The call came in while we were sitting in our skybox at Shea Stadium watching the hapless Metropolitans strangely fail to lose against some team from Boston. Lisa turned to me, eyes wide, "It's Wine therapy's own SFJoe: he wants to know if we're free for an informal Bastille Day dinner tonight..."
I check my watch: four o'clock, still plenty of time to give away our tickets to "The Producers" and find someone to take our spots at the Christie's Pétrus vertical. When Joe calls, you do not turn him down.
When we arrive we are greeted by Joe's houseboy Bradley, knife in hand, covered with what looks like the blood of the nobility. No, he explains, he's simply doing some beet peeling for the Burgundy tasting later on. Joe sweeps into the room to greet us in his usual courtly fashion, but immediately strikes a chilling note by putting together five ordinary words in a quite unprecedented fashion.
Here is what he says:
"Much." (Okay, we're fine up to this point.)
I can't make heads or tails of that, and Joe gently clarifies, explaining that there is going to be a very nice nongeek couple attending and that he was simply looking out that they weren't overwhelmed by the waves of bottles that usually flow in the course of one of our bacchanals. We've only brought six so I don't see what the problem is, it's hardly like we're pulling a Callahan and showing up with two mixed cases. He also says something along the lines of "You don't have to take notes, either," but I look so stricken that he takes pity and relents.
A F. Cotat Sancerre Chavignol Les Monts Damnés 1999 is poured to soothe the troubled waters and it does the trick nicely, smelling of chalk and lemon with traces of ginger. Not as elusively peachy-floral as the Thomas-Labaille version, a more solid and straightforward wine with impeccable balance, chalky-lemon fruit honed to a surprisingly rich edge for a wine that is fairly low in acidity. There seems to be a touch of sugar, but with Kane here and Manuel arriving I don't raise the issue. A pretty, smooth wine. The finish is persistence itself, a stony-citric hum that keeps recurring on my tongue like a case of athlete's foot. But in a good way.
Joe puts out a dish of aïoli and a plate of beets n' spuds, along with a Lucien Crochet Sancerre Rosé 2000. We rise to sing La Marseillaise, listen attentively to Joe's stirring retelling of the death of the Marquis de Launay, then dig in, the pink, earthy wine taking the sting out of the purŽed garlic. It's not a complex wine, but there's some nice preserved-cherry fruit and a pleasant earthy-mushroomy streak and it's crisp and fresh and friendly to slug down.
We say hi to the civilians, Joe's old pal Virginia the Scientist and her new husband Don, being careful not to use the word 'nose' in the first few minutes of social intercourse. Lisa discovers that Don is another big baseball fan, and we all breathe a sigh of relief that, since they quickly get into a heated 'Should the Mets trade Al Leiter?' debate, we all can go back to saying things like "hollow in the midpalate" without having to translate.
Here's a Domaine du Closel Savennières Cuvée Speciale 1997 that, for reasons too elaborate to get into here, Kane has had open for three days. I've posted on this one many times, so let me just note that all the air time has let it open up and uncoil--this is a more effusive specimen than usual, and it's never been a shy wine. Lushly smelly--earth, honey and wax, hay and pollen flicker around in the pale gold heart of the glass. Lacks the laserlike focus of some of the other bottlings, more friendly than refined, a wine to drink while you're waiting for the 96 Papillons to ease up a little. The civilians are asking for something 'good,' and are given this. They understand immediately.
An Eric Texier Côte du Rhône Brézème Roussanne 2000 comes around. Much swirling reveals little, a reticent little wine, light creaminess, vanilla, wax, cream soda, a hint of white flowers, more vanilla. It's got nice crispness and a candied, oily mouthfeel but it's not doing much for me now, coming across as a slick neutral wine with some oak, more texture than flavor. Very young and monolithically neutral though, perhaps it just needs thirty years. Nobody quite gets it, and we bemoan the lack of qualified personnel to explain this wine to us.
Don the Civilian is trying gallantly to follow the geek talk, aching to solve the riddle of wine right off the bat. "How," he asks "can you tell if it's a good wine or a bad wine, or if it's just a wine that needs thirty years, or what?" Several of us jump into the breach but only muddy the waters until Lisa comes up with "How do you know if it's a good pitch or a bad pitch until it gets hit?" and we see the light go on. He laughs, "Ah, I get it now--experience. I could always tell you what a good pitch was, even if I wasn't sure I knew exactly why... and sometimes a good pitch gets hit out of the park, but it's still a good pitch." Lisa's analogy is summarily voted bon mot of the evening, and we continue with the festivities.
A Domaine Louis Latour Corton-Charlemagne 1990 is a big woody potion, the kind of wine that almost put me off non-Chablis chardonnay for good. Burnt firecracker paper on the nose (some wag says "gun flint," but my flintlock is in for repairs after last week's frenzied 'Kill the Redcoats' bash, so I can't swear to that), green celery highlights along with the yellow pear/yellow apple fruit, not to mention a bottle of vanilla extract poured through a sieve of burnt toast. Big, weighty and glyceriney-textured, there's good balance and enough acidity, but what seems like a fine core of fruit is pressed like a Salem witch under a fatal weight of wood. There is a brief rally of yellowness in the midpalate, but the finish turns smokily astringent. Six and a half lemon-Jello Prongs set in gelatin molds, covered with powdered sugar and butter and placed on a balsa wood base, then rolled in sawdust and set on fire.
A Domaine Weinbach Tokay Pinot Gris Clos des Capucins Cuvée Laurence 1997 comes along just in time. This smells happily extravagant, a quiet core of minerals overlaid with white plumeria florality and light pineapple tropicality--almost makes me think of home. Creamy and big in the piehole, a mouthful of chubby glyceriney fruit with a generous dash of sugar thrown in; on this we can all agree. It's rather puppyish, bounding up and down and licking my face, but it's a fun wine to drink.
Joe mentions his love of quail, and Brad tells a colorful story about watching someone hunt squirrels in Central Park with a boomerang. No one is sure what to make of this and there are a few moments of awkward silence. Finally Joe claps his hands twice, and intones "Enough! It is time--bring out the big glasses." Bradley scurries off to do his duty and the rest of us begin to open the Burgundies, for we know a special moment is upon us.
The lights are dimmed and Kane slowly backs into the dining hall carrying not one, but TWO Riedel Gargantua Romanée-Conti Vertical Burgundy Stems, last survivors of the set of three that Joe picked up for a song at Hardy Rodenstock's yard sale. Our host takes the righthand glass, named Gog, for himself; I am given the night's use of Magog, Swallower of Magnums.
To give the big boys a run round the track we pour a Domaine de L'Arlot Nuits Saint George Clos de Forets St. George 1990, and it's a beauty, a wonderful feast of smells--dark cherry limned with beet, gravelly earth, horehound and forest floor hints dance and play in the terrarium-sized bowl of the big glass. With just a bit of air darker truffley-mushroomy tones emerge and fill out the initially light nose. Satiny and layered in the gob, there is enough development for complexity and warmth, enough youth for liveliness. Ripe and striking, a delightful wine that brings surprised smiles of pleasure to faces across the room, Kane being the exception, although even he looks less disgusted than usual. One fine slim Prong in a dashing smoking jacket, with a pencil-thin moustache and a sly cocked eyebrow (think David Niven as a Prong), placed on a cherry wood base covered with the slipcover of a comfy old armchair.
A Domaine Remi Jobard Volnay Santenots 1999 is the next wine to coat the vast interior of Magog; it's got a big, primary cherry nose with smoky undertones, tastes young and tight at the core with a fleshy, slightly puppyfatty outer layer. Turns towards darkness on the finish, tar and toast scrapings. Very young and somewhat rough and boisterous.
A Calera Pinot Noir Mt. Harlan Reed 1993 breaks the French Bastille Day theme, but it's got a pleasantly complex package of smells going on--cherry-cola and cooked tomato, green herbs. Actually quite nice, balanced and layered with a good sense of restraint. A bit clunky and not of a whole, but the pieces are interesting and I like it more than most. It speaks very elegantly of its terroir, says Joe--there are many, many Cherry Coke machines in that area of Mt. Harlan.
Domaine G. Roumier Chambolle-Musigny Les Cras 1997. This hasn't budged an inch since I last tasted it a year ago--still young and reserved, with a pleasantly beety-clovey-cherry-earthy nose only showing itself with some vigorous swirling. A coiled, tight wine that only speaks in whispers at the moment, but the whispers hint at deep reserves of strength and a dark inner core biding its time. Nimble and bright despite its strength, this mixes ferality and poise, a wine with smoldering eyes, Daniel Day-Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans.
Why does Manuel keep grabbing Brad's ass? I've been paying too much attention to the wines and not enough to the company, and I've missed a segue of some kind. Don the Civilian, who hasn't yet mastered the fine arts of dumping and/or spitting, is pointing at me and saying "Hey, he's got a big glass, how come I don't get a big glass?!" Just in time, Joe's fragrant veal roast hits the table, and along with it the Bordeaux.
Château Palmer Margaux 1979: Smells of darkly muted cassis with a core of gravelly minerals and light high notes of cedar, tea and violets. Still a good core of young dark red fruit, smooth and rich, if lacking in mouthgrab. The fruit is fleshy and tanninless, but there is enough acidity to give it a spine, albeit one with a bit of a dowager's hump. With air it seems to flesh out and become somewhat meatier. A slightly faded, easy to drink wine that seems to be riding gamely into the sunset.
Another try at the Château Sociando-Mallet Haut-Médoc 1982 after last month's corked specimen, and this one is happily untainted and strutting its stuff. The nose is a warm pool of rich, deep cassis, edged with cedar and tobacco with a dark graphite streak underneath. Very cohesive and silky, great balance and depth, although I find the ripe silkiness of the fruit tends to level the wine and hide some of the complexity. It's a luscious wine, but having gone through the '83 and a couple of the '85s in the last few weeks I find I do prefer the complexity and structure of the '85 over the ripe silkiness of the '82. I guess I'm really off the '82 bandwagon for good, although it does trump the smaller '83.
A Château Les Ormes de Pez 1990 is herby smelling, oregano and sweet-smelling dark red fruit. Rich and red in the cakehole, simple and tasty up front and in the midpalate, redeeming itself somewhat with a happy graphite-minerally flourish on the finish. Very decent, if undemanding.
A quick shift of gears brings us a Verset Cornas 1991, and there's a world of ass in this glass. Big and funky, with the aromas of manure and black olives over dark raspberry-leathery fruit. Tasty, crisp, funky wine that is a bit startling at this point, although a fine match with the stinky cheeses that are going around now.
One last bottle, an Eric Texier Côte du Rhône Vaison Le Romaine 2000 comes around, and for some reason the writing in my notebook is growing less and less coherent. Yeasty cherry-berry fruit with a plaster-of-paris hint in the nose. Rich, yeasty and lightly smoky, a well-balanced, smooth wine that is quite gulpable. Good enough, if unremarkable compared to the lovely red Brézème.
Things are falling apart as we enter the endgame: Brad and Manuel nearly come to blows, we roll Don out the door and supervise as Joe manfully does all of the dishes except for the two Grand Cru glasses (which require professional cleaning). The night ends in a bleary blur of contraband tobacco and old Scotch. By the time we slouch back to our tenement it's 4:30 and my liver, facing a personal crisis of confidence, attempts to escape through the sleeve of my Aloha shirt. I catch it just in time and wrestle it back into place--it must not leave me now, for it has many grand adventures ahead, and miles to go before it sleeps.