The flower of New York Metropolitan Area geekdom converged on Manhattan's historic La Rochetta restaurant last week for a Bon Voyage jeebus for Good Ol' Joe Dressner, off on his annual jaunt to the mythic land of the cheese eaters in order to ferret out more of the sweet whites and sour reds that a discerning public demands. Not having the initiative or the organization to come up with a theme like last year's 'Motor Oil Marvels,' we opt for the usual theme of 'Make Up Your Own Theme and Keep It to Yourself.'
When Lisa and I arrive, late as usual, we find the irrepressible and surprisingly employable Bradley Kane holding forth on the myth of TCA while Andrew and Jennifer Munro do their semi-utmost to appear interested. Spotting us, they wave frantically and thrust glasses full of Gilles et Catherine Vergé Viré-Clessé 1999 into our startled hands. Andrew burbles enthusiastically about the importer while I sniff at it. I neglect to take the name down, but it's a bright-smelling noseful of chardonnay, yellow appleskin and gingery hints over a wide streak of limestony minerality. Tastes light and crisp, just the fun side of puckery-tart, a racy wine that slides into the fleshy underbelly of my soft palate like a whittled chalk shiv. But in a good way.
A Louis Sipp Riesling Kirchberg de Ribeauville 1995 is making the rounds. I take a sniff... kerosene and yellow appleskin notes, smells decent enough, if a bit flat. Tastes tangy and crisp but fairly lifeless, slowing to a sudden stop, a case of vinous interruptus. Not bad, just not very interesting. And short.
Here's a Château de Puligny-Montrachet Puligny-Montrachet 1995: No, no, no. This isn't right. They've gone and oaked some perfectly decent chardonnay to death. Vanilla and smoky-toastiness rise up into my noseholes and smother some angular yellow fruit flecked with hints of lemon rind. I take a sip, and at first and second and third all that I taste is wood, after which some decent pear-apple fruit edged with hints of lemon rind pops up like Queequeg's coffin after the wreck. As Yaniger might say were he me, proof that Burgundians can make bad California chardonnay, albeit not as ponderous as many of that unhappy breed.
Robert Callahan, having made the long trek up from Capitol City, begins the testimonials by speaking briefly and tenderly of the time Joe pulled a thorn from his injured paw, earning his lifelong devotion. I catch Kane getting misty-eyed; he sees me watching and turns away in embarrassment. It's okay Brad, I've got a lump in my throat too, one that can only be soothed by the administering of a Domaine du Closel Savenniérres Vieilles Vignes 1990. It's a medium light straw-gold color and smells simply delicious, more serious minerality, paraffin, pollen, honey, still more chalk, richly layered and delightful to sniff. A sip, and it's got a cool earthy-chenin thrust of stony yellow richness, all supple strength and layers of flavor clothed with some pleasingly plush flesh. The word that comes to my mind is 'noble,' as this is a beautifully poised, rich yet restrained wine, really hitting its stride. Memorable Savenniérres, a real pleasure that Robert rightly calls "Radioactive™" (a licensed trademark of Doghead Creative Content Services, Inc., a Netherlands Antilles Corporation).
At exactly 8:45 p.m. SFJoe calls in via speakerphone to wish Dressner godspeed. We have the Nikolaihof Riesling Wachau Im Weingebirge Jungfernwein 1999 standing by, and drink a rousing toast to fair winds and following sails before the connection dissolves into clouds of satellite static. It's brightly floral and lightly tropical, a fragrant young virgin in the first bloom of youth, lightly sweet and aromatically exuberant. A bright, cheerful wine that has great balance and some pleasant puppyfat, without the intense coiled depth of its sibling Steiner Hund, but more caressive and tropically girlish at the moment.
An overeager Jeff Connell pops a Domaine Berthomieu Madiran Cuvée Charles de Batz 1997, and before I realize it I'm tasting a brute of a wine, a dark purply-garnet fluid smelling of blackberry and bandaids, toasty-dark, with hints of sod and dark tobacco. I take a sip and pucker right up, as it's big and black and tart, with plenty of black fruit, plenty of toasted wood and the requisite sandpapery tannins. It's appealing in a big, rough way, but it's too young and melodramatic to drink now with anything other than roast wildebeest, sadly not on tonight's list of specials. Apparently "Charles de Batz" refers to the owner's spaniel, which strikes me as a marketing device of questionable taste.
Another startling wine is the Oak Knoll Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 1997. For heaven's sake, if you can't trust a New World wine named 'Oak Knoll' to be brutally wooded, what can you trust? Instead, after a trace of matchstick blows off I find a very pleasantly earthy nose, with clovey-spicy muted cherry fruit and interesting cooked carrot and earth notes. A light, honest wine with unassuming pinot fruit speading quietly in my piehole, finishing softly with some glassy-fine tannins. Andrew cries out "Good god, it's actual wine!" and so it is. With air the clovey hints take a turn towards a coffee-spiciness. It's a balanced easy glass of pinot that stays within itself. A pleasant surprise.
A Château Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan 1992 saunters by. It smells decent-- quiet red cherry-berry fruit hanging out shyly in the foyer, more forward aromas of sod and an ethereal spicy toastiness. Tastes less decent, an initial soft red overture slides quickly into a watery midpalate and dissolves in a flurry of gritty tannins. Others enjoy it more than I do, positing that it's in an awkward stage now; seems to me like there's just not much there.
To counter the leanness of the Haut-Brion, we've got the overripeness of the Château Musar Lebanon 1994: Lush blackberry-cassis jam on the nose; fruit city, baby. Tastes equally jammy, even seems like there's a touch of sugar. There is acidity, but it gets lost in the wash of fleshily ripe, almost cough-syrupy fruit. Odd.
Here's a trio of new Pope houses, first a Clos des Papes Châteauneuf-du-Pape 1995, a layered-smelling wine, red cherry, berry and leather with earthy undercurrents. A sip, and there's a good tight thrust of leathery muted berry fruit, the wine has some nice coiled strength and good follow-through. It's quite crisply acidic, on the lean side but fully flavored. A slight astringency on the finish is forgiven in what is a very decent wine, just starting to soften back up.
Riper and more velvety is the Vieux Mas des Papes Châteauneuf-du-Pape 1998, with a sweet saddle-leather and raspberry nose, lush after the leaner Clos des Papes. A warm, smooth burst of balanced red flavor comes at me, ripe but not overdone. Smooth and lightly wooded, a middleweight wine with a satiny-smooth delivery and a long darkly berryish final note. There are a few young and jangly notes on the finish, but all in all a pleasantly opulent Châteauneuf with good cohesion and balance and enough acidity to get by, although shorter on structure than the Clos des Papes.
Finally the Les Cailloux Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Centenaire 1990 comes across all big and velvety-smelling, warm berries and leather with a streak of pumpkin pie spiciness and hints of black olive underneath. Tastes silky and richly smoky, with a gravelly streak emerging in the midpalate and flowing into a long humming tarry-berry finish. Good depth of fruit, nice long sustain, starting to develop nicely. It's a good big wine with large fruit and plenty of wood, but I've always found it a little generic. I'm in the minority enjoying it, though, as others are deriding it roundly as a pumped up 'international-style' potion. It may not be classic Châteauneuf, but it's okay by me. They tell me "Centenaire" is the name of André Brunel's chihuahua, an unfortunately trendy marketing strategy if you ask me.
A furious dispute breaks out over the Dashe Cellars Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 1999. I find it a nice bounceback from the disjointed 1998, a richly berryish wine with interesting graphite-mineral undertones and judicious wooding, not as silky-smooth and integrated as the '97, but a fine balanced specimen of zinniness. Jay Miller is with me all the way, but others say it's too heavily wooded and smells like coconuts. After much contentious back and forth Jay, obviously fed up, jumps to his feet and proclaims his intention to "Kick some smug Loirehead ass." Dissent is quashed, the bottle is summarily polished off.
A final red emerges, a Couly-Dutheil Chinon Clos de L'Echo 1995. Tightly coiled cran-cherry fruit edged with tarry tones and dark tobacco. Medium-bodied, with a bright, hard mouthfeel, tangy, deep, young. An impressive young Chinon that needs a decade or two to come around.
Andrew, usually a Couly-Dutheil detractor, experiences cognitive dissonance by loving a wine with their label. He begins to utter nonsensical sentences like "Smoking catnip tastes like cherry almondine string beans," and we are forced to shut him up by threatening to pose the question he hates most: "Are you getting green apples in this?" It works.
We bring out a sweetie to serve with the calla lilly-topped 'Bon Voyage, Joe' spice cake, but once more the plague of Fraktur-script contamination raises its ugly head in the form of a Friedrich Baumann Riesling Oppenheimer Hauftrager? Gacktrager? Sautrager? Beerenauslese 1985er. The bottle is passed from hand to hand and peered at, but no one is able to parse the full name. When will producers get their heads out of the sand and deal with this crisis? According to industry statistics at least 2-3% of wine labels are unnecessarily ruined by inscrutible Teutonic lettering--what is it going to take to get these people to switch to the proven-safe Helvetica Bold Italic, or even Trade Gothic or Optima for heaven's sake? What a waste. Thank heavens for grass-roots organizations like Frakturscript Deciphered.
At any rate, the wine is warm ripe mangoes in a stone bowl, hints of orange rind, very fruity, no overt gasoline. Jen is relieved, as she usually isn't a big fan of typical gasoliney rieslings. "Fruuuuuuiiit..." she sighs. Tastes yellow-brown, light caramel, medium-plus sweetness, plenty of spine, rich and glyceriney and nicely developed. Tasty stuff, even with the tainted label.
The bottles emptied, we sit and sing our yearly slow, thoughtful round of "Auld Lang Syne" as a reminder that distance and time will not dull the warm glow of drunken camaraderie of which a fine jeebus is merely the expression. The only real shame is that Dressner couldn't make it. Word is that he had laundry to do, but Connell's theory is that there was a particularly compelling rerun of Everybody Loves Raymond on television that he didn't want to miss, which makes more sense to me. We all promise to have a helluva return party for him, whether or not he shows up for that either.