It was almost too good to be true. Somehow Lisa and I snuck onto the A-list and cadged an invite to the housewarming festivities at Jeff Grossman and Jim Sampson's idyllic outer-borough estate of Beaucoin. Yes, fabled Beaucoin, bereft of its carriage house in this modern era, but still retaining the grandeur of the gilded age.
We arrive promptly at seven and are given the house tour, marvelling at the two, yes TWO harpsichords. I don't know anyone who has even one harpsichord, and yet here in the drawing room at Beaucoin we've got TWO. Then there's the crossed Claymores over the mantle, the elaborate medallions on the sky-high ceilings, the wondrous opulence that makes me want to either hang up a sign that says "Irish Need Not Apply" or swagger out into the streets and thrash some nouveau-riche ass with a diamond-topped walking stick.
Speaking of ass-thrashing, here's something boisterous to kick off the festivities, a Château Soucherie (Tijou) Savennières Clos des Perrieres 1996. Pale straw-lemon color. Good dose of sheepy funkiness right up front, trademark chenin wet-wool juice in spades. But underneath is a gorgeous lemon-minerality and a deep tensile strength. Very young, very taut, impressively long and substantial, a wine that WILL NOT BE IGNORED. The more I drink Tijou's Savennières the more I wish I'd bought more the first time around. "It's beautiful," says SFJoe, and I agree and express relief, explaining that the bottle came from a sometimes-questionable retailer. "Well, now that you mention it, there may be a touch of caramel on the finish--" he begins, "NO, BOOOO, NO, TOO LATE, TOO LATE," I protest. "You never would've said that if I hadn't said anything!" He denies it, the sneak, but I know better.
I thoughtlessly rest my glass on the handcrafted harpsichord, and Jim, with a polite but slightly desperate urgency in his voice, chases me back to reality. Bad Christopher! What the hell was I thinking? I blame it on the wine, and wait, here's more wine to inspire more bad behavior, a M. Grunhauser Riesling Herrenberg Kabinett 1995. Medium-pale straw color. Light hints of vinyl and green apple, flecks of pine and minerals. Tastes zippy-crisp, a bright, happy wine with a touch of sugar and great lightness of foot. Puckery-tart, there's a velvety apple-stony skin to clothe the acidity and couch the light sweetness. Very cohesive and friendly, a joyously nervy little wine that goes down very smoothly and very easily.
Next up is a Weingart Riesling Schloss Furstenburg Spätlese 2001. Pale straw color. Smells of light yellow apple, hint of white peach and rainwater. Some good flesh here, young and smooth and still tightly-wrapped, more size, more flesh. Noticeable sweetness and firm acidity but quite primary, needs some time to loosen up and come around.
Suddenly it's the Manuels & Josies at the door. "I've got a Mateus Rosé vertical!" crows Camblor, and by gum it looks like he does. Wow! Saddam's favorite wine! Upon closer examination however, it's merely the March of the Frankenweines...
Franken One is a Weingut Rudolf Fürst Riesling Franken Centgrafenberg Kabinett Trocken 2002. Smells like a mountain stream, mineral water. A sip, and it's all acidity and stones, lean, thin and hard, without any flesh to speak of. It tastes like, well, like not much of anything. Jay looks puzzled: "This riesling needs... needs..." he murmurs, searching for the right word, "...flavor." Yes, that would be a interesting addition to the wine's profile. Without it, all you have is hard acidity and lean minerality, not much to hang your hat on.
Next Franken is a Hans Wirsching Scheurebe Franken Iphöfer Kronsberg Spätlese Trocken 2002. Hm. Smells similar to the riesling, with the addition of some underripe pineapple hints and a touch of that ol' scheurebe lipstickiness. These flavors alone make it an improvement over the riesling; the light Saran-Wrap quality clothes the naked acidity and gives it a bit more palatability, but this is still a severely underfruited wine, without much to recommend it other than lean mineral purity. Not that there's anything wrong with that...
Final Franken, this a Hans Wirsching Silvaner Franken Iphšfer Kronsberg Spätlese Trocken 2002. More of the same, with a light lemonality instead of the lipstickiness of the scheurebe. Lemon, minerals, hard acidity and a pervasively pure flavorlessness. Speaking frankenly, this is the best of the bunch, as the lemoniousness matches well with the stony undertones. The wine is very cohesive and pure, but again there's just not much there, even for the motley band of acid freaks in the room.
At some point during this Frankenweinian ordeal Jay Miller becomes the first male of the species to ever knowingly admit to reading a 'Cathy' cartoon. "She's getting married!" says Lisa. "Well," says Jay, "she's engaged. We'll see where it goes..." I nervously pipe up in support of 'Get Fuzzy.' Jeff says he hasn't read the comics since 'Bloom County' went away. We inform him that it's back, so it might be time to check in again.
And what fine wine gathering would be complete without a Henschke Semillon Eden Valley 1992? Before we drink, we practice saying "semillon" in the Australian fashion. Sem-uhl-lohn, sem-uhl-lohn, sem-uhl-lohn. Smells of woodshop and caramel, laced with old vanillabean hints and ginger-cream. Tastes of wood and more wood, caramel and muted vanilla. Flaccid, with annoying spiky acidity poking at the back of my tongue. A wine that lays motionless and bored despite my best attempts at stimulation, watching me through half-shut eyes and muttering snarky criticisms under its breath. Quite unpleasant, this has me looking back on the pure flavorlessness of the Frankenwines with nostalgia: heaven preserve us from flavors such as these. Goes very poorly indeed with the light, flavorful lobster bisque.
Finally it's time for some reds, and Jay Miller is on the premises, so we begin with the obligatoryJ. Drouhin Chambolle-Musigny Premier Cru 1993. Light, charming aromatics, a malleable and flickery blend of cherry and earth with a touch of horehound spiciness, underbrush. Bright acidic core, on the lean side but charmingly flavorful, a nervy little Burgundy with the beginnings of development, seems to be just beginning to unfold. Happy stuff.
Even happier is a glass full of Domaine de Trevallon Les Baux de Provence 1990. Rich redfruit and a hint of sweaty-saddle gaminess that adds depth and complexity. Supple and ripe, a big wine with a pleasant sense of restraint, almost Californian but with Old World funk. I have a nostalgic fondness for this: it's one of the first wines that made me go WHEE, so it's nice to see it's aging well, acquiring a lovely layered freshness. Very, very nice, lovely match with the small roast chickens.
As I'm sitting in a brown reverie, SFJoe, who has been talking animatedly just outside my attention, whirls on me: "That's NOT for publication!" he hisses. Startled, I make a promise of discretion, just this once, then immediately start eavesdropping to see what the hell it was that I missed.
In the meantime here's a Mystery Red that's not terribly mysterious to me, having supplied it: Château Sociando-Mallet Haut-Médoc 1982. Bright acidity at the core, satiny redfruit, tobacco, firm minerality and smoke. Still too young, it's nonetheless quite lovely and supple to drink, very flavorful, very classic, the consensus seems to be something Italian. After some narrowing-down ("No, it's not Italian...") Manuel pegs it as Sociando. I announce, "Yep, that's it, the '82," but he's on a roll, not listening, prognosticating that it's the '93. SFJoe looks at me. "Can I get a guess on the vintage...?" he asks. In the interest of fairness, I disallow his request.
"But where in the world did they get this acidity in a California vintage?" asks SFJoe. I don't know, but somehow they always manage to maintain their dignity, even in the most atypical of years. '82 may have been a blowsy, overripe year for most MŽdoc producers that only a Brad-Kane-goblover-type could love, but M. Gautreau & friends stayed true to themselves and managed to pull out a nice bottle of honest Bordeaux.
Next up are a couple of actual Italians, beginning with a Ceretto Barbaresco Asili 1978. Pure stony-cherry fruit, laced lightly with sage and leather, very bright and tartly cherried, a marvel of purity and focus. Really super, precocious and young, with only a light feathering at the edges to belie its years.
SFJoe and Lisa are drawing molecules again. She gets me hot, with her molecules, the way she wraps her lips around those long chemical names.
Ceretto Barolo Prapo 1978. More development here, mushroom/brick/muted cherry aromatics, hint of bay leaf and brown sugar. Tastes like it smells, layered and dusty, with a dark gravelly streak welling up in the middle to accompany the earthiness. There's a satiny fleshy quality to the softly-spreading fruit, as well as firm acidity and just a whisper of tannin. More layers than the Barbaresco, but a bit short of its intensely cherried purity. It's a beautiful wine, but the vibrancy of the Barbaresco gives it the slight edge.
I am reminded that these wines, like Loire wines, need thirty years. These are both lovely, sensuous creatures, really elegant and impressive.
On the other hand, we've got a Chateau St. Jean Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County Cinq Cepages 1996. Broad, oaky and simple, candied plum-cassis-blackberry fruit that's starting to show cracks, leaving only wood flavors behind: coffee, semisweet chocolate, toast. Not terrible, just jammy-oaky and obvious, a decent burger cab if you don't mind wood in your meat. Wine of the Year, right? I think I paid something like $30 for this before all the hubbub, which struck me as absurdly expensive at the time (I recall the '95 being $20 or so). Now the stuff retails for around $75, and it tastes exactly the same. When people ask me what's wrong with California wine, this is the poster child, a $15 cab selling for seventy-five simoleons. Is this the best we can do?
MŸller-Catoir Riesling Musbacher Eselhaut Eiswein 1998. Dancingly tropical aromatics, pineapple-mango, apricot and rainwater. Quite lush and sweet, but balanced by a bracing supporting acidity. Young and primary, but delightfully fruity and rich. Brilliant, fine and purely tropical, a beauty.
I've been up since eight this morning and I'm starting to fade, so I slide over to the couch and pull a Tony Fletcher, letting my head loll back and allowing the mists of drunken sleepiness to begin to envelop me. I hear distant talk of Armagnac and groan inwardly, the very idea making my head hurt. Suddenly someone is prodding my arm, pushing a glass of something dark into my hand. "Great," I mutter to myself, "Armagnac will push me over the edge and onto the rocks below." Against my better judgment, I take a whiff. And another.
Hey... hey... this Armagnac smells funny.....
In fact, it tastes funny too, kind of sour. I peer through my sleepy haze at the bottle and perk up, for it turns out not to be Armagnac at all, but Barbeito Reserva Velha Madeira Malvasia 1834.
I'm not normally a Madeira fan, but if you're pouring a one-hundred-seventy year old wine, I'll sit up and pay attention. It's a deep walnutty-chocolate color, tinged with orange at the rim. Smells extraordinary, a potpourri of pickled figs*, orange rind, toasted marshmallow, vanilla and molasses, enlivened and couched in a shrill acidic sourness. A sip, and it's a intensely harmonious cacophony of sweetness, sourness, hardness and intense flavor, a truly compelling blend that's not found outside of really good old Madeira. Shrill and hard, sweet and layered, a burst of sweet-sour nutty, pomander-spice notes, a flash of spiritousness, more dark figgy-molasses flavors laced with spicy orange-apricot, then an explosive finish that bursts with all of the above, then slides slowly away, leaving the inside of my mouth agitated, humming like a tuning fork. My god, that's a wild ride. Intense, a bit of a pain/pleasure experience that leaves me feeling rumpled, with a welling up of post-coital melancholy when it's done.
I've been manhandled by a Madeira, and I think I like it. I need a cigarette.
As we're hustling out the door, I cling to the jamb. "Wait!" I cry, "We haven't had any Dressner wines! And only ONE lousy Loire white! And NO Beaujolais! It can't be over yet?!"
But it is. We head down the dark streets to the subway, me smoking furiously and Camblor complaining that his doctor has forbidden him all manners of inhaled burning vegetation. It's a hard-knock life, for us, and the 2-train to midtown has no sympathy for our loss of innocence.