We had no idea.
We thought it was going to be a simple little dinner, hosted by the ever-courtly Jeff Connell. We were politely rebuffed in our offer to bring some ghastly New World concoction, told only that the wine menu was all set; perhaps that should have tipped us off that larger things were afoot. Nevertheless, Lisa and I arrived chez Connell wide-eyed and innocent, unaware of the wheels within wheels that were turning relentlessly to make a mockery of all our expectations.
The company should have tipped us off as well. On hand were the placid Robert Callahan, the once again slightly sick .sasha, and that tower of importation himself, Joe Dressner, with his lovely wife Denyse, missing only Louis Dressner, who had apparently been forcefully relegated to his pricey shtetl on Long Island (or something, the details were a bit fuzzy).
We sat down to some lovely stinky cheese and, with a flourish, Mr. C. brought out what he promised would probably be "the last good wine of the evening," and poured us all a glassful of pinkish bubbly.
"André!" I exclaim delightedly, recognizing a favorite quaff from my college years.
Alas, 'twas a miscall on my part. I was patiently set right, told that this tipple was that particular Kanean nightmare, a sparkling gamay.
Renardat Bugey Cerdon NV: A pale dusty rose-pink; light, slightly sweet, fruit-punchy, with a smooth minerally backbone, smooth and very pleasant. Gone too quickly, as it went down easily and well. The bottle was empty in a flash, sucked down in anticipation of the apparently poor selections to follow. We settled in for some opera-geek conversation, with yours truly following the flow of talk like a spectator at Wimbledon and Dressner leaving briefly to indulge in one of his favorite sports, telemarketer-baiting, and after a brief experiment with a flat Maxim's Brut 1975 ("I've got four bubbles!" says Lisa), our host vanishes and reappears with a dusty bottle of some kind.
"This" he announces "is advertised as the worst year since 1946!"
We gathered around excitedly.
Château Haut-Brion 1954: Medium-dark, faded to a bricky-brownish color; the nose is interesting, very muted leafy and tobaccoey, earthy and brown-smelling, kind of promising. A sip, then another: it's got some nice tang, good mouthfeel, but all that's left of the fruit is a soft red-brown hum, and the flavors die quickly in the midpalate, pausing for a moment of nothing at all, then a slightly bitter burnt-rubber tang asserts itself and takes over on the finish. (Soft fruit. Pause. Bitter tang.) Bit sharp, bit tannic, much better to smell than to taste. Callahan likes it (but then again, he likes everything); I find it more curious than pleasurable. Dressner makes a face and goes back to hassling phone salesmen.
Not to be discouraged, our wily host produces yet another specimen. There is a brief flurry of cork-related angst, but then another vintage of Haut-Brion reveals itself. We force the ailing .sasha to dig into some crispy baked mushroom pie-tart thingies, then examine the evidence.
Château Haut-Brion 1957: A bit less brown in color, more brick-red with browning at the rim; not quite as lush a nose as the '54, but redder-smelling, earth and cassis and stewed tomato, still fairly muted, but opens up a bit with some swirling. A crisp wine, a bit softer than the last, but the fruit is full enough to carry through to the finish, and the tang that rises at the end is tarry instead of burnt-rubbery. Medium-bodied and gravelly-tasting, we're moving in the right direction, and the next specimen is proffered hopefully.
Château Haut-Brion 1962: Richest and darkest color so far, deep ruby, browning a bit at the rim. Light nose, showing a bit of funk that blows off to reveal a soft stony-cassis and leafy-smelling wine. Seems definitely younger--the tangy, slightly medicinal iron-edged cassis fruit is more forward-tasting, more overt and concentrated than the previous two. Tangy, balanced and smooth, although it finishes a bit short, trailing off into some strong dry tannins. Alas, on the Dressner Two-Point Scale (2=Ripe, 1=Unripe) this earns a 1, but I find this a very nicely balanced and pleasurable wine.
We sit down to some tasty endive, potatoes and beef, with root vegetables for the veggie-types, and still the Graves gape and continue to release their spirits...
Château Haut-Brion 1964: Not quite as dark as the '62, but still richly-colored and youthful. Okay, here's a sweet-smelling nose, lush earthy cassisfruit aromas, it smells riper and redder than the ones before it. A taste, and it's a soft, fleshier wine, lower in acidity, earthy and stony still, but with richer fruit and light tannins. Very nice. A Dressner 2.
We linger over our food a bit too long, and our host emerges to find the procession of bottles has slowed, so he sets the wheels in motion once more...
Château Haut-Brion 1953: This looks younger than the other '50s wines, slightly faded, but still a nice deep red color, with only a slight orangy hint at the rim; beautiful cassis-plum-clove-earth nose, velvety and rich-smelling. I like this. I like it a lot. Hard to believe this wine is forty-six years old. Tastes smoky and rich, beautifully balanced fruit and acidity, concentrated flavors, yet extremely elegant and restrained. This wine has real sustain--a long and rich flavor-hum that lasts long after the wine is swallowed. Extraordinary, and the best so far by what seems like unanimous consensus. Sasha tries to abscond with the entire bottle, but in his weakened state is wrestled to the floor and forced to give it up for the rest of us to enjoy. Another vintage is coming around, but I can't bear to leave this one for a while. When my glass is empty I mourn, but not for long because there are more goodies on the way.
Château Haut-Brion 1955: Another young-looking wine, with just a hint of amber at the rim; mmm, another beauty, in the mold of the '53 but perhaps not quite so lush. Spreads softly over the palate with rich, lingering flavors. To me it seems a bit like a slightly smaller version of the last wine, but I mistakenly voice this opinion and am quickly corrected by .sasha, who is probably still miffed that he didn't get away fast enough with the whole bottle's-worth of the '53. Nevertheless, it's another delightful wine, a real pleasure to linger over, and linger over it I do, smelling deep and sipping small.
At this point the dishes are cleared and we all pause and poke around among the remains of the various bottles. Jeff announces a change of pace, and Robert, who has been drinking the Haut-Brions from what looks like a shot glass with a stem, finally reaches for one of the large Burgundy-type glasses the rest of us have been using all along.
Domaine Louis/Gros Vosne Romanée Clos des Réas 1959: Very pale and translucent, but still a lively red-amber color; slight hints of earthy-barniness, cloves and pale cherry fruit, hints of carrotcake. A light but surprisingly spry wine--slightly soft, perhaps a bit easygoing and simple, but a very pleasant mouthful with a nice pale dusty finish. There's some good life left here.
The evening is winding down a bit, and the more responsible types are starting to make motions towards leaving, with the Dressners having to take their pooch Buster to his shtetl (or something, the details were a bit fuzzy), but our resourceful host stalls them with one last treasure...
Taylor Vintage Porto 1955: Oh, boy, I'm a sucker for this; rich, rich nose, brown sugar, cocoa, raisin, molasses--brown and rich and complex. A sip, and it tastes just as good as it smells--densely-flavored, with layers of flavors that commingle beautifully. Medium-bodied, but concentratedly flavorful. Delightful, and after the first wave of departures a few of us hard-core types sit for awhile and squeeze the last of the juice from the decanter.
Finally, though, the hour grows late and we make our farewells, offering what we hope are profuse thanks for an extraordinary display of hospitality, and happily weighing the merits of each of these great wines as we wander out into the suddenly-cheerful Manhattan night.