They got me while I slept.

Or was it the nice man at the airport with the flower?

My smile is bright now, my eyes fixed and glassy.

THE LEADER sees all and knows all. He will come at the end of days and carry us away to his Chalet on Comet Harlan-Bopp, where we will drink for all eternity only the most glorious of California wines. I'm hoping we can skip the genital-removal part, but we cultists must take the good with the bad.

Would you like a pamphlet?

Come, let me tell you how I came to enlightenment.

Yes, that's right, walk right this way, don't be afraid, it only hurts a little bit at first...

It all began on the evening of February the eighth. Mr. Steve Plotnicki summoned potential disciples from near and far to join him upstairs at Savoy, one of Manhattan's cultiest restaurants, for a small dinner by the fire, just a few honored guests and a dozen or so of California's most auction-worthy wines. Frankly, I didn't know what the heck to expect. Was this going to be an evening of being strapped to the oak rack and having fruit-bombs hurled at me? Was I going to be forever spoiled for anything but overblown New World monstrosities? Or would it all just be revealed as a colossal marketing trick, another Naked Emperor or 'Wine of the Year'-type practical joke? Ever willing to play the guinea pigs and gallantly throw our bodies into the line of fire, Lisa and I gird our loins and, whispering the secret name of the Aztec feathered-grape god ("Ikcintolp!") to the maitre'd, we are escorted into the dark heart of cult central.

Once safely inside the sanctum sanctorum, the identities of the other initiates are revealed: there's Peter Hirdt bowing worshipfully before a bottle of Shafer Hillside and suave Bob Ross making obeisance to the Bryant Family totem. The WLDG's own SFJoe is powerlifting the weighty Sine Qua Non 'Against the Wall' bottle deftly with both hands, Oleg O. is gently caressing a bottle of Harlan Estate with a faraway look in his eye, and our visiting e-host and Guest of Honor Robin Garr has his Palm Pilot greased and ready for action. At the center of it all is Steve P., tonight's ringmaster, smoothing out the details of stemware and decanters with the unobtrusive staff, passing little samples of deep red liquid right and left, shaking hands and working the kinks out of the menu, a whirlwind of activity.

After some minor trouble with Oleg's peculiar noncarnivorous tendency is smoothed over gently ("You'll eat it and LIKE IT!" I hiss happily) we all sit down to what the evening's program promises will be an exquisite repast.

We start easing into the shallow end of the cult pool, with Lokoya 'Wild Yeast' Chardonnay 1995: Uh, oh. There's trouble in cult city. Medium lemony-gold-tan color. Smoky flinty hints, butter-pear-caramel-butterscotch nose, big and rich; pear-oak syrup on the palate, with decent acidity, some crispness there, but viscous & butter-vanilla creamy, not a style of wine I like at all. Could be any one of two dozen big-name, overoaked Cal chards -- slap a Marcassin label on it and it's Marcassin, or many others. This may be a long night.

Joe points out that it's cruel, unusual and possibly actionable to start us off with California chardonnay and have no dump buckets, so receptacles are quickly brought. And quickly used.

Once more unto the breach we go, with Guigal Condrieu La Doriane 1998: Well, it's not California, and I'm not sure it's culty, but after the chard it's a welcome relief. Pale gold color, with an intensely tropical, floral nose, pineappley and with a vague herbiness, almost like lavender. Smells like Provence says Steve. Smells like Maui, says me. Slight creaminess in the mouth, there's noticeable wood, but the fruit isn't smothered at all and shows through clearly. This is a new wine to me, but Joe offers that it's noticeably less oaky than previous vintages. That's good. Long florid finish, a nice white that pushes the oak envelope but still works for me.

After we finish with the whites and our tasty and tart grilled endive with apples and pancetta, the places are cleared and we dive gamely into some culty reds.

Sine Qua Non 'Against the Wall' Red Table Wine 1996: Apparently mostly syrah, although the bottle just says 'red table wine.' A dark wine, with a big, lush nose of smoked meat and leather, dark red fruit and plenty of smoky oak. I had my qualms about this one after the horrorshow that was the 'Twisted and Bent,' but this dark red smoky syrah fruit is much better at handling the full-bore oak dosage than that poor sad white was, shrugging off a good deal of planking and emerging on the palate despite the attempted quercicide. A dense, meaty wine with some good dark red gamy character that can't be entirely buried under the wood.

Beaux Freres Pinot Noir Yamhill County 1994: [Quip Interlude: Steve: "Now there's a gigantic pinot!" Oleg (shyly): "Why thank you!" General groan.] My first reaction is "This is pinot? Are you sure?" Reticent plummy nose with hints of leather & menthol, takes a bit of swirling to coax up into my nostrils. Some ripe smoky, plummy syrahesque fruit on the palate, dense, but closed and fairly tannic. I can't make this one give up its culty goods, swirl and peer though I may it just won't open up, and it's mostly a puzzlement to me. Not much like any pinot I've had, at any rate. Are we sure this is pinot? Really? C'mon, now...

Turley Cellars Zinfandel Hayne Vineyard 1997: My Turleyphile proclivities are well-known, so, disclaimer out of the way, I will proceed to gush. I've been a little ambivalent about some of the 97 Turley zins, finding problems and lack of purity of fruit in a few of the other bottlings, but this wine reminded me why I love their top zins. Beautiful, explosive pure black-cherry & raspberry zin-essence aromas flood the glass, light and pure and rich, I keep some in my glass for the rest of the night to go back and smell once in awhile. If you'd told me that a dry wine could hold 17.1% alcohol and not show heat I'd have said something about selling me a bridge, but this wine does it ably, with just a tiny touch coming across at the very tail end of the finish. In the mouth it's bright, focused and crisp and has a surprisingly nimble and vivid mouthfeel, beautifully balanced, richly flavored, seamlessly integrated and purely zinny, with a long, long raspberry finish. Wins the Thunderbird Prize in a runaway.

Okay, after a cold shower, a cleanup and a few bites of a very nice grilled sturgeon with collards, hominy and green olive butter, I'm ready to proceed once more.

Matanzas Creek Merlot Sonoma Valley 1992: Medium garnet color, a bit lighter than the other wines; interesting nose--muted red fruit with a stewed tomato-green herby edge. A taste, and dark berry-cassis fruit comes up fast but fades away equally fast, leaving a bit of crisp hollowness before some strong dry tannins kick in. This seems a little out of whack. Shrug.

Harlan Estate Red Table Wine Napa Valley 1993 (75% cab s., 18% merlot, 7% cab f.): Mmm... this smells nice. Ripe smoky cassis with hints of leatheriness and a beguiling soft cooked-green-veggie/oregano note, complex and layered-smelling, a little different every time you stick your nose in the glass. The red fruit is smoky but not overtly oaky, and the flavors blend together in a seamless and balanced fashion. This is a large wine, but it has deft balance and delicacy as well as restraint. There is some consternation among the more hardened Harlunatics that this apparently 'lesser' vintage is showing as well as it is. Peter for one looks like he's going to tear his hair, as he gave up on this one based on earlier tastings and got rid of his bottles. I dunno much about how it's supposed to taste, but tonight this is a pretty and richly balanced wine, complex and muscularly butch without being flashy, although I am slightly disconcerted by the extent to which Lisa's eyes have widened upon tasting it. Boy, all our fragile household budget needs is for her to develop a jones for Harlan to go along with her peculiar fascination with Yquem. Anyway, the wine finishes beautifully, long and darkly cassisfruity. Very good stuff.

Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Hillside Select 1994: Silky and rich-smelling, a sweetly aromatic wine. Smaller in amplitude than the Harlan and without the long, long finish, but rich and seductively blackfruity with nice hints of espresso and minerals. Pretty blackcurrant fruit laced with balanced smoky oak that goes down oh so smoothly. Rich and promising, a siren of a wine that wins you over with finesse and matches beautifully with the braised short ribs with farro, rutabaga & pickled horseradish that we're having now. I will say 'silky' again, because that's my strongest impression, although that word doesn't quite do proper credit to the tensile strength of the black fruit. I think this is my favorite of the cabs, although it's a photo finish with the Harlan.

Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Hillside Select 1995: A bit bigger than the 94, a bit less finesse, a bit chunkier and not quite so smoothly aromatic. Still, despite the rough edges, very rich and full-flavored with lots of the same kind of dark coffee-and-mineral blackcurrant fruit. There's a bit of creamy oak vanillin noticeable and some rough tannins. Pales a bit next to its smoother older sibling.

Dalla Valle Maya Napa Valley 1993 (55% cab s. 45% cab f.): This one has a nose that isn't giving much up, but what it's giving is very interesting--quiet cassis, cedar and a slight piney herbiness. After going through the other wines, this strikes me as having a different kind of aromatic profile, softer, less red- and black-fruity, more brown cedar & herb-tinged, quiet and layered. It's a bit shy, but I keep coming back to it to find it subtly shifting and developing. Fairly lean, probably the leanest of the cabs, with good structure, but seems closed. I'd give this more time, I would.

Bryant Family Cabernet Sauvignon Napa 1996: Loads of ripe candy-fruity plum-tinged cassis fruit, dense and rich and sweet-smelling, cassis-plum reduction sauce with a hint of chocolate stirred in. Rich and dense and thick, with decent structure, but candied and simple. Overdone, monolithic, and easily the weakest of the lot--frankly, more what I was expecting from these 'Cult' cabs in general (and was quite happy not to find until now), a big, overblown simple fruit-candy bomb.

We sit and sample and pour a bit more over the cheese platter, and along comes a Quinta do Noval Vintage Porto 1967 to tickle our fancy. Fairly dark muddy garnet, only slightly browning. Still looks fairly young. Open, pretty and muted berryfruit tinged with toffee--medium bodied and balanced with some nice firm acidity--red-brown berry settles on your palate like feathery-soft ash. Elegant and long.

And hello there, here's a Château Montrose St. Estephe 1966 that seems to be lost. Where's your home, boy? Must be a stray. Let's see... Medium ruby fading a bit towards amber, just bricking at the rim. Soft, slightly murky muted earth and cassis nose. Seems a bit faded and light and softly earthy after both the big cabs and the port, but despite some thinness there's some interesting earthiness and feathery-leathery faded fruit here with the same curious hint of cardamon that I remember from the last time I had this. Faded, but interesting, if not overtly pleasurable, at least in the shape my palate's in after the pummeling it's taken so far tonight. Go home now boy, run along.

In the post-dinner afterglow we all get down to some geek talk about the best wines we've ever had, and, as I had feared, Lisa mentions the Harlan, an odd glow in her eyes. I gulp a few times.

I found that the cabs in general were less oak-abused, more balanced and, with the exception of the Bryant, more complex than I'd expected from so-called Cult cabs. Only the Lokoya and the SQN were clearly and seriously overoaked, the Lokoya fatally wounded, the SQN only winged. The Harlan and the 94 Shafer were easily my favorite cabs, and, of course, I dug the Turley Hayne big time and just couldn't put the Noval down at the end of dinner. Some really lovely wines.

What was particularly nice about this well-managed tasting was that we had some good time to spend with each bottle and a good amount of each wine to work with, a blessing to my slow palate to be able to revisit, repour, try and try again until what the wines were saying came into focus. The food was truly delightful, delicately seasoned, complex and interesting, really a memorable meal, and all credit goes to Steve for choreographing things with such aplomb.

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