SFJoe cast a weather eye on his cellar. In amongst the shining gruners, rubine pineaus d'aunis and lustrous Muscadets his hawklike gaze took note of wines from another era, forgotten relics of a more innocent time. He hefted a weighty bottle and read the label: "Pahlmeyer, Minty Cuvée, Napa Valley...." A groan escaped his noble lips. "What was I thinking?" he asked himself, picking up another. "Kistler Chardonnay..." was all he had the heart to read. He shook his mighty head. "These seemed like such a good idea at the time, but now... now..."
"I want them OUT!"
And so was born the notion of a Lucullan feast, tables laden with savory meats and uncooked sea animals, umami-laden risotto, the rarest fungi from the Pacific Northwest--all washed down with unwanted, over-the-hill wines, the detritus of a misspent youth.
So Lisa and I arrive at the Old Joe Homestead to find the regular crowd of fringe characters and borderline reprobates hard at work on a Chalone Vineyards Pinot Blanc 1993. It's good that this wine is frosty-cold. Plenty of butterscotchy unintegrated wood, light lemon and yellowfloral hints. Limpid, disjointed, flat and tired in the piehole, bit of a burn on the finish, but I suppose it's as good as a ten-year-old overoaked California pinot blanc could be. The warmer it gets, the worse it seems: this may be a long night.
Oh. It's a Kistler Chardonnay Sonoma County Kistler Vineyard 1992. "Freshly-sawed wood!" exclaims Jay Miller. Yes, and toasted vanilla too. Creamy, balanced and nicely weighty, but tastes very very bad, just stridently oaky and boozy on the finish. Approaching undrinkability.
J. Roty Marsannay Rosé 2000. Hey, where did this come from? This isn't thematic! Ah, I get it. Joe has decided to momentarily depart from the theme in order to have something decent to serve with his inimitable chow. Pale salmon color. Light earthiness, muted cherry and talc, leafy undertones. Not particulary complex up my nose, but pleasant. Tastes quiet, not giving much right now. The acidity is medium-low, not a whole lot going on, kind of boring but just the fact that it's drinkable wine is rather soothing.
It does go very well with Joe's bay scallop sashimi with black chanterelles. Mine is, sad to say, rather undercooked, but there's no time to complain to the host or have it sent back for a few more minutes on the grill. More bad wine! More bad wine!
Mmmm... Mount Eden Vineyards Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains 1995. The label declares that this was made from "A selected, authentic clone." A clone of what, they don't say, but from the taste I might guess Dolly the Sheep. The medium-gold color is worrying. Smells of golden raisins lightly dusted with cinnamon. Oxidized, tart and dead; even more unpleasant than the Kistler. With this wine, true undrinkability is achieved.
Ah, here come the reds. I fidget in my seat, contemplating a break for the door. Courage, courage.
Lane Tanner Pinot Noir Santa Barbara County Sanford & Benedict Vineyard 1992. Medium ruby color. Light hint of acetone, smells of cherry and cola with underpinnings of forest-floor leafiness. Quite light in the piehole, small and spicy up front, meanders through a thin, crisp middle, finishes with more light cherry-cola flavors. Inconsequential, decent enough to sip and generally inoffensive. Phew.
Kalin Cellars Pinot Noir Sonoma County Cuvée Double-D 1992. Good whiff of model-airplane glue on the nose overwhelms some light cherry-tarry aromatics. A sip, and shrill acidity stabs into the underside of my tongue, which clenches up defensively as some cherry-prune flavors slide by. Puckery-shrill and disjointed, finishing with a flurry of road-tar flavors and angry glassy tannins. The rather unfortunate name of this wine brings out a number of similarly unfortunate Pamela Anderson jokes, and the wine seems to be aging with equal grace. "Like drinking prune juice from an old rubber hose," says Manuel. Mistah Camblor--he funny.
Saintsbury Pinot Noir Carneros Reserve 1994. Corked. After the last wine, I'm thinking TCA might be a blessing.
Joe hustles out a striking risotto of crableg and grey morels. He peers around at the wines on the table. "Oh no, we need something good to have with this. Hang on." And he disappears around the corner, returning with a decanter abrim with... what?
Joe's Mystery White: Smells calm and yellow, apple and pear with undercurrents of stoniness. Tastes silky and cohesive, rounded edges with a bright, flexible core, finishes medium-short. Easygoing, pleasantly minerally chardonnay without the trimmings, similar in character to J.P. Brun's perennial thoroughbred. Either it's noninterventionist white Burgundy or (knowing Joe) some extremely iconoclastic New World producer who goes easy on the ripeness and carpentry. Pre-'99 vintage of Scott-Clark Cellars 'Pigeon' Cuvée? (Raveneau Chablis Vaillons 1995).
Back to the reds. No fear. Deep breath. Calm blue ocean, calm blue ocean...
Qupé Syrah Santa Barbara Bien Nacido Vineyard Hillside Select 1995. Medium-dark garnet color. This too has a hint of mucilage, are we finding an inadvertent theme? Underneath that there's some quiet duotone cherry-blackberry fruit, maybe some smoke and black olive if you're looking hard. Low acid, red-black fruit up front fades away in the middle and whimpers into a tiny finish. This seems far older than its label would indicate, but it's got some mildly interesting qualities. I could drink it, in a pinch. "Almost an interesting wine," says Joe.
Stag's Leap Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Cask 23 1984. Medium-dark garnet. Smells of caramel, green olive and dusty tomato-cassis. More caramel... caramel... hey, this wine is cooked! Bummah days, brah, bummah days.
Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Napa Valley 1985. M-DG. Dusty-smelling, dark gravelly blackfruit. Tastes dark and earthy up front, dries out and turns crunchy-brittle in the middle, with some spiky acidity, finishing with a swarm of aggressive tannins. Either over the hill or just not very good to begin with: it seems John Gilman was right about this wine. Well, except maybe the 'crushed ants' bit, I can't speak to that one way or another.
Beaulieu Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley George de la Tour Private Reserve 1986. Dusty, caramel, stewed blackfruit, even more cooked than the Stag's Leap. SFJoe curses the name of a certain retailer who he feels was responsible for the poor storage of both bottles. "God damn those bastards at [RETAILER'S NAME DELETED UPON ADVICE OF COUNSEL]!" he bellows, shaking his fist in the general direction of downtown.
Now some '90s...
Long Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 1990. Medium-dark garnet color. Smells light and simple, red cassis with a touch of cedar. Tastes equally simple, a warm pool of round, low-acid cassis flavor. Still, there's a friendly straightforwardness to the simplicity here, and it's decent enough to sip, in a kind of honest, plodding way.
Pahlmeyer Napa Valley Caldwell Vineyard Minty Cuvée 1990. "Minty Cuvée"? Yes, strangely enough, it's quite minty: this wins the Truth in Advertising Award for this evening. Smells of blackcurrant and cedar down below, vivid high note of mint above. After the limpid Long it's crisper, more lively in the piehole, but it's also rather disjointed and messy. Lots of cedar in the middle along with the persistent mint, finishes with a curious black olive tone that seems to come from nowhere. Manuel gags, makes faces, turns blue and falls on the floor, but it's not so bad, really, if you don't mind a good dose of mint.
I'm not entirely sure why, but the conversation has turned to the vexing question: "How many good looking presidents have we had, anyway?" Kennedy comes up, Jefferson, Jackson... "Woodrow Wilson had a sort of professorial cuteness," I offer. Lisa thinks FDR was kind of hot. We sink into silence, slowly running through the presidential portraiture in our heads.
Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Napa Valley 1990. Smells dark, blackberry-blackcurrant laced with dust and toast. Tastes sweetly blackfruited, smooth and supple, good cohesiveness, nice balance, rich without being overdone, ably restrained. A charming wine that goes very well with Joe's spice-rubbed-and-stuffed pork. Someone (Joe? Luca?) dubs it "A good twenty-dollar wine!" and the cheers go up for California, land of my birth, home of reasonably priced alternatives to expensive imported wine.
Opus One Napa Valley 1990. What's this? Something is wrong. Doesn't seem overtly corked, but something is wrong here. No one is sure what, but we all agree it's not a good bottle. Out it goes, on general principle.
The three intact '90s are all decent and drinkable wines by me, although I wouldn't cross the street in heavy traffic for any of 'em (well, maybe the Montelena...). Those out of the way, here come the '91s...
Rosenblum Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley George Hendry Vineyard Reserve 1991. Smells ripe and warm, berry-cassis infused with dark pipe tobacco and a trace of cedar. A sip, and juicy red fruit washes over my tongue and sets up camp near my uvula, expanding fleshily in the velvety-redfruity middle and ebbing away reluctantly into a lightly tobaccoed finish. Medium acidity, but lots of plush fruit gives it an initial impression of squishiness. Camblor posits that it's "soft, in a macho sort of way..." which sounds about right. It's so cheerful and giving that thoughts of a lack of focus go right out the window. Very nice wine, echt-Calcab.
Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Reserve 1991. Smells of lean blackfruit and minerals, hint of anise, cedar, a calm and collected aromatic package. Tastes solid and focused, straightforward blackfruit slides under my tongue, plumps out lightly in the middle and finishes quietly. An elegant wine of medium-small amplitude, pleasantly cohesive and balanced, in a good place now.
Joseph Phelps Insignia Napa Valley 1991. Spicier-smelling than the Mondavi, more cedar, hints of old bookspine over dusty black and red fruit. Tastes similarly solid, on a larger scale. Supple and dark in the middle, spicy-dusty finish, a medium-large wine with a good sense of composure. Summer-Fun Cthulhu, from his place of honor on the sideboard, gives it two tentacles-up.
The three '91s are all impressive wines, a notch above all the others. The lesson here seems to be either a) '91 was a particularly good year, b) don't hold on to Napa cabernet much past the ten-year mark, or c) both. My thoughts on the matter are interrupted by someone at the other end of the table yelling "You can shave my hairy dick!" What the hell is going on down there? Who said that? Camblor? Things is gettin' weird, chums, things is gettin' weird.
Castel Schwanburg Sudtirol Cabernet dell'Alto Adige 1989. Smells very brown-herby, tobacco and bay leaf, rocks and muted redfruit. Tastes lean and bright but with a nervy, humming intensity that tingles going down. Interesting wine, on the narrow side but with a supple strength at the core. The long finish brings out the brown-herb character again after it had receded into the bricky middle.
Vieux Télégraphe Châteauneuf-du-Pape 1990. Smells like root beer, shoe leather and old berries. Comes at you with some meaty earthy-berry fruit couched in low acid flesh, but quickly turns hollow in the middle, with a disagreeable metallic tang. Soft, round and seems to be coming unglued as it sits in my glass. Maybe one shouldn't age grenache. Or perhaps Jay has been right all along--maybe one shouldn't drink grenache at all.
There's a commotion from the rear room, and Joe hustles out carrying something dark in a decanter.
Joe's Mystery Red. Robustly aromatic: dark earth, blackberry-cassis, smoke, tobacco, shoe polish. Equally rich in the piehole, matte, chewy gobfeel, layers of dark flavor. A big, rich wine, it comes right at me with a wave of dark smoky fruit, fills out and striates in the middle almost to the point of having to be wrestled under control, then finishes earthy and quite tannic. A Bruce L. WOW! (Licensed trademark used pursuant to intellectual property lease agreement with Bruce L. WOWbernetics, a Netherlands Antilles Limited Liability Holding Company.)
Kane keeps carrying on about how this wine must be the '89 Cos d'Estournel. I'm not sure if it's a metaphor or just an enthusiastic guess, but sure, I'll buy that. Whatever it is, it's good. Joe's eyes narrow to slits: "Just listen to the wine, Brad," he snaps. It is in fact quite a talkative wine: rich, dark, dense, a meaty mouthful, really super. When it's revealed as the Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 1987 there is general surprise. Not just good wine for California, actual first-rate wine. Who'd 'a thunk it? Are these guys still making wine this good, or is this just a fluke?
Huet Vouvray Clos du Bourg Moëlleux 1985. Smells of lemon, hint of quince, touch of wool, trace of pollen, more lemon, chalk. Medium sweet, rather primary, seems hard up front, swells perceptibly in the middle, gaining flesh, then glides into lemon-stony finish. Bright, coiled and snappy-taut, strikingly young and fresh. One of the oldest wines on the table, still a babe in arms. Don't touch for a decade at the very least.
F.X. Pichler Gruner Veltliner M 1998. Quiet poached pear and yellowflower aromas, with a good dusting of white pepper. Big, ripe and easygoing, a weighty wine that spreads out in my mouth like a flood tide. A bit unfocused and broad, but easy to like and smooth to drink.
The contraband Cohibas come out. The contraband Armagnac comes out. No wait, it's not Armagnac, it's Cognac of some kind. "Cognac from the airport," Joe explains. I nod, feigning comprehension.
What's this, more reds? Okay, whatever, it's a Fourrier Chambolle-Musigny Les Gruenchers 1998. Coiled, bright and pure, a crystalline stream of cherry-earthy fruit. Surprisingly open, intense and delightful. Oohs and aahs all around.
Weingut Brundlmayer Gruner Veltliner Langenloiser Berg Vogelsang Spätlese 1983. Yep, it's old gruner all right: the yellow fruit has muted into a baked-pineapple tone, the floral aromatics have a suggestion of pressed flowers, but it's still quite lively. Light sweetness, very flavorful, quite decent.
It's over. I've managed to get out the door still able to walk in a (relatively) straight line! Maybe pouring dead wines is the key to surviving Joe's parties after all.
Jeff, Lisa and I meander chattily down to Grand Central, where Jeff grabs a subway and we jump in a cab home. Only the next morning do I find out that, at the very moment we passed the door of the station, four hundred and fifty women were inside sprawled naked on their backs on the cold marble floor, working with that naked public photo guy (for whom Lisa has sprawled naked in past events).
My god, what a title I could've come up with if we'd only gone inside! I can see it now... I can see it now...
Okay, maybe I can't. I'll have to work on that... naked women... must work them in somehow.