I hate flying.
Here I am six miles up, folded double, crammed into a seat that would cramp a twelve year old Laotian girl, staring blearily at a tiny screen that's playing godawful second-run movies (I'm mentally adding Ben Affleck to my 'Third Rail Performer' list for this Daredevil crapulence) while attempting to drink myself into a merciful stupor with five dollar splits of industrial byproduct airline wine.
Urf. Do I really want to take a note on this wine?
Then again, I've got time and brain cells in need of killing... here goes nothing...
Gossamer Bay Cabernet Sauvignon California 2000. Light cherry cough-syrup aromatics, smells of nothing much at all. Tastes glossy-candied in a very light way, but also anemically underfruited and soft. There is an odd burnt-bark funk that persists on the finish when the cough syrup flavor has faded, Robitussin with wood chips. Thin, vapid and redolent of processing, but under the circumstances strangely drinkable, in the sort of plastic-industrial sense that airline food is "edible." That is to say: if that's all there is, it can be consumed without gagging. Plus, it's in screwcap, which is always a relief. Plus plus, it's making me blurry and slightly less aware of the eleven hours of just-bearable discomfort that I'm enduring on the long, dreary flight from Newark to Honolulu.
Home at last. My parents are not winegeeks, but to commemorate our first night back in the islands they've put together a diagonal of South Eastern Australia's finest export plonk:
Rosemount Shiraz South Eastern Australia (Diamond Label) 2000. Medium-dark garnet at the core, browning noticeably out to the rim. Curiously advanced aromatics, shoyu and bay leaf right on top, plummy-leathery core, hints of sawdustiness. Fairly low acid, turns plummier in the middle but holds on to that leathery-shoyu spiciness, finishes quickly and quietly. Weird but not actively unpleasant.
Rosemount Shiraz South Eastern Australia (Diamond Label) 2002 (magnum). Deep purply-red. Smells much simpler than the '00, rather medicinal plum-jam aromatics laced with strange cinnamon note. Tastes rather jarring, spiky acidity, plum and blackberry-candy fruit. Finishes with an unpleasant astringency followed by a thrust of bitterness. Not good at all. Pity, as this used to be a fairly reliable cheap quaffer: off the cheapie list it goes. Tasted twice, with consistent squinchy faces.
Yellow Tail Shiraz South Eastern Australia 2002. Medium-dark garnet. Smells like plum candy rolled in shoe polish, tastes like purple pleather. Simple, slightly medicinal and rather like a chemistry project, with a touch of sweetness giving an odd candy-fakey edge to the blackberry-plum fruit. The finish (if you can call it that) is short and bitter. What the hell? I had expected something jammy and fun and fruit-punchy, but this is pretty lame. Slightly sweet, grapey and fake-tasting. I hear the kids love this stuff, but frankly, I'd take the Gossamer Bay from the plane over this. Of course, this doesn't cost five bucks for a .187, does it? Still, this is the best we can do with mass-market wine? Eeegah.
Marquis Philips Shiraz South Eastern Australia 2002. Ow. It hurts to drink this. Ow. Ow. Please... make it stop... for the love of god... the pain....
Jacob's Creek Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon South Eastern Australia 2001. Candied plum-blackberry aromatics, trace of tarriness. Glossy, soft and simply ripe, with a sprinkling of plum-pepper spiciness. Not very interesting, but tonight my standards are collapsing like last night's souffl ; this is at least quaffable and is by far the best of this lot.
Vowing never to face another batch of wines like this one, we leap into my folks' Volvo ("boxy but safe") and weave our way towards Kahala Mall to that redoubt of fine wine, Long's Drugs. Drugstores in Hawaii seem to have a peculiar amount of very serviceable wine, strangely enough, as do supermarkets. We gather up what we can and, once the folks are asleep, have a second Welcome Home dinner, just the two of us.
Michel Redde Sancerre 2000. Smells of lime & rocks. Tastes of lime & rocks. Crisp, bright and tart, a limey-rocky wine, duotonal and fairly simple but enjoyable enough for what it is. Don't look for complexity, but it's fresh and bright and cheery enough.
Château Sociando-Mallet Haut-Médoc 2000. Dark garnet, purpling at the edge. Smells very minerally, pure graphite over a blackberry-cassis base, trace of black olive woven in there as well, with air some cedar and tobacco hints emerge. Elegant and richly stony; dark and tightly wrapped, very young, very tight. Not quite as structured as in some years, a skosh lower in acidity than I'd expect from this house. Turns darker and plummier as it heads into the finish, which ends with an earthy plum-blackberry hum. Not a terribly expressive wine at this point, but there's loads of potential here. It's also nice to see the price coming back down.
Penfolds Cabernet-Shiraz South Australia Bin 389 2000. Quite startlingly oaky at first, coconut and vanilla, smells like suntan lotion. Oh wait, I'm sorry--make that "sunscreen." Blackberry-plum aromatics, light trace of graphite minerality underneath. A big, glossy-ripe wine that's fairly dense but decently crisp as well, without the spiky acidity that has plagued several recent vintages. Quite tannic, but reallly a very decent wine if you don't mind gratuitous overoaking. Hold for five years, then drink.
Quinta do Infantado Porto 1992. Medium muddy ruby. Smells of earth, crushed brick and muted raspberry. Medium-sweet, with a matte mouthfeel. Smooth, small and diffuse, an easygoing, unfocused wine that is flavorful and correct but rather genially vague as well. I'm just tickled that we can find Infantado port at Long's Drugs in Honolulu. What a world!
Ahhh, that's better. The taste of Australian plonk successfully erased, we flop into our hastily shoved together twin beds and are asleep within minutes.
At first light we're off to do some snorkeling at Pupukea, where we encounter a pair of amiable sea turtles and I semi-inadvertently commit at least one violation of the Federal Endangered Species Act. Whoops, my bad.
North shore shave ice with azuki beans at the place down the street from Matsumoto's. More driving. We stop at a place in Makiki to engage in the happy crapshoot that is wine shopping in Hawaii. Once done, we race home for a quick chicken katsu plate lunch with our newly acquired treats.
Buena Vista Sauvignon Blanc Lake Country 2001. Pale straw color. Light lemon cooler aromatics. Tastes softly creamy, characterless and forgettable. What wine was this again? Whatever, never mind.
Koura Bay Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough Awatere Valley Whalesback 2002. Pale straw color. Just reeks of green chiles, underneath that there are flashes of white grapefruit and yellow apple. Crisp, bright-tasting and pleasantly citric, but the taste too is dominated by green chile pepper flavors. Odd and rather wacky, but if you're not put off by green chiles it's perfectly likeable.
Joseph Drouhin Nuits-St.-George 1993. Medium ruby color, browning lightly at the rim. As with most older bottles bought at retail in Honolulu, storage is suspect. Good whiff of horsiness right up front, followed by cedar, light horehound and muted cherry-clove hints, with a crushed brick stoniness coming along after all the rest. It's a light, earthy wine that seems fully resolved, loose, lean and feathery-tart. Almost tanninless and fading quietly away, but still some pleasure here. Finishes on a cedary sweet note. Drink up, drink up.
Château de Violon Sauternes 2001. Corked, begorrah. So romantic, spoiled wine, oh so romantic.
My brother and sister-in-law take us for burgers at some place near the Ward Warehouse, then off to see 'The Matrix Reloaded.' Shiny. Loud. Big comedown from the first one. We get home late, disgruntled and miserably sober, so we raid the above-the-fridge rack for whatever unopened plonk might be hiding there.
Which turns out to be a J. Lohr Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles 'Seven Oaks' 2000 (magnum). The name isn't terribly promising, is it? Smells like nothing much at all, vague blackberry and black raspberry traces, touch of mintiness. Tastes smooth and rather neutrally redfruity. No finish except for some burnt-toast flavors (those seven oaks?). Medium-bodied, soft and simple, but inoffensive and genial. You could probably do a lot worse, a drinkable burger wine.
One more, a HRM Rex Goliath Giant 47-Pound Rooster Cabernet Sauvignon Central Coast NV. Smells lightly vegetal, green herbs, watery cassis with a hint of pencil shavings. Thin, herbal and unimpressive. Further proof of Coad's Third Law of Vinodynamics: The Quality of Any Given Wine Has an Inverse Relationship to the Wackiness of Its Label.
Lastly, a Fonseca Porto Bin 27. Dark and grapey, vintage character-styled, hints of shoe polish on the nose. Smooth black raspberry flavors well up in the middle, underpinned with dark smokiness. Decently rich, nice balance, not a great deal of character or substance, but a well-made and very serviceable wine that does its job. Medium-sweet, medium-bodied, pleasantly light on its feet, quite flavorful in a small way.
And so to bed.
At first light we take the corked Sauternes back to the place in Makiki, where we are told "This wine is fine, that's the way Sauternes is SUPPOSED to taste."
Wheeee! Number two on the alltime list of 'Fibs Retailers Tell'! How can you respond to that old chestnut other than "Uh, no, it's not." [At this point I should make it clear that this place is not a corner liquor store, but a high-end shop specializing in well-aged Bordeaux, Burgundy, etc. I'm just glad we weren't trying to return a corked bottle of the La Tâche or Pétrus that they've got prominently displayed.]
The manager seems to be of the opinion that we're small, slightly retarded children. "What is it about the wine that you don't like?" he asks in a Romper Room tone, smiling patiently.
"Errr, the fact that it's corked...?" I offer. He stares blankly at me, blinking like a gecko, the picture of polite incomprehension.
This tack doesn't seem to be working. I try "Tainted...?" "Spoiled...?" "TeeSseeAyyy...?"
Lisa, wondering if there's a language barrier of some kind, launches into her I've-got-an-unusual-sensitivity-to-TCA speech, but all she receives in return is the smile you'd give to a troublesome eight-year-old who demands thirds on ice cream. Still seeming to miss the point, he asks what other wine we'd like to have instead. Lisa's left eyelid begins to twitch ominously as she carefully explains that all we want is another bottle of the same wine. He is puzzled by this, but accedes pleasantly enough. As we leave I whisper "Do you think we're the first people to EVER bring a corked bottle back?"
Our preternatural sense of winegeek entitlement offended, we decide to head over to Randy 'Bucko' Buckner's favorite wineshop near Kaimuki, where we get a fifty-fifty split on the staff. I like to be left alone when I'm shopping, but Lisa invariably attracts the attention of the hard-sell types (with whom she likes to toy), and today is no exception. She waits until he's tossed out a few pompous and unsupportable claims, then bites him on the neck and sucks the juices from his body, leaving behind only a lifeless husk.
Fortunately, there's a younger guy who's a hardcore geek over at the register, and we chat briefly about our mutual fondness for Musar; he has some firm opinions on the white, which I've very little experience with, but just knowing there's another specimen of homo vitis monomaniacus in Honolulu is like water in the desert.
Quick trip to Manoa Marketplace for a manapua sampler, riotiously tasty with a Huet Vouvray Petillant 1997. Glorious infant, with decades ahead of it. Screamingly brilliant, beautiful wine. I can't even take a note, I just break down in tears. Every time I somehow manage to rationalize not buying wine, I think of this, and come to my senses. Why didn't I buy more of this? Why, god, why? And why is this their last bottle? How come every time I find something wonderful at a ridiculously cheap price it's always THE LAST FRIGGIN' BOTTLE?!
Oh, and here's a Mas de Guiot Cabernet Sauvignon-Syrah Vin de Pays du Gard 1999. Smells lightly yeasty, cherry candy and hints of wet dog. Very easygoing, low-acid and fleshy. The middle is a bit weak and there isn't much of a finish, but very open & likeable. Neither cabernet nor syrah dominates, a redder... no, no wait, cabernet dominates. There's a lot not to like here, vagueness, lack of characer, but I like it anyway. Pleasant to slurp, tangy red cab fruit suffused with syrah spiciness.
Then we're off to hike up to Manoa Falls, which, when we finally arrive, is frickin' FENCED OFF! There's some litigously-phrased sign about some rocks falling a few years ago; it seems the fear of lawsuits has ruined yet another simple pleasure. So I just jump the fence and swim in the falls anyway, fuck 'em, let 'em arrest me for pond-swimming. There's a guy there from UH catching crayfish, he doesn't pay any more attention to it than I do. Next will they fence off the beaches for fear of coral-cut lawsuits?
I am disgruntled by the lost innocence of my youth. Fortunately, there's riesling to be had at home.
Kurt Darting Riesling Pfalz Ungsteiner Bettelhaus Kabinett 2001. Pale straw color. Smells of tart yellow apple, minerals and lemon. Tastes bright and robust, big and sweet and quite tart. A tightly-wrapped wine of some heft that needs time to loosen up.
Kurt Darting Riesling Pfalz Dürkheimer Michaelsberg Kabinett 2001. Pale straw color. Smells of tart yellow apple, minerals and lemon. Tastes bright and robust, big and sweet and quite tart. A tightly-wrapped wine of some heft that needs time to loosen up.
These two wines are tasted side by side, and initially I geek out and convince myself that there are differences between them, but a few glass switches and some soul searching convince me that I'm just making it up: they smell and taste exactly the same. They also both go very well with our Ba Le sandwiches.
Finally, here's the stupid Château de Violon Sauternes 2001. Pale lemon-straw color. Smells of plastic wrap and lemon cream, tastes light, lemony, simple. Thin, semi-pleasant and delicately sweet, a lean, Sauternes LiteȘ kind of wine that strolls across my palate without leaving so much as a single footprint.
We had a backup prepared just in case, a Le Clocher du Pavillon Sauternes 2000. (A Monsieur Touton wine: I had been under the impression that Monsieur Touton was a marketing creation, but recently David Lillie assured me the gentleman exists. I feel much better now.) Light vanilla, honey and orange/lemon rind hints. Light, easygoing and sweetly supple, a simple wine but a likeable one. Frankly, hard to beat for $10 for a .750. On the soft and light side, no botrytis to speak of, but some good density and layerings of flavor, more of a whole than the Violon, which is simple and one-dimensional; this has at least two dimensions and spreads out amiably on the tongue. Pretty sweet for its small frame, but with enough structure to get by. Drinkable cheap Sauternes: bravo, Monsieur Touton, you sly rogue!
At first light we're off on a 'round-island trip up to the North Shore. We stop for picnicables in a little liquor store in Hawaii Kai whimsically named 'The Town Pump' and pick up a bottle of Domaine de la Pépière Vin de Pays du Jardin de la France 2001. Nice to see that the red Muscadet craze has reached Honolulu. Airy nose, not-quite-dry plaster, cranberries, green herbs and nettles. Nettles? Garans. Crisp, lean and very tangy, a nervy little wine that's still velvety-skinned and soothing. Not an ounce of fat on its frame, all taut cran-cherry, plaster and underbrush. Nice wiry stuff, goblovers and Kaneites beware. (NB: Connell assures me that the '02 is even better.)
Then a Domaine Clavel Coteaux du Languedoc 'Le Mas' 2000. This has recently cropped up all over the place for around seven bucks, and it's a steal at one and one-fifth the price. Quiet aromatics, plaster, mostly, with some quiet redfruit underneath. But a sip, and it's a loose, fleshy little mouthful, crushed brick and muted raspberry fruit, shy-tasting and warm, with a surprisingly layered anise-leathery finish. Small and yielding, a wine to drink tonight, soothing gamay of the Languedoc. Sure, it's a bit dilute and has no delusions of grandeur, but it's honest and real and oh so supple.
For dinner we go to some place called 'The Bistro' in either Aina Haina or Niu Valley, I forget which. The food is good, but the place is one big boxlike room; it's crowded and the acoustics are so bad that we can barely hear each other. But they have an '01 Champalou Vouvray on the wine list, which warms me cockles. Sadly, I've forgotten my notebook so I can't come up with anything other than vague, partiallly remembered generalizations, and you, the discerning reader, deserve better than that.
At first light we're off for some more snorkeling at Hanauma Bay, which has been turned into something like a theme park. I guess it's necessary, as the place was being ruined by endless tourbusfuls of grabby boneheads, but it's still weird to have to watch a movie about conservation to be allowed to go to the beach. Anyway, we see another even friendlier sea turtle, which must surely be a good sign. I snorkled and SCUBAed in these waters for ten solid years and never saw one single turtle; we're here a week and have seen three. They must be coming back, back from the brink. Good, very good. Maybe we haven't fucked up everything around us irreparably.
We go out to Indigo, one of our favorite trendy/funky (trunky?) places downtown. Waaayyyy downtown, in what used to be the red light district down by the harbor but is now marginally more gentrified (although the occasional massage parlor is in evidence as we walk by). It's a strange feeling, going out to a semi-swanky dinner on the streets that I used to drive slowly through at age sixteen to sneak furtive glimpses at the hookers and porn theaters. Kind of like Times Square these days, without the neon and Disney. Our old tie-guy Chris Lord isn't maitre d'ing there anymore, but the food's still good and the wine list is still decent, although lacking in the offbeat choices it used to feature (Portuguese reds, Loire whites, etc.).
At some point we may have had an Etienne Sauzet Puligny-Montrachet 2000. Pale straw. Smells of flint and lemon, light vanilla, minerals. Crisp but fleshy, easygoing and loosely wrapped, decently unmarred chardonnay. Light pear, not brutally woody, flint and smoke notes. Good, easygoing Puligny. Light and lemony, uncomplicated.
Then we go home and get into the hearty stuff once more.
Bérail-Lagarde Roque Sestière Carte Noire Corbieres 2000. Pale straw. Smells weird, light pineapple, pear and sawdust hints along with an odd curry-powder streak. Tastes sawdusty, woody and disjointed and just not very nice at all. There's a crisp acidic spine, but the wine is clumsy and broad, there's too much wood and a burn on the finish. Blech.
Beringer Chardonnay Napa Valley Private Reserve 1996. AaaaaAAAAACKKKK! Hhokkk-hhokkkk ffuhfuhfuffhh ffff hhck hhck. Mn. Pluh.
Château d'Armhailac Pauillac 2000. Medium-dark garnet. Smells very toasty-oaky, smoke and dark blackberry/blackcurrant fruit underneath, tar & licorice on the finish. Hard and tight, with fuzzy-rough tannins. Has lots of stuffing I guess, good intensity, but is too knotty now to be very pleasurable. Wait a few decades, retry.
Justin Winery Paso Robles 'Isosceles' 1999. From the pre-jingoistic-cork era. Somewhere between medium-dark and dark garnet, purpling lightly at the rim. Sweetly aromatic, ripe blackberry-cassis fruit, ripe toasty-vanilla oak. Tastes glossy, dense and rich: a big, shiny wine with a good acidic spine and lots of dark espresso-laced fruit. Fills my mouth and colonizes my palate; once in a while I surrender willingly to a big California thing, and this is one of those times. Impressively flavorful, well-balanced proprietary wine.
On our last full day in town Lisa wants to pay her respects to the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial. I haven't been there in something like thirty years, so at first light we head off to Pearl Harbor. As we drive I point out the general areas of Makalapa and McGrew Point where we lived briefly, where my brother and sister used to frolic in the spray from the DDT trucks (no cancer yet, knock wood), and where I would prowl the oily swamps and marshes bordering the harbor with my friends and build forts and uncover bits of junk and be sure they were relics from the Day of Infamy thirty years earlier.
It's strange to think that I'm almost equally removed from those early 70s days as those days were removed from that sunny December morning in 1941. Some of my friends' parents would tell stories of the planes going overhead, the smoke rising from the harbor, but it always seemed so remote, just something you read about in history books. The late events in my corner of the world have brought it into sharper focus, and the memorial has an immediacy to me that it didn't before. So many kids who never had lives, so much lost potential. The marble-inscribed list of names on the far wall has grown longer since I was here last, as old veterans die and their remains are returned here to lie with their shipmates. It's strangely beautiful, and terribly sad. We watch the tiny droplets of oil float to the surface and spread in small shiny slicks, iridescent like the rainbow over Manoa Valley.
On the way back we all wave to the sailors on the U.S.S. Constellation, docked nearby. They wave back.
We briefly consider taking the tour of my Dad's old ship, which is parked next door, but we're tired and it's another boat ride much like the last and it costs something like $20 a head, so we decline. Later at dinner, he tells us that he hasn't been to it either ("The last time I was on board they were paying ME..."), which is some consolation.
Maybe next trip.