So we arrive in the heart of darkest Queens, the chilliest borough of chilly New York City, to take advantage of the hospitality of the Bassmen, who immediately push glasses and appetizers into our hands and warn us not to toy with the evil cat that has wreaked such havoc on the innocently questing digits of past guests. We remember last year's bloodletting and take them at their word.
The Bassmen, always the finest and most hardworking of hosts, have caught me on a bad day. I won't torment you, dear reader, by going into excruciating detail about the vexing sinus condition that had hold of my olfactory senses by the short and curlies. Suffice it to say that I was never operating above the level of 42-47% tasting efficiency, and at times well below that, occasionally plummeting below the 20% Kane line and engendering hearty chortles from fully functional winos about not being able to taste my own weight.
I grab a fistful of shrimp and sit down with a Domaine des Liauds Montlouis Vielles Vignes 1995, which is smooth, lightly sweet and very pleasant. I sniff a few times in vain, look around for assistance and stammer "Can I get a witness?" rather too quietly, but everyone is busy chatting each other up, so I must perforce leave it at that.
Suddenly I am struck with the lack of meaning in my life without the ability to scribble smug little notes into a tatty notebook. I am faced with the Hobson's Choice of having to actually interact with other people on a civil level. My brain, sadly unlubricated at this point, casts wildy about for a way out of this trap, and is on the verge of gnawing itself off my spinal column when an idea slowly begins to dawn...
I am in fact completely surrounded by people whose palates I know and whose sundry nexuses of interaction with my own is a matter of public record. There is potential here for a leechlike sort of tasting odyssey. I envision myself as a vinous remora, and like what I see.
My strategy then is to seat myself near the center of the table and have Andrew Munro Scott give me whispered first impressions of wines of which I know we share similar traditional family values. When the sweet whites come around I turn mostly to Lisa for assistance (Andrew takes to simply shrugging and muttering "Tastes the same as the last one..."). Jayson 'Disgruntled Science Lad' Cohen (sitting across from me) renders invaluable assistance with many of the reds, and I snatch as many as I can of the pearls of wisdom of people not immediately surrounding me, such luminaries as Peter and Mary Munro Hirdt, Jennifer Clark, Bart 'Cat Bait' Hopkins, Kim's sister Kate and her... boyfriend? husband? paid escort? Taylor, and, of course, our munificent hosts. Oh, and Bradley will eventually help out a bit with a bottle of sweet gewčrztraminer.
I engage my fiendish plan with a slow fat pitch over the center of the plate, a wine I've enjoyed on many occasions, Eric Bordelet Poiré Pear Cider Poirier Tricentenaires 1999, made from 300 year old pears from trees with absurdly low yields (the rumor is one pear per tree, but a BIG pear). It's a delightfully pearish glass of fizz, although the alcohol content, at 4%, is up substantially from last year's 3%, so I take it easy and don't simply gulp the stuff as I'm tempted to do. Fans rave "A happily sweet-tart bubbly" with some "minerally notes" underneath the "forward pearishness." Critics say "Crushed shell" or "talc" notes "detract" from overall cohesion, but overall "a fun experience," "thumbs up."
Here's a Hermann J. Wiemer Semi-Dry Riesling Finger Lakes 1985. I've nattered myself hoarse about Andrew's peculiar Wiemer fixation, and his run of bad luck continues as this one is ropey enough to warrant expeditious disposal before anyone sees it.
Peter Hirdt is just relating his missed opportunity to have misled Kane into believing the party began at 9 pm (instead of 6), when in walks the irrepressible one himself. We direct him towards the cat with urgings to give it a nice rough petting, but he is content to kiss the ladies' hands and settle jauntily onto the couch with a glass in each fist.
A Grunhauser Riesling Absberg Somethingorother Spatlese 1983 turns out to be rather badly cooked, flattened and apple-juicy. Fans rave "Crisp acidity!" and claim that "Sure, it's damaged, but it's still drinkable!" while critics reply "Wrong."
Just for fun, I surreptitiously rub shrimp on Kane's shoes and call the cat over with my best kittyvoice, but nothing comes of it.
A Domaine des Baumards Savennièrres Clos du Papillon 1995 is next. The wine is "Waxy-textured, but a little bitter" on the "finish." Fans of the Baumard style say that it's a "mellow" wine, "lightly creamy" and "smooth," with a "good spine." Critics say the "bitterness is distracting."
Now we gather at the table eagerly awaiting Mike's world famous duck liver terrine, and the call goes up for sweet whites. "Bring out your sweet whites!" goes the call.
First sweetie to come to bat is a Loupiac-Gaudiet Loupiac 1981: It's a pale gold wine with a quiet nose, rather sweet and one-dimensional, with a caramel/burnt-sugar note that has one guest wondering if it has been "cooked," but seems to me more a function of an aged wine from a light year. There is no noticeable botrytis character evident but the wine has good balance and enough acidity. Some note the "grilled pineapple" hints, but skeptics say "Decent, but no character, like a generic sweet wine" and some are waggishly content to shout "Goopiac!"
Next up is a Château Coutet à Barsac Barsac 1989, and this is a much bigger wine than the last, denser, fruitier and more botrytised. A bruiser with a nice oily mouthfeel that marries well with the terrine and coats the mouth with apricot-orange rind-vanilla-honey flavors. Partisans cry "The real thing!" while detractors say "Tastes the same as the last one" and yell "Coutet à Goopysac!"
To complete the trio is a Château du Pavillon St. Croix du Mont 1995 that seems lighter and tighter than the others, a bit young at the moment, with light lemony flavors edged with vanilla. Young, not giving much at the moment, but some note a "hint of pine sap, but not in a Retsina kind of way," while critics say "Tastes the same as the last one" and howl "St. Croix du Goopymont!"
A slightly different take on the sweet wine emerges now, with a Muller-Cattoir Gewürztraminer Gimmeldinger Meerspinne Auslese 1989, and I like this one as much as I have in the past, an exuberantly gewürzy wine with all the gewürz clichés in place--lychee, rose petals, honey, with a flinty subcurrent that adds shadings and contrast that you don't quite expect. Lightly oily in the piehole, light to medium sweet, plenty of zing in the backbone, a happily over-the-top kind of wine, quite delightful, really nice for a gewürznik like me. Critics say "Tastes different than the last three, but worse" and shriek "Ge-goop-traminer!"
Someone finally wrestles Andrew to the ground and makes him shut up.
In the break after the terrine course we attack a few dry whites while Kane snatches all the glasses on the table that aren't in use for his own purposes, frightening and horrifying the newbies with his brusque east coast ways. Then it is astoundingly revealed that everyone present has some kind of financial connection to every wine that we're drinking tonight. If you the reading public buy them, we get money. More money than you'll see in your lifetime. So run to your local store, my pretties, fly like the wind!
Dauvissat Chablis La Forest 1999: Steely, stony nose; quiet yet rich hints of minerals, green apples and white wine. Nice density, good feel in the gob, but still wrapped tight even after an hour or so of air. "Finally, a wine with a nose!" say supporters, adding that the nose is "surprisingly candied." Others say "Promising," but "reticent."
Domaine du Duc de Magenta (Louis Jadot) Auxey-Duresses 1993: A little thin, a little faded, with a touch of bitterness. Not much there. Crisp, but not much stuffing. Critics pretty much "repeat" what I "just said, just now."
As the evening has progressed Jen has grown continually more threatened by my repeated little tête-à-têtes with Andrew, shooting glowering looks my way and repeatedly slapping my hand away if it should happen to stray tenderly onto his shoulder in a brotherly fashion. I assure her that the relationship is purely experiential but she'll have none of it, finally barking "Hands off my man!" after one particularly intense round of notetaking. I know when to back off, and do just that. This is a battle that should not be fought here in Mike and Kim's dining room, and, just between us, I think she's been drinking.
Just in time to avoid an awkward scene, the main course arrives, salmon (a fish of some kind) for the icthyophages, and lamb for the rest of us. We tuck in with gusto, and the reds and the conversation begin to flow freely.
First up is a Luca Pinot Noir Altos de Mendoza 1999, which shows that our friends in Argentina are no slouches when it comes to toasted barrels. Crisp, almost sharp to the taste, tight and a bit harsh, without enough depth of fruit to support the generous helping of dark toastiness. There are light hints of sharp clovey-cherry fruit if you look carefully and diligently, but they are mostly swamped under barrel toast. Critics say "Tastes like burnt matches!" and "Wow, that's rather unpleasant!" while proponents are nowhere to be found.
A Clos Rougeard Saumur-Champigny Les Poyeaux 1997 is up next, and it's showing more cab frankischesque tonight, more of an accent on the leafy-tobacco, underbrushy side than past bottles, although with about an hour of air it firms up and the familiar dark mineral streak comes to the fore, giving the dark cran-cherry fruit something to hang its hat on. Detractors say "insubstantial" and "leafy," while supporters say "substantial" and "leafy."
Here's an Ojai Vineyards Syrah Bien Nacido 1996: I take a sniff and get a big dose of the pronounced menthol-eucalyptus that I often get from Ojai syrahs. I rather like it, but some find it "medicinal, witch hazel" and "like a locker room" or "like Ben-Gay." There's dark chewy fruit that seems pleasantly unmanipulated, some smokiness that isn't distracting, a little bit of a disjointedness towards the finish, but really quite a "decent" meaty-dark syrah. Even the cranky hardcore leaf-and-dirt-drinkers give grudging assent, allowing generously that it's "almost wine."
The design class 101 label on the Eight Songs Shiraz Barossa 1996 might have tipped us off to trouble ahead, if only we'd have known to listen to it. Smells of plum, smoke and toast, toast, toast. Tastes of toast, toast, toast, with a candied plum-blackberry jam spread on it. There's smoky tarry-plum fruit on the nose, but candied oak is all you get when you taste it. A confection. Supporters say "It's typical jammy, oaky shiraz, what do you expect?" while a certain distaff critic calls it a "Big, fat, fucking ugly overblown monstrosity" that tastes of "nothing but oak, oak, oak," and "oak jam candy" with "more oak" and still more "oak" added in. Rumor has it that the wine was named in order to make the inevitable "Eight Songs receives Eight Prongs" connection, and the crowd happily votes it eight small, pyramid-shaped Prongs sculpted from rendered hog fat, spray-painted purple, then dusted with powdered sugar, placed on individual doilies, frozen by quick immersion in liquid nitrogen and finally dropped by juvenile delinquents from a highway overpass onto oncoming traffic.
Clos Centeilles Minervois 1998: A smooth, compact wine with pleasant coiled strength and fine balance, this is the only universally admired wine tonight, and quickly wins the Thunderbird Prize. Tangy dark fruit that could balance on a knife's edge, steely strong spine. A wine with firm, proud buttocks and a long aristocratic neck, well bred all the way. Medium-bodied and compact, with a lean silky-steely freshness that washes crisply down my gullet. It's in a good place now for such a young wine. Drink between now and November of next year, then hold until April of 2009, after which you may drink again until July of 2024, after which time you may not drink it any more.
Delas Cornas Chante Perdrix 1995: A light and lean wine with a stalky green streak amidst light leathery-earthy fruit. Not bad, but not very interesting. Fans say "Um... ah... er" while detractors respond with "Er... well, hm..."
Domaine Peyre Rose Coteaux du Languedoc Clos Syrah Léone 1995: Nice rich nose, meaty-gamey, lots of dark raspberry-blackberry fruit sprinkled with pepper and a little dash of funk. Bit tight in the piehole, although there's a meaty, chewy feel to the tightness, almost as if one were gnawing on jerky. Crisp, balanced, "thrumming with tannins," a wine that "needs time" but seems like it will be "interesting down the road."
I do believe that is all for the reds, and our hosts whisk out a lovely cheese course as we linger chattily over the remains of the bottles at hand. I particularly like the goat-on-a-stick, which matches up very well with a Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Pinot Gris Clos Windsbuhl 1998, a "big brute" of a wine that is "a bit spritzy" at first, then comes on strong and blowsy with big white plumeria-gardenia fruit, big sugar and big acidity, a wine that has a peculiar kind of big balance that isn't displeasing, but it seems inflated to me, pumped up so much as to smooth out small interesting features. A very odd wine, I must say that I like it but I feel a little guilty for liking it, as it's rather over the top and goofy, begging to be liked with a hint of desperation. Someone calls out "This wine is slutty!" and one faint-of-heart soul sinks onto the table, muttering "It's too much, it's just too much..." Advocates say it's the "Wine of the night," but detractors say only if you are "Kane."
Why not try a Trevor Jones Old Muscat Barossa NV? It's amber-brown colored, smelling of raisins, caramel, orange rind and crushed filberts. Quite "sweet" and "goopy-thick" (one wag can only wail "Gooparossa!"), there's a decent spine of acidity and if you're a fan of Aussie liqueur muscats it's "not a bad one," although it does get "a bit hot on the finish," and it "won't win any awards for delicacy."
Here's a Papin-Chevalier La Pierre de Coulaine Savennièrres Doux 1997: Medium-light gold color. Spritzy hay and apricot-pineapple notes come out and shake hands with my nose. Someone shrieks "It's volatile! Hit the dirt!" and we instinctively cringe for a moment, but it seems bright and crisp and sweet to me and if there's volatility my nasal trouble happily eradicates it. I've written on this one often enough: let the record stand.
To put the cap on the evening is the lovely Foreau Vouvray Brut NV, which is showing a pleasantly earthy-mushroomy streak that hasn't been quite so evident the past few bottles I've had. The "golden-pear-tea" fruit quality that "we've all come to know and love" seems a bit "shy" tonight, but it's still a refreshing, "revitalizing" beverage.
We sit and enjoy our luscious lemon tarts and, in true New York fashion, compare notes to see who is most disgruntled at the moment. Jayson wins, offering up dark hints of deep-seated resentment and rough, rustic angst that grates and bites for a good forty seconds as it slowly segues into a rounder, fuller hopelessness and finishes with subtle dark tarry despair. Only tonight's fine festivization has kept him from going postal; his vein of pure disgruntlement is warmly applauded as our hosts pour coffee and call taxis to come pick us up.
What better way to end a warm, delightful evening than reveling in the fact that good friends are more disgruntled than you? We wave farewell to our extremely generous hosts and tumble headlong out into the night.
On the cab ride back into Manhattan Jennifer strategically places Andrew in the front seat and me in the back and glowers at me all the way home, unnerving me and making me completely forget to look for the naked lady billboard we saw the last time we rode home from Queens, the chilliest Borough of them all.