Dinner at Kane's place in honor of his and Lisa's birthdays. This time we have a masterful plan: instead of sitting around all night gazing in peckish wonder while Kane flails around the kitchen like a carp on a dock, the guests will bring food and cook it themselves. We'll eat before midnight! Brilliant! Should've done this years ago!

So we arrive fashionably tardy, toting our shrimp sticks, to find a veritable carnival of protein. Jay has hauled along a weighty slab of roast beast, Camblor has a mountain of chorizo on the stove, Dressner has pork tenderloin ready to grill, and Kane has several score of tiny lamb chops. Okay, so menu coordination isn't our strong suit; at least we'll have food before sunrise. Plus, there's wine, starting with the requisite bubbly stuff, this time a Gran Juvé y Campa Cava Brut NV. Smells of Lemon Pledge, vinyl and creamed yeast. Just a bit fizzy, light petillance, tastes gently creamy and straightforward. A bit uninspiring, but relatively cheerful and inoffensive. Spanish Prosecco?

Next up is Some kind of Cerdon de Bugey that isn't Renardat-Fâche, but I've searched around and the only other one I can find is Patrick Bottex Vin du Bugey Cerdon "La Cueille" NV so I think it must be that one. Fizzy, sweet and simple, Kool-Adey kind of stuff, pleasant and fun but lacking even the easygoing complexity of the Renardat-Fâche. Still, it's a happy quaffing fizz, hard to dislike.

Time for the pro forma California albariño, this time it's a Havens Albariño Napa Valley Carneros 2004. Smells brightly lemonstony, rather quiet neutral-citric aromatics. Tastes taut, shrill and hard, shriekily acidic, much like drinking fruitless watered-down lemon juice. Even in this high-acid-loving crowd this wine draws only grimaces and puzzled frowns. Pleasureless, borderline sadistic wine, cheerful as nails on a chalkboard. You've got to give them credit for structure, but really now, this is from Napa Valley? Harvested in late May, perchance? Someone alert Lou Kessler, we've got counterfeit Napa wine!

Time to break out the real stuff, so here's a Francois Chidaine Montlouis Clos Habert 2002. Medium straw-lemon color, a little more deeply hued than I'd have expected. Happily rich and layered aromatics--tangerine and honey, chalk and quince jam, touch of hay. Tastes calm and broadly spicy, with fine heft and rich flavors. Again, it seems a bit advanced for such a young wine, but it sure tastes good--lovely, gentle and expressive Montlouis, firm at the core with just a touch of sweetness, lots of velvety flesh, minerals and honey and citrus. At one point I even think I get a touch of botrytis, but I could easily be imagining it.

Dressner, as is his wont, is becoming more and more nostalgic for the great old days of the wine internet, and, more specifically, for Steve Plotnicki. "I miss the man," he burbles. "He's knowledgeable, passionate, intelligent and generous--I wish he were here tonight, and you can put that on the internet and I'm not ashamed!" We reassure him that Steve is always with us in spirit, even if he's vanished from the web scene. "Steve and Kay Bixler are the internet's James Dean and Buddy Holly," he murmurs softly. "Taken from us before their time... so much potential, so much promise..." He trails off. A respectful silence settles over the room.

From there we move on to a Blanco Nieva Verdejo Pie Franco 2005. The price of rootstock must be soaring, as this is yet another wine from ungrafted vines, pie franco being the Spanish equivalent of franc de pied, or something like that. Deeply minerally aromatics, chalk and rainwater, light lemon-ginger hints. Closed up tight, all rocks, all deep rockiness, taut and stony and vivid. If I recall correctly, the '04 blossomed after about twenty-four hours of air; I suspect something like that would help here too.

Buster ambles from person to person, assuring each with his eyes that his cruel owners have been starving him nearly to death and could he please please just have a tiny piece of meat, just enough to keep him from collapsing? I know I'm being conned, but I help him out, just a little.

Next up is a Francois Chidaine Vouvray les Argiles 2004. Smells shy, quiet Earl Grey tea and medicinal herb notes, quinine and chamomile with some lean quince. Maybe just a touch of sugar, tangy and full flavored foursquare Vouvray that I don't find particularly inspiring. The midpalate is narrow, choked off, and there's a clumsiness about the wine, it seems awkward and a little severe. I want to like it, and it has some interesting pieces, but they don't fit together into an inspiring whole.

It's time to start on reds, and first up is a Borgogno Barolo Reserva 1961. Medium muddy brown, swampwater color. A sniff, and there's a good whiff of sherry, shoyu and the whispery remnants of old dusty redfruit. Firm central acidic spine with the tattered rags of leafy flesh hanging off it. There's a little bit of life here if you look carefully, but the wine is essentially a mummy, Barolohotep XXIII. "The cork failed," explains Greg. Yes, it did.

Lisa takes a sniff, a sip. "This," she declares, "is an ex-parrot."

Speaking of exes, it's that ex-scientist, Jayson Cohen! What's he doing here? I thought he was off in Kansas or some midwestern fortress of solitude studying philosophy or law or mime or something equally frivolous. I wave across the room, but he doesn't see me, so I pretend I was scratching my head and go back to my glass of Olga Raffault Chinon les Picasses 2002. Smells tight and coiled, pure and focused, but hard to read right now, all taut cran-cherry rockiness, with a touch of pine in the aromatics. Medium-light-bodied, a nimble vivid wine that's rather hard and abrasively tannic right now. Very pure, all potential. Hold, hold, hold.

Still more meat, so we need more reds. Here's a Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Reserve 1978. Medium dark ruby color, touch of brown at the rim. Smells of sweetly muted cassis and crushed brick laced with earth and cedar chest notes. Tastes supple, layered and expressive--firm at the core, velvety-skinned and feathered at the edges. Lovely medium bodied wine, purely Californian, firmly plush and elegant. I haven't had a new-release Mondavi wine in ages, do they still make them this good?

Jayson has spotted me across the room. His eyes narrow and he shoulders his way through the crowd to stand in front of me. I wait. He looks me up and down.

"It wasn't me," he snarls.

"It wasn't?" I ask. "Um, damn."

"You said it was me, you said I shook up the bottle of Giacosa, but it wasn't me, it was VANDERGRIFT!"

Omigod, this was like five years ago, the Axis Wines jeebus at dal Piaz's place. A trickle of perspiration begins to run down the back of my neck. "I do believe you're right," I offer, speaking steadily in a low voice. "I apologize for the mixup, I can't imagine what I was thinking, oh those many years ago."

He leans in. "I know why you thought it was me, yes yes I know why."

"Oh?" I'm trying to stay calm, but my eyes are darting around the room, looking for help.

"It came through me! I was sitting next to you and handed it to you AFTER vandergrift shook it up! THAT'S why you thought I did it!"

"Yes. Yes, that must be it, I'm sure you're right." I'm thinking of breaking for the balcony and locking the door behind me, but I don't actually know if there's a lock on the balcony door, so I freeze. Happily, Jayson seems content to leave it at that, and he withdraws, leaving me shaken and in need of solace, which comes in the form of a Thierry Allemand Cornas Reynard 2001. Oh jeez, this smells supersweet--spicy-dark blackberry-raspberry fruit laced with smoked meat and eucalyptus notes, really pretty stuff, happily aggressive aromatics. Tastes smoky-taut and vivid, almost stern, serious acidity hiding behind some cheerfully taut blackfruit. Very young, still awkward, but really impressive and layered wine with great balance, focus and nervosity. Too young, but it's hard to find fault with drinking it now, it's so good.

Hey, what?

I'm not sure what's going on, but Camblor seems to be taking snapshots of Brad grabbing Greg's nipple and twisting hard. He promises to make the resulting photos available to all on the internet for a very reasonable subscription fee.

Must drive these images out of my brain. Let's see if a Bruno Giacosa Barolo 1989 will do the trick. Hmmm, smells dark and floral-cherried, dirt and rosehips, very earthy smelling, lots of sod mixed with muted cherry. Very earthy, still fairly primary, taut redfruit, perfume and mud, not terribly pleasurable but showing some nice potential. Hold hold.

Suddenly Brad's parents appear at the door, stopping in on their way to Greece the next morning. Brad's Dad actually says "Where's the Chinon? I want some Chinon!" So we've clearly got another datapoint in the nature/nurture debate.

Azienda Agricola Falletto di Bruno Giacosa Dolcetto d'Alba 2004. Smoky tar & raspberry aromatics, with a strange funkiness. Tastes shrill, sour and tannic. This is awkward and not very pleasant, but I can't quite put my finger on what's wrong with it. "What's the matter with this wine?" I ask the room. Greg spins some yarn about it needing time, but it's Jay who hits the nail on the head: "It's milky," he says, and so it is, there's a weird lactic quality that's quite offputting, scorched milk mixed with dark berry and toast.

What up now? Here's a Giuseppe Cappellano Barolo Vecchio Chinato 1947. Okay, this is strange stuff. Look, smells and tastes like herb-infused sweet river mud. My notes say "River mud mixed with molasses and herbal teabags?" Chamomile, sphagnum moss, cocoa dust, awfully strange. Kane, for some reason, keeps saying "yes, hmm, cane sugar, cane sugar." As opposed to beet sugar? He's got his authority voice on, he must've read a pamphlet or a press release or something.

"But wait, this isn't wine," explains Denyse. "It's an apertif, or a digestif--a liqueur. With herbs and cane sugar mixed in."


Then why am I taking notes on it? I'm not a digestif geek. So um, never mind.

Back to the whiteys with a Trimbach Riesling Alsace Cuvée Frederic Emile 2003. Not expecting much from that benighted year, I'm surprised to find rainwatery ripe lemon-apple-vinyl fruit smellies, not exactly typical Fred, but not quite freakish either. A sip, and it's plush enough, with sufficient acidity, broad-tasting and on the loutish side, but with a surplus of fruit for the available structure, like Fred on vacation in the Carribean. Actually rather decent, if you take it for what it is and don't expect it to be a textbook Fred. I can live with it tonight: fat-bottomed Fred, you make the rockin' world go 'round!

A little less comfy-cozy is a Clos Rougeard Saumur Brezé 2002, which has that young Foucault oakiness that drives some impatient Loireheads up the wall, spicy toasted-vanilla notes on top of the stony chenin fruit. Tastes lemony-tart and quite closed up, not showing much now. Hold hold hold.

At some point in the discussion with Brad's parents, it comes out that he took his first date to see 'Evita.' For those of us who know him, this clears up a few things.

Ca'Montini Amarone Classico della Valpolicella 1995. Smells like turpentine. Tastes sour, thin and tart. Not good Amarone, not good wine.

Here's a big fat sweetie, a Château la Tour Blanche Sauternes 2003. Very sweet and viscous, pineapple and white honey. Rather shy of spine and maybe a bit oversweet, but happily over the top and extravagant. Not much botrytis, but robust fruitbowl aromatics laced with vanilla bean work pretty well for me. Big, silly shar-pei Sauternes, the folds of puppyfat all but overwhelming the wine underneath.

At long last we've come to the evening's highlight, that rarest of rarities, a bottle of 1998 Vouvray moëlleux, something few of us were even aware existed and fewer still had ever had the honor to taste. Apparently Joe received this prize bottle as a gift from a well-connected ITB colleague who knew of his love for exotica. So it is with great fanfare that we assemble around a bottle of Clos du Petit Mont Vouvray Moëlleux Selection Balzac 1998. As the bottle is opened we all smile, for it has that telltale rubbery-chemical gardenhose aroma that so marks the cream of the '98 moëlleux. Thin, just a bit sweet, quite unique and charmingly bad-tasting Vouvray. Honoré de Balzac (whose image graces the label) would be proud to be associated with such a wine!

We're out of wine and start poking around in Kane's sample boxes. He's chatting with his charming and attractive neighbor, but shows an alarming sense of priorities and charges across the room to wrest bottles of Australian wine from our hands. "Not that one!" he squeals, "Here, try this! Or this!" He's waving around some remarkably anonymous bottles from Croatia, but we're not decoyed by this shallow ruse. A chant goes up "We want The Innocent! We want The Guilty!" (these peculiar names are what the Oz bottles he's coveting seem to be called).

Instead Kane tries to mollify us with a bottle of Frog's Leap Zinfandel Napa Valley 2003. Um, well, it's chockfull of zinberry goodness. Other than that it's fairly bland, simple black cherry-raspberry fruit, medium bodied and decent, foursquare and unexciting. The kind of wine we knew Kane would fob off on us if we let him.

No more pedestrian zin. What we really want is a wee dram of the Shinas Estate Shiraz Victoria 'The Guilty' 2004 ("The Innocent" is a white wine under screwcap that we don't get to). Medium-dark to dark garnet color, hint of purple at the rim. Smells richly plum-clove-spicy, strangely almost like one of those huge silly California pinot noirs that Dressner was trying to pawn off on us a while back. No, really, it smells like some overripe overwooded west coast pinot noir, that freakass Beaux Fr¸res stuff or something like that. Again strangely, this character isn't nearly as offputting in a bottle labeled 'Victoria shiraz,' where it seems kind of at home. (I guess context is the key issue here, eh? Relabel this 'Willamette Valley Pinot Noir' and I'd probably have a more negative reaction.) Medium well-knit acidity, decently structured, a pool of blackberry-plum fruit dusted lavishly with clove, as well as lighter hints of toast and licorice. It's actually a well composed bigass hootie of a wine, none of the elements are out of large balance, you could probably do a lot worse in the shiraz aisle. It even has a little bit of a finish of sorts, dark inkiness lingering momentarily. For twenty bucks, this does a good impression of far gobbier and pointier wines that cost a lot more. For what it's worth, the bottle claims the vines were planted in 1898.

When Kane drunkenly mishandles the Carvel cake, smushing it sideways into his counter and knocking over the half-full Sauternes bottle, I sense it's time to change islands. And so we bid farewell to the Isle of the Manhattoes, and begin the long trek back to civilization.

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