The friendly folks at Café St. John, located on Manhattan's scenic Upper West Side, were horrified to find a passel of the tri-state area's finest and thirstiest winos descending on them for the usual orgy of bark-pulling, tablecloth-staining, spit-bucket-spilling fun.
In attendance at this shindig were the extremely organized Bob Ross, complete with son David and girlfriend Robin, Jackie Peiffer and her pal Elizabeth, the irrepressible Brad Kane, Joe "Mr. Bigshot Wine Guy" Dressner, the effervescent Robert Callahan, Joe Moryl, Jeff "The Hoser Vintner, eh?" Connell, Lisa Allen and myself. In fact, everyone was present at first except the two guests of honor, Alex Rychlewski and Jason Brandt Lewis, representing east and west, respectively.
As is often the case at these larger-than-usual events I ended up having less of a chance to mingle as I'd have liked, giving it a brief shot when folks were getting settled in and waiting for Alex and Jason, but out of the corner of my eye I saw Callahan's wrists flicking and foil capsules being tossed away like peanut shells, and I knew it was time to get out the old notebook.
The theme, upon a notion of Alex's, was "Elegant American Wines," a somewhat oxymoronic idea that led to a lot of head-scratching in front of my storage unit at home. Would we be able to mine the hairline-thin vein of elegance in U.S. wines tonight? We sat down to find out, me scribbling quick impressions as the wines flew by.
The first few quick impressions:
Herman J. Weimer Finger Lakes Johannisberg Riesling Late Harvest 1994: pale, pale wine; smells of honey, gardenia, trace of gasoline. Slightly sweet, not quite enough acidity to balance it out, but close. Decent enough. Elegant? Maybe a bit simple.
Dr. K. Frank Finger Lakes Pinot Noir 1990: Muddy medium-light purple; funky-smelling, somebody down the table says "curry" and that sticks in my head, cinnamon-curry. Decent balance in the mouth, crisp and medium-weight, decent clear fruit, but odd nose is off-putting.
Thunder Mountain Chardonnay Bald Mountain Vineyard 1997: Very oaky, buttery-toasty nose with some figgy hints in there as well; a big wine, rich and viscous, caramel, vanilla & pear, but not a style of wine that I like.
Paul Hobbs Pinot Noir Hyde Vineyard 1995: Light muddy garnet; cloves, cloves, light earth and very soft cherry aromas flicker around the glass; light-bodied and medium-crisp, this just caresses the palate with dusty cherry-clove flavors. I find this elegant. Of course, I brought it, so that's no surprise.
Signorello Semillon Napa Valley 1991: Pale gold; slightly waxy floral nose; bit tangy... I don't know. This is fair, but really unremarkable.
About this time I was finding it a blessing that I was positioned at end of the table near Joe D. I'd have never imagine that there existed an individual that could make Callahan seem like Little Mary Sunshine about California wines, but here he was, in the flesh, cursing every generic, terroir-less drop. Life has a funny and wonderful way of surprising you sometimes.
Suddenly one guest of honor appears, and the crowd greets him with a happy semi-choral "Jason!"
Introductions are made, bottles are passed, I try to catch up on my scrawly notes as the wines continue to suffer quick decapitation and passage from hand to hand.
Standing Stone Vineyards Finger Lakes Riesling 1994: Another Finger Lakes riesling, a similar reaction--soft, lightly crisp nose, lime, honey, kerosene; slightly fat in the mouth, with some acidity, but not quite enough. Not bad, though. Inoffensive.
Schneider Cabernet Franc North Fork of Long Island 1995: Medium garnet; fairly light dark cherry/menthol/pine needle nose; tangy cran-cherry fruit, a bit rounder than I remember it being, some fine tannins kick in, choking off the finish.
Korbel Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 1991: Medium-dark ruby; light cassis nose, stony & a bit smoky; tastes a bit thin, a bit green, a bit generic.
Forman Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 1991: Dark garnet; nose is austere & soft, smoky cassis; in the mouth it's a fleshy, meaty cab, low acid & some soft tannins. Plummy fleshy cassis flavors wash over your mouth. Nice enough.
Elvenglade Vineyards Pinot Gris 1998: slightly honeysuckley-floral over some light wet stone minerality. Low acid, round and a bit limp, with plain light yellowfruit notes. Very okay.
Another guest of honor appears, cursing the confusing New York subway system, it's Alex from Bordeaux! We shake hands all around and pause a moment to let him catch his breath and catch up on the bottles starting to pile up on the table. In the meantime, Jason has brought a selection of goodies from the Santa Cruz Mountains, and we dive into them.
Storr's Petite Sirah Santa Cruz Mountains 1996: Deep garnet; purply-grapy-menthol on the nose, fairly lush & forward; tastes of simple cherry/black raspberry; medium-weight, not dense, somewhat monolithic, but smooth, with a nice crisp mouthfeel. Actually, this is just about as close as I've ever seen a PS come to being elegant. A pleasantly balanced wine.
Storr's Zinfandel Santa Cruz Mountains 1996: Deep garnet again; velvety, raisiny/black cherry nose, and the taste follows along, raisiny and also a bit of disjointed alcoholic heat. I, an avowed Turleyphile, accuse this wine of being overripe and hot. Go figure, huh?
Thunder Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon Bates Ranch Santa Cruz Mountains 1996: Dark and dense; something odd here with the nose--nice herby cassis aromas, but also a strong sulfury/gunpowdery note. Callahan sniffs my glass and pronounces it contaminated by the wines that came before. I try Kane's and get pretty much the same thing. Seems like some nice rich cab fruit underneath it, so I set it down to see if it'll blow off.
Thunder Mountain Star Ruby Santa Cruz Mountains 1996: Richer cassis nose, no gunpowder here, pizza herbs, velvety & smooth; tastes good, too, a very decent forward-type cab blend, some slightly gritty tannins, lush and full-bodied. I wouldn't call this elegant, really, but I do like it.
York Creek Meritage 1994: Deep purple; smoky purplefruit nose, stony & dense; in the mouth equally dense and purplefruity, with a dark tarry finish. A rich, dark wine that is comes on a little too strong to qualify for elegance in my book.
Viader Napa 1994: Very light nose, bit tight, bit of cassis & chocolate, hint of blueberry, smoky oak; medium-light bodied, more cassis-mocha flavors. Finishes short, but still fairly tasty.
Renaissance North Yuba Special Select Late Harvest Riesling 1986: Medium-dark amber. Round, soft rieslingy-kerosene-honey-apricot nose. Sweet, viscous and flabby, but with some nice rich flabby flavors that tickle my somewhat undiscriminating sweet tooth. Inelegant, but friendly.
Niepoort Colheita 1982: Hey, this isn't American! Mmm, tasty, though. Tawny caramel-vanilla-hint of orange rind, smooth and medium-rich, nicely balanced port.
While I'm not looking the waiter nabs all the glasses, including my Bates Ranch cab. Urgh.
The postmortem on this theme was about as confused and irreconcilable as any I've ever seen, with absolutely no consensus of any kind. Basically, most people seemed to think that the wine or wines they brought were the only 'elegant' ones present, and there was much open-mouth gaping as people defended their particular choice against somebody else's, then equally startled counter-gaping as the width of the elegance gap was made clear. I made my 'homer' case for the Paul Hobbs, but I didn't get a lot of agreement.
It may have been the effect of sitting down by Dressner, but a lot of these wines, especially the cabernet-based ones, all seemed to have very similar flavor profiles. There really was precious little elegance to be found, in my opinion. Even the wines I liked I would hesitate to call 'elegant.' A fairly poor showing for the U. S. of A. in this particular department, although the great pleasure of the company more than made up for the vinous deficiencies.