wife Jennifer gazes on adoringly at the happily assembled evidence of his deep commitment to madness and its cure.
Here are some familiar faces, Joe Bad Influence' Dressner and coworker Mona Moore, along with friend Sue Ng, as well as a couple of pals from a) sixth grade and b) the wine business, whose names I didn't get but who were delighted and astonished at the friendliness and openness of the gathered Asylum inmates. Over in the far corner the mild-mannered authority figure Robert Callahan is chatting quietly with Lisa Allen, Kay Bixler, Shelah Soloman and Jeff Connell. I think Kay is explaining something, but can't quite make out what it is, as I'm too busy meeting and greeting. Something about Lebanon? The crowd whirls me off in another direction, and I wave gamely at the Oleg and Inna O. section over by the middle of the table.
Getting a late start always throws me for a loop, as my palate is notoriously slow, so I grab a couple of whites to get at least a few wines under my belt before the avalanche begins and I become hopelessly bogged down.
Here's a Domaine de la Fontainerie Vouvray Sec 1997, a child of the famous Vouvray Lady, or so I am informed. Sue speaks my thoughts out loud when she asks if the Vouvray Lady is somebody present, but she (and I) are quickly informed that no, the Vouvray Lady is in fact in Vouvray, where she belongs. At any rate, the wine (which has been open for forty-eight hours) is pale gold and minerally-smelling, chalky and pollenous on the nose with light floral hints. Tastes crisp and nicely honed, some pear-tinged fruit wells up, makes its presence known, then bows aside for the persistently chalky finish. Bright, nimble Vouvray. You go, Vouvray Lady.
Andrew has brought a sample of his recent journey to the center of the Finger Lakes, a Hermann J. Wiemer Semi-Dry Riesling Finger Lakes 1987. The inmates gather 'round to peer at this oddity, and pours of the yellow-gold liquid are carefully sniffed at. There's a bit of decay here, as the wine smells flat and waxy, with some keroseney aged-riesling hints but not much nosal action going down. Tastes lightly sweet, with decent crispness, but the amiably puckery levels of acidity are offset by a ponderous mouthfeel, so the final effect is a bit odd and disjointed. There are outraged cries of "Dishwater! Bilge!" that turn some heads at adjacent tables, but it's really not so terrible as all that, just (like so many of us) well past its prime.
Just in time, Brad Woupinkoff comes sauntering in and immediately smacks himself on the head, saying "D'Oh! I forgot the glasses!" I have already distributed the six that I brought, so he is forced to go weasel some hidden decent stems from behind the bar.
Jim Dove comes by (in his fictional capacity as server) to take our order, and I of course opt for the famous Minetta Extra-Dry Butterflied Veal Chop, just as Shelah pours me a spot of Dr. Loosen Riesling Wehlener Sonnenuhr 1998. Now here's riesling done right, a pale wine that smells lightly peachy and honeydewed, with equally light vinyl beanbag chair hints and evanescent flecks of lime rind. A sip, and there's lovely balance, brisk and bright without being hard, some silky melony green-appley fruit. Not a deep wine, but a very well built and pleasant one.
Speaking of melony, at this point the sound system launches into 'I've Got a Brand New Pair of Roller Skates' and Mr. Dressner starts having cold sweats, as apparently some college roommates used to torment him by playing this song over and over again until he begged for death. Kay runs off to talk to (bribe) the bartender, and the tape is changed and will not come round again tonight. Crisis averted.
We take a deep breath and pour some Robert Denis Touraine-Azay-Le-Rideau Vignes de la Gaillarderie 1995 to settle things down a bit. I'm afraid I don't help things by asking Joe what 'vignes de la gaillarderie' means because he can only look at me balefully and come up with "vines... of the... gaillarderie." I turn to Callahan for explanation, but he's busy leading a brief question-and-answer session on root uptake in limestone soils for the entranced Asylum inmates at the far end of the table. They gaze up at him like he's a rock star, it's almost embarrasing.
Oh yes, the Denis is pale and stony, with a light old-grapefruit musk on top of the rockpile. In the piehole it's quite a butch wine, with stern acidity that is just this side of offputting, more minerality laced with rainwatery lemon-citrus hints and finishing puckery-crisp and lemon-rocky. I find it a little unyielding, other hardier souls are undaunted.
Far less unyielding is the Château de Chamboureau Savennièrres Moëlleux 1990, a pale lemon-gold colored liquid with a lushly aromatic nose full of stewed pear hints and minerals and a flickery-light Lemon Pledge kind of note, almost minty or mentholish. I take a taste, and it's quite ripe and rich, fleshily flavorful, a bit soft and rounded but the tanginess of the fruit balances it out well and the wine is prettily integrated and seamless. Lightly sweet, pleasantly fleshy and quite tasty, if a little unfocused. Too much focus, too little focus, I'm hard to please, aren't I?
It is only now that I am told that the Brad who is gracing us with his presence is not Brad Woupinkoff at all, but Brad (BillyRayBrad) Kane. Apologies are proffered and accepted all around.
A couple of Baumards, first the Domaine des Baumard Savennièrres 1996: Pale straw, quiet nose, lightly honeyed pear-almond, bright and light. Tastes bigger, blunter, slightly oily-rounded mouthfeel and a lot of body. Not quite as rich and impressive as its fraternal twin Papillon, but a very nice wine.
At some point Brad has mistaken me saying Sue Ng's name for "Soon-Yi" and launches into an anecdote about Woody Allen moving to his neighborhood. Sue takes it all with good humor and we make the usual excuses, but there are a few awkward moments that are broken up only by the relentless appearance of everyone's respective butterflied veal chops.
Next is the Domaine des Baumard Savennièrres Clos de Saint Yves 1994, which is a pale gold wine with a flinty, lightly honeyed yellowfruit nose, a bit woolly-waxy smelling. There's some nice complexity here, although the wine is not big it is expressive and friendly and a bit round, goes down easily and smoothly. The fruit flattens out and turns a bit one-dimensional in the midpalate but rallies again on the finish. Again, not a big range of flavors, but a smooth, easy ride that goes wonderfully with the cold potato salad that has inexplicably appeared next to my veal chop. Where's my cole slaw? Pickle wedge?
With the comestibles now at hand, everyone turns to the appearance of the evening's trophy wine, the Pierre Overnoy Arbois Pupillin Poulsard 1993, which has been reported to be the latest Wine Spectator darling (the 1993 is the current release). The wine is a medium-pale shade of ruby, ambering a bit at the rim, and smells flinty, hints of baked yam, earth and brick dust. It's quite surprisingly light in body, crisp, earthy, developed. The earthy/brick quality becomes more pronounced than the light baked-cherry fruit as the wine moves from the mouth to the gullet, and some fine tannins make their presence known in a fairly unobtrusive fashion. One of the better varietal poulsards I've had this year, but really, 98 points? Sue actually goes so far as to call her wine buyer from the restaurant to see if he can scare her up a case or two before the price goes through the roof, but has no luck.
With the food in place and the evening's star in our glasses, Andrew offers up a heartfelt toast: "To the Wine Asylum--Long May She Wave!" Nods of assent, cries of "Hear him, hear him," glasses are drained, the festivization slips easily into fifth gear.
Next up is a youngster, the Château Cantemerle Haut-Médoc 1997. Medium-dark garnet color, smells sweetly of cherry-cassis with dark toasty notes and an undercurrent of oregano herbiness. Tastes fairly limpid and soft, not much grab in the mouth. A soft, easy-drinking little wine that falls away quietly on the finish but is decent enough if you don't compare it to the more impressive '95 and '96.
While I'm sipping, Brad calls over the waiter and sends his veal chop back to the kitchen in order to have it heated up. Dressner predicts he'll never see it again.
Here's a Domaine Peyre Rose Coteaux du Languedoc Clos des Cistes 1994, the appearance of which for some reason prompts Callahan to tell some off-color Ed Wrinkerman stories (are there any other kind?). The sweet-smelling stuff sits in my glass, dark and spicy, hints of raspberry-cassis, layered and beguiling to my eager proboscis. Kane is turning backflips over this one, and, although I am chagrined to agree, I must, at least to the degree that it's a very rich, friendly wine, lush and balanced, berry-dark and suffused with spicy earth, pepper and a touch espresso darkness. A brash upfront fruit howdedoo carries through the midpalate and fades a bit prematurely into glossy tannins on the finish, but the overall impression is of a rich wine with layers of berry-earthy flavor, a nice package.
The discussion at table has unfortunately turned political, with various partisans taking the side of either Fred Grandy from Love Boat or the guy who played Cooter on the Dukes of Hazzard as the best overall TV guy turned politician. Someone cries out "Cooter is a 97-point politician!" and the talk quickly ricochets to the benefits of using the so-called '100 point' scale to rate human beings, a notion that is heartily endorsed by all.
Now Brad (86 points! Fresh, young, vibrant...) Kane pulls out a Teófilo Reyes Tinto Cosecha Ribera del Duero 1996 with a question for the group. Keep 'em or sell 'em? We examine the wine. Looks like wine to me, fairly deep black-garnet color with a very generous dose of toasted choco-coffee oak on the nose over a base of dark red fruit. There's an interesting gravelly undertone to the tangy dark cassis-tinged midpalate, but the finish bangs you around with astringency and wood tannins. Disjointed. Could be a case of youth, but something doesn't seem quite right with this one and it does not seize the imagination of the electorate: the vote is 13-2 in favor of selling.
There is no sign of Kane's veal chop.
Joe (74 points! Artificial hair-graying techniques a minus...) Dressner pours me a spot of Château Pontet-Canet Pauillac 1989 while furtively pointing to an ostensible celebrity at another table who he calls "the Hasidic Billy Idol." I'm trying to catch a glimpse of this apparition while juggling the wine with one hand and the last of my veal chop with the other, but I almost pour my glassful into Sue (88 points! Smooth, restrained, nice balance...) Ng's lap. It's a quiet wine, medium dark garnet and somewhat nasally reclusive. Small but earnest muted cassis and stolid graphite notes, nice compactness and small amplitude, not the range and strength of the lusty mid-90s P-Cs, but deep and interesting on a smaller scale. Interestingly, after an hour or two of air time, the nose emerges and blooms with dark tobacco and more lush deep cassis tones and the initial impression of reticence is cast into the dustbin of history. Very nice.
A Tom Eddy Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 1995 quickly stands alongside the Reyes on the graven oak pedestal, plenty of smoky toasted oak here, over a standing pool of rich, deep ripe cassis, which is monolithic but also quite dense. The wine has nice balance, a shadow of a graphitey hint passes through the midpalate, but cedar and toast take over on the finish, then more toast and toast. Rich, ripe, quite routine Napa cab, not that there's anything wrong with that.
Here's a Breton Bourgeuil Grandmont 1997, which has a whiff of earthiness right off the bat, dark raspberry-redfruit, gravel. It's a medium garnet color, with great buoyancy in the mouth, a nimble, crisply tart wine with strong-spined lean and stony red fruit, bright and well focused, and it handily complements the last traces of my veal chop.
Poor Brad has finally come around to inquiring as to the whereabouts of his dinner, and he is told "In the trash, sir," which isn't quite the place he'd intended when he'd asked to have it heated up a bit more, but never you mind, we've got more wines to taste, and Kay (91 points! Generous, bright, deep and floral...) is proudly passing around the yo-yo that is the symbol of her recent donation to the Asylum support fund. Unfortunately, she has no appreciable yo-yoing skills and neither does anyone else present, so it is left to your humble narrator to attempt a few simple moves, something the legal department has insisted I not recommend to the general public, especially after consuming fifteen wines. After a brief but technically dazzling display of yo-yo virtuosity (I manage to get it to sleep after about ten tries) I stop for fear of smashing the crockery and making our group into even more of a nuisance than we already are.
The last of the dry reds are two pinots, a J.P. Brun (Terres Dorées) Pinot Noir Bourgogne Grand Ordinaire Cuvée Fuck the Consumer 1998, which is showing a bit lean and tart at first, with light plum-tinged sour cherry fruit and a light celery note just below the surface, seeming a bit pallid tonight but still showing the nimbly crisp, slowly unfolding body that I've enjoyed before. Give it time and it will bloom. The somewhat unfortunate name of this particular cuvée was apparently one of the last straws that triggered the Wrinkerman-led coup that toppled the eccentric former proprietor over at what used to be Louis/Dressner Selections.
The other is a Domaine Amiot-Servelle Bourgogne 1998, a wine that is also bright and tart, with crisp acidity, but a bit weightier than the Brun FTC, with a darker tone to the cherry fruit and some lingering tarriness on the surprisingly tannic finish. Pleasant, racy and decent, without a lot of follow-through.
Now a sweetie to match my chocolate cake, a Domaine du Traginer Vin Doux Naturel Vieux Banyuls Sec NV which, despite the 'sec,' isn't terribly dry. It's a medium-light wine, pale ruby ambering slightly at the rim, smelling rich and earthyberryish. Tastes lightly sweet and light, a wine with feathery brick-dust red fruit that spreads slowly and pleasantly over the tonguetop until you squeal for more. And squeal I do, sipping down as much of this as I can before the bottle is justly emptied. Delicious, easy sipping wine.
And lastly an edifice, the Niepoort Porto 1997. Showing a bit less severe from this half bottle than from a full one six months ago, this is still a deep, dark, brambly wine that has brooding dark power and tremendous agility and balance, deep reserves of dusty dark berry fruit, cocoa and god knows what else, I can't see that far down into the dark depths. This is the second of the Spectator 98-point babies tonight, and for once they got one right. Power, finesse, more power, a snake-strangling infant with a long road ahead of it. We'll be drinking this on our fiftieth anniversary in 2047. Mr. Connell (92 points! Elegant, refined, a bit hard to pin down...) sips and smiles, and that's good enough for me.
I've had all I can stands, I can't stands no more, and the happily festivicized crowd tumbles out onto the streets of the Village, exchanging addresses and phone numbers, saying goodnight to old friends and new, having finally learned once and for all the true meaning of Asylum.