Following on the heels of February's pedal-to-the-metal Geyserville jeebus, a mixed coterie of NY/NJ/CT winegeeks assemble at storied Les Routiers on Manhattan's Upper West Side for an evening of squabbling and antagonism.
The idea is to follow up on a vertical of Ridge Vineyard's top zinfandel-heavy blend with an exploration of their top cabernet-heavy blend. This whole regimented 'theme' thing is getting a little out of hand, but we'll indulge the odd notion of spending the evening drinking different versions of the same wine for at least one more night in the interest of good community relations.
I arrive to find a heated version of the 'Oldest to Youngest or Youngest to Oldest?' tussle already in full swing, with partisans on each side citing precedent for their preference ("Well, the Chave jeebus was youngest to oldest"--"Yeah, but the Geyserville jeebus was oldest to youngest" and so on). I weigh in on the side of oldest to youngest but, frightened by the passions in evidence, don't wade more than knee-deep into the fray. I wave down the table at Greg dal Piaz and Michelle, there's Jay Miller, Marty Lebwohl and the irrepressible Bradley "Bucko" Kane. Who else is down there? Is that Paul North? I can't tell.
While the combat is raging I snag a Château Soucherie Savennières Clos des Perrieres 1995: A quiet, airy wine, light mineral and quince notes, traces of yellow flowers, nice enough but a little vague. Flavors are decently Savennièrrish but loosely knit and blunted. It's decent enough but diffuse and lacking focus.
Joe Dressner arrives and is immediately grumpy about the seating selection, making everyone play musical chairs. We do everything we can to accommodate the needs of the great man. I move, Jay moves, Marty moves, finally he finds a seat he likes and settles in to the accompaniment of a general sigh of relief.
Then Manhattan's own SFJoe strolls cheerily through the door and Dressner wants to sit near him, so we have to do it all over again. I end up crammed against the far wall on the banquette on the inside of the table, but I do not fret: these are the sacrifices one must make for peace.
Here's a Domaine du Closel Savennières Vieilles Vignes 1990: Smells awfully nutty, hints of madeira, seems a little cooked. Tastes a little cooked. In fact, this wine is a little cooked. Dressner pauses in his soliloquy on how he loves to iron, stands, takes out his wallet and offers an on-the-spot cash refund to Greg. Greg politely declines. Dressner then offers to do his shirts for him (no starch) as recompense. Another polite decline.
Here come the Germans, first a Donnhoff Riesling Norheimer Dellchen Kabinett 2000: After the vague Soucherie this is a pleasure. Bright, rocky nose, crystalline quartz and sweet gardenia. An initial green apple-mineral rush flows into a nimbly focused middle, nervy and crisp. Young, tight and primary but prettily cohesive, a fine package.
Next up is a J.J. Christoffel Riesling Urzinger Wurzgarten Spatlese 2000: Airy lime rind and mineral nose, light flavors of pine and peach bubble up in the midpalate along with just a hair too much sweetness and just a hair too little acidity. A young, slightly out of balance wine with good stuffing, it probably doesn't help that it comes after the more focused Donnhoff.
SFJoe has brought along his usual brown-bagged bottles. Soon Mystery Wine number one is making the rounds...
SFJoe's Mystery Wine (White): Medium lemon-gold color. There's a little cheesy funk at first that blows off, smells of butterscotch, vanilla, baked pear. Tastes rather tired, a faint minerality arises wanly in the midpalate, kicks a few times, then gives up the ghost entirely as the flavors simply stop dead. Over-the-hill chardonnay of some kind; with air the oakiness becomes even more pronounced. Not good. There are a few
Turns out, to no one's particular surprise, to be the Ridge Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains 1993.
Now that we've run out of whites we have to resolve the oldest/youngest order issue, and again fierce partisan fighting erupts. Finally the negotiating committee decides on a compromise: we'll open the oldest bottles, then the youngest, then the middle ones. This satisfies no one and makes very little sense, but that's the way things are in diplomacy today. The combatants scowl at each other across the table.
As we begin, the irrepressible Bradley Kane inexplicably announces that the first round of older Monte Belli is going to taste like his urine stored in Mason jars for five weeks. I'm not sure if he's auditioning for the psychic tasting network or if one of those "points" guys has said these wines have very few "points" or something, but he's entirely off base (although it's reassuring when he does have exactly the reaction promised beforehand).
Ridge Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Cruz Mountains Monte Bello 1980 (100% cabernet sauvignon): Hey, this smells lovely, quiet muted cassis laced with cedar and light herbiness, eventually a trace of menthol flares up sparklike. A sip, and it's soft and lean and expressive, seems fully resolved. Delicate and warm in the piehole, a quiet wine that turns silky in the middle and flows lithely into a long sweet finish. It's in a very good place now, almost no tannin left but enough acidity to give the pleasingly decayed fruit some mouthgrab. Surprisingly elegant, a wine that speaks quietly and low but leaves no doubt that it means what it says.
Ridge Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Cruz Mountains Monte Bello 1976 (no label): Muddy ruby color, ambering at the rim. This is more faded than the '80; smells of dried pizza herbs and earth over a base of bricky muted cassis, in the same mold as the first--feebler, but still kicking. The fruit that is holding nicely around the spine of the '80 is starting to fall away in the '76, leaving a wintry branch of acidity with only a sparse coating of leaves. It's ebbing, but still there's a prettiness and a pathos to it that is appealing.
As mentioned, Kane has been milking his self-fulfilling reaction to these wines, bitching and moaning in spades. "I'm officially OFF the Ridge bandwagon," he announces. "I get lots of more immense pleasure out of Oupia than these Monte Bellos," referring to one of Dressner's Languedoc bottles, but the peculiar phrasing involved in this declaration is what grabs Joe's attention: "What did he say? Lots of more immense pleasure? Is that what he said? What does that mean, lots of more immense pleasure? Is that a trick question, a double negative? Is that even English? Am I being insulted? Is he insulting my wine? I just can't parse this sentence..." Kane grimaces and rolls his eyes heavenward, as is his wont.
Ridge Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon California Monte Bello 1982 (99.99999% cabernet sauvignon, .00001% TCA): Corked, begorrah.
Dressner takes a quiet moment to share with us his concern that Theresa "Regli" Iverson might feel the need to be combative during her upcoming visit to Manhattan. He vows to eschew shallow teasing banter and to show her the true spirit of New York hospitality, even to turn the other cheek with good grace if necessary. Frankly, it gets more than a little mawkish at this point and I'd just as soon turn my attention back to the wines.
Speaking of wines, here's one--a Ridge Vineyards California Monte Bello 1995 (69% cabernet sauvignon, 18% merlot, 10% petit verdot, 3% cabernet franc ). As usual, this wine inspires partisan bickering over the double-digit petit verdot. The vocal anti-verdot contingent shouts out "Too much!" and "Who are they kidding?!" while the hardcore verdotnatics sing its praises and hiss "Shame! Shame!" First nosage gives you a hint of earthy funkiness that none of the other wines possess, but then there's that dark red fruit welling up, lighter this time, and tinged with tobacco and green herbs. Tastes tangy but rather weak in the middle, showing very little stuffing, finishing with a sharp espresso note and a flurry of tannins. This wine has closed down since I last tasted it a year or two ago. It seems awkward, centrally vague and generally chunky, at odds with itself. The peevies love it, but I'm not going to open any more for a while; this needs rest and recuperation.
Ridge Vineyards California Monte Bello 1996 (80% cabernet sauvignon, 11% merlot, 9% petit verdot): The verdotistas grumble that it was 'gutless' to bring the percentage back down to 9%, but I don't buy it for a minute--this is a rich young thoroughbred with a great backbone despite the reduced verdotishness. The darkest and most concentrated of the youngsters, the nose is darkly redblack and espresso-plummy, not effusive but straightforward and rich. Tastes weighty and straightforward as well, with a meaty first impression that is followed by a muscular middle and a warm toasty finish with a bucketful of sandy tannins. Acidity is firm, good mouthgrab, a fairly intense foursquare young wine. Plenty of potential here, give it a decade or two.
In the middle of the frank exchange of views between the p.v. partisans and detractors, Dressner bangs on the table for attention, confesses that he too is a believer in the transcendency of petit verdot: "It's the secret behind the Louis/Dressner house style," he says, "chenin blanc with two percent petit verdot--it's the sole reason I've come to bestride the world of wine like a colossus." There is a stunned silence, and just in time the main courses arrive. Jay tries his best to make light of the stunning news: "That's funny," he quips, "when the food arrives at Minetta the conversation never comes to a halt." There are a few titters, but nervous glances are exchanged all the while. Can this secret be kept now that so many have heard it?
Ridge Vineyards California Monte Bello 1997 (84% cabernet sauvignon, 13% gamay, 3% baco noir): When I last had this wine a couple of years ago I was surprised by its openness. Now I am again surprised by its openness. Will I ever learn? Here's a crisp, spicy package of smells--sweet cassis, light cedar and vanilla, traces of tobacco, a high note of mintiness. Tastes quite approachable, looser and less brooding than the 1996, a middleweight wine with good balance and some very pleasant character.
[NB: It has been pointed out to me that the cepage that I report in the above note may not be correct.] [NB2: In fact, after further investigation, the proportions I report may actually be those of the Scott-Clark Cabernet that I'm sipping as I type. The actual blend of the 1997 Monte Bello slips my mind, and the cat has carried off my notebook because it smells like her beloved Fig Newtons (I had been eating them, and set one down on it). Perhaps I ought to take this as a lesson about the perils of drinking and typing. And of owning cats.]
Ridge Vineyards California Monte Bello 1998 (70% cabernet sauvignon, 24% merlot, 5% petit verdot, 1% cabernet franc): This has calmed down a great deal since its last ignominious blind tasting defeat by a $7 Mexican zinfandel: happily, it no longer has the aroma of smoked sausages. The rather high percentage of merlot is seen as an effort to flesh out the center of the wine, which is rather hard and tart, a wine with a stern middle. Smells of graphite, tobacco and oregano in a base of quiet berry-cassis. With air a light note of fennel makes its presence known, and the toasty notes that are quiet at first begin to assert themselves more forcefully. The wine is lean and rather hard--the aforementioned center is firm but ungiving, and sandy dry tannins smother the finish. This wine, without the fleshy cushion of fruit that most of the others have, is in need of more than the usual amount of time to soften and ease up. The quality of the material comes through, but it's a leaner, tougher expression than most.
Here come the final round of middle-aged wines,--but wait, just as we begin, SFJoe throws a Mystery Red into the mix.
First to reach me is the Ridge Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon California Monte Bello 1985 (93% cabernet sauvignon, 7% merlot): Smooth and mellow to smell, leather and the bowl of an old pipe wrapped soothingly in a noseblanket of sweetly muted red berry and plummy cassis. Tastes soothingly resolved and easygoing, a friendly fleshy-seeming wine that just washes my gob with layers of sleepy fruit that lingers tangily. Very nice, slightly dreamy cabernet that ought to be consumed sooner rather than later.
Now here's SFJoe's Mystery Wine (Red): Big ripe meaty-red nose, sweet cassis underlaid with graphite and laced throughout with oregano. Good character, a little herby but herby's okay. Seems a little older than the '85 just tasted, but has much of the same warmth, although not the same density or sustain, a little loosey-goosey. It reminds me of an early '80s Phelps cab, but it turns out to be a Ridge Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Cruz Mountains 1990. Apart from seeming older than its years, it's showing very well; indeed, just as well as some of the Monte Bellos.
Ridge Vineyards California Monte Bello 1987: Corked, acushla.
Jay whispers it around the table that he has a hush-hush source for the long-vanished 2000 Clos Roche Blanche gamay (94% gamay, 6% petit verdot). Dressner perks up, asks if maybe he can get in on splitting a case with somebody. Deals are made, money is exchanged, contracts are signed, hands are shaken.
Ridge Vineyards California Monte Bello 1991 (85% cabernet sauvignon, 10% merlot, 5% petit verdot)(.375 ml.): No fooling around here kids, this takes the rich smelliness of the '96 up a notch--bitter chocolate and tobacco, low tarry notes, deep cassis-blackberry fruit that I just want to keep swirling and smelling. In the piehole it's still quite young, a broad meaty wash of black olive and smoky red-black fruit comes at you, then deepens and broadens in the midpalate, the dark notes turning towards tarriness and the red fruit feathering out lingeringly on the finish and squabbling with some fine glassy tannins. A striking wine, head and shoulders above the field even in its youth.
Ridge Vineyards California Monte Bello 1994 (73% cabernet sauvignon, 15% merlot, 9% petit verdot, 3% cabernet franc): Quietly redblack-fruity to smell with tarry and earthy hints, aromatically small but promisingly velvety in my nose. Nice blackfruity surge of fruit up front, but there is a lack of acidic grab in the midpalate, an out-of-focus quality that doesn't detract but doesn't delight either. All in all, it seems much like a lighter, more elegant version of the 1996. Competent, well made, uninspiring.
The red wines being finished and dessert arriving, what better way to end the evening than with a glass of Sauternes? Unless of course the Sauternes in question is the De Bortoli Botrytis Semillon 'Sauternes' 1982, in which case you're better off with a sharp stick in the eye. Orange-brown amber color, smells of toffee and caramelized apricots steeped in coconut. Tastes goopy-sweet, baked orange rind and caramel flavors. Perhaps there is botrytis here, but it's drowned in a sea of caramelized rock-candy fruit flavors. This may be too goopy even for Kane. Sugar is keeping it clinically alive, but quality of life is minimal: pull the plug.
Lastly, here's a Muller-Catoir Rieslaner Mussbacher Eselhaut Eiswein 1998: Gonzo rieslanerocious pineapple-ginger-mango-apricot nose, like tropical fruit salad, delightful to sniff at. Medium-sweet, plenty of acidity, a little cartoonish but rich, balanced and delicious. A wonderfully fun, slightly silly wine that has all combatants from all sides smiling.
There is much cantakerous discussion of the wines. Dressner opines that "The '80 was lovely, the '91 was very good, some of the younger ones were promising, but I don't see what all the fuss is about." SFJoe posits that we've had wines that are young and wines that are old and nothing in between, with the exception of the scene-stealing 1991. I am somewhat bemused: as a Ridge fan I had expected more than good, workmanlike wines, which is mostly what we've had. Even wines that I'd enjoyed much more on other occasions (the 95, the 97) seemed either just off form or shut down and impassive.
Frankly, there was more outright pleasure to be had with the lineup of Geyservilles that we ran through a few months ago. Interestingly, the controversy about the increasing amounts of new oak that arose back then didn't appear here at all with these wines, all of which seem to see 100% new, almost entirely American oak. The cabernet-heavy blend holds its new wood much better than the zinfandel-heavy blend.
With these last few notions I realize that I'm wandering onto the thin ice of jumping to conclusions and learning lessons, so I'll stop right now before it's too late.
[SPECIAL BONUS TN: I arrive home to find a box of the 1999 awaiting. After a suitable period of rest, Lisa and I decided to try one out, and I include this note ABSOLUTELY FREE OF CHARGE as my gift to you, the loyal reader.
Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello California 1999 (72% cabernet sauvignon, 25% merlot, 2% cabernet franc, 1% petit verdot): Big ripe blackberry-cassis nose, lots of smoky cedar and vanilla, underlying mineral notes. Smells big and young and oaky. A sip, and there's a dark thrust of hard black fruit sliding into my piehole, spreading out and turning from blackberry towards raspberry redness. The acidic core is sturdy and flexible, the dense fruit seems carved in stone and runs parallel with a generous dollop of smoky oak, finishing with some charcoalish astringency and serious tannin. Quite a young beast here, rich and muscular, very impressive. It's hard to compare it with the others out of context, but it certainly has the concentration of fruit of the 1996, as well as great balance. Very promising, borderline exciting stuff.]