New York City in June. The hottest day of the year, with the remnants of Hurricane Arlene bearing down on us bringing furious summer thunderstorms and microburst tornadoes. What better day to dine outdoors in rustic Brooklyn, the Borough of Kings?
The brain behind today's event, whom I shall call "Timmy" for his protection, has a solid record of organizational disasters and near-disasters. This, combined with his custom of complaining at great length and volume about anyone else's arrangements has, over the years, naturally endeared him to all as an event planner. Thus, there's an almost grim sense of satisfaction as the day approaches, the emails fly, and the inevitability of the coming disaster becomes clear: jeebus as Greek drama--the outcome isn't in question, the fascination lies in watching how the various characters behave when the gods set their relentless millwheels in motion.
The only subway that gets us within walking distance of Bouillabaise has construction-related delays, so Lisa and I are forced to emerge from underground into a torrential downpour. Happily, by the time we stagger the mile or two to the restaurant the rain has stopped and we're back to the familiar smothering heat and humidity that have gripped the city for the past few days.
So it is that she and I walk sweaty/soaked into a cauldron of incipient catastrophe. It seems that the only alternative to rain-drenched dining is the enclosed back room of the restaurant, which isn't air-conditioned and has the approximate temperature and humidity of a pizza kitchen in midsummer Manila.
The atmosphere is angry and electric--one attendee has apparently pitched a fit at the conditions and left to walk around the block. Eden Blum is flitting around the room, looking flushed and frightened. Even Don Rice looks mildly alarmed, as alarmed as I suspect the čber-mellow Don is capable of looking. Jay Miller looks like I feel, sweaty and panting, on the border of heat stroke. "That's it," he's murmuring to no one in particular, "No... summertime events... without air conditioning... ever... ever... ever...."
Staggered by the blast-furnace conditions in the dining room, I reel out to the garden, flop into a chair under a garden umbrella and refuse to move, Lisa following behind in a flustered daze. "Timmy" takes this as encouragement, and scuttles back inside to attempt to persuade someone--anyone--else to come out. He's back, alone, in a few minutes. "They won't come," he says mournfully. "They're afraid it's going to rain more. Can you go in and try and get them out here?"
No, I cannot. I'm out here with chillin' with the cutest sweaty chick in the borough, and I'm starting in on some revivifying Weingut Munzberg Grauer Burgunder Pfalz Kabinett Trocken 2004 and don't intend to move until my core temperature is back below one hundred four degrees. It's obvious it's going to rain more; I'd rather be soaked than dead of heat stroke, but this is a personal choice that I don't feel comfortable imposing on anyone else.
Whoa, this Munzberg bottle has a glass stopper instead of a cork. What a cool thing! What will they think of next? Crazy, baby. The wine is a pale straw color, with pale pale pinkish highlights. Smells whiteflowery, plumeria and rainwater. Bright-tasting; supple acidity and smooth light flesh lead to an overall impression of gentleness. A petite wine, well focused and perfect for washing the sidewalk dust from my mouth.
One by one, sweaty red faces begin to emerge from the restaurant/sauna, glancing nervously upwards at the roiling black clouds swirling overhead. "Spielbergian effects," I murmur, watching the thunderheads twist and billow across the sky.
Who's this guy? Oh, it's Bob Semon, pouring his usual sparkling nebbiolo. Hasn't the sparkling nebbiolo fad passed yet? I figured when McDonalds started with the McNebbiolo Shake, that would be the end of it, but no, here's Bob with yet another bottle of the stuff, a Casa Vinicola Fay "Dreifs" Brut NV. Is that word 'dreifs' or 'dreiss' or something else entirely? It's hard to read the label, sweat is making my eyes sting. Anyway, the wine is boisterously fizzy, chalky-smelling, with light yeasty hints. Tastes crisp and stony, with a light creaminess. Not terribly complex, but pure and bright and charming and (most importantly) cold. I take a second glass, then a third. Must. Cool. Down.
"Look Bob, it's a glass cork!" I say, holding it up for his inspection. He appraises it deliberately, nods, hands it back without comment.
Damn, it's Greg dal Piaz, looking different yet again, kind of professorial this time. He's the Lon Chaney of the winegeek world, the Wino of a Thousand Faces. "Hi Greg," I say. "Look, it's a glass cork!" It's all I can think to say, my brain isn't working well at these temperatures.
A light suddenly flahes on in my head: the drunker I am, the less I'll mind being steamed and/or drenched!
Quick, here's a Weingut Schmitt + Kinder Silvaner Randersacker Marsberg Trocken 2000. Vividly aromatic, lemon, peach, white rocks. Tastes equally vivid, a nervy, taut core of bright acidity is wrapped with gentle whitefloral-citric flesh. Wonderfully expressive sylvaner, hitting all the notes just right, high and low and middle. Damn yummy. Slam it back, move on.
More wine good drink now. Let's try a J. Dauvissat Chablis Montmains 2002. Calm lemoncreamy aromatics, light smoky-flinty streak. Decent composure, bit vague in the middle, lacks focus, finishes on a firecrackery note. Seems watery after the well-honed sylvaner, but not bad. I guess.
Hey, it's the Bassmen, Mike and Kim. Poor guys, we finally drag them out to one event and it has to be this one. I wave, they wave back. Everyone is milling tentatively around the garden--someone begins depositing bottles on a side table, and the rest quickly follow. It looks like the heat finally drove everyone out here, but no one is willing to sit down and formalize it quite yet, so we play garden party. In the meantime "Timmy" and the proprietor are manuevering garden umbrellas over a long table, hoping to at least give some minimal coverage from the coming monsoon.
Next victim, a Domaine du Bagnol Cassis 2004. Quietly floral nose, light hint of cherry, touch of yamskin earthiness. Tastes calm and composed, bright acidity, on the lean side, nicely pure and focused but not giving a whole lot right now.
U Pastine (Lugano) Golfo del Tigullio Bianchetta Genovese 2002. Smells a bit sulfurous, firecrackery. Under that there's a light lemonosity, rocks and acorns, touch of pearishness. Tastes puckery-crisp, zingy lemon acidity, crisp and taut wine, too sulfurous now but interesting and nicely compact, good focus.
As "Timmy" is herding everyone towards the table there is a booming of thunder in the middle distance. Movement ceases, we eye one another resignedly, gradually settle into our chairs to accept whatever fate awaits us.
Domaine Barat Chablis Les Fourneaux 1996. Apple-juicy smelling, oxidized and flat tasting. Damaged, like all of us, only more so.
It turns out that Bob's boyfriend Bradly No E is a pathologist; I wager as soon as Lisa finds this out that the doctor talk will commence, and I'm right. Actually, it's more interesting than winegeek talk, so I lean in and listen until my stomach can't take it any more. About a full seventy seconds' worth of listening, I estimate, la la la la I'm not listening la la la la where's the wine la la la la....
Domaine du Clos Naudin (Foreau) Vouvray Demisec 1997. Corked. Bummer, this is God Wine when it's not tainted, the kind of Vouvray that tends to make "Timmy" shriek "BENCHMARK WINE! BENCHMARK! BENCHMAAAAAARRRRRK!" until he's pummeled into merciful silence.
Luneau-Papin Muscadet 'Excelsior' 2002. What is this, a luxury Cuvée or something? Whatever it is, it puzzles me, I simply can't figure out what it's saying... I swirl and sniff, and I'm just confused, I'm not on the right wavelength. No time to fiddle with the dial now, pass pass pass, try again sometime later.
You'd think a restaurant called 'Bouillabaise' would have bouillabaise on the menu, wouldn't you? I'd had a hankerin' for the stuff, but I'm out of luck.
Luneau-Papin Muscadet le 'L' d'Or 1997. Just a tiny bit corked, but what's there under the light dusting of TCA sure seems like it could be interesting.
The thunder is getting louder, this time there's lightning as well. We count the seconds between them... or, more accurately, the second between them. Can we get some reds in before the skies open up?
We can certainly try, starting with a Quintarelli Valpolicella 1993. Ooh, me likee; smells charmingly layered and complex, crushed brick and leathery hints, whiteflowers and earth, all mingling in a muted cherry-cassis base, happy nosedancing aromatics. A pretty wine, with a hint of a pressed-flower quality to the fruit but wonderful layers of flavor, just so much going on; a feathery, suggestive wine to dream on. Quintarelli is the perennial winner of the 'Best Wine with Worst Label' category at the WIWPie Awards dinner, this one is no exception, the graphic design equivalent of unintelligible NYC subway announcements--you have to know what they're going to say before they say it in order to decipher them.
Joël Taluau St. Nicolas de Bourgueil Cuvée de Domaine 1997. Smells very piney-leafy, shy cran-cherry redfruit with a barky streak. Tastes lean and composed, slightly abrasive in the middle and with more than a hint of bitterness on the finish. Disjointed and not very pleasant; I'm normally a Taluau fan, but this isn't showing at all well tonight.
It begins slowly, with one little 'bap' on the umbrella, then another, then three, and within seconds it's a machinegun sound as the skies open up. We dive together, trying to squeeze under the two garden umbrellas. Lisa is next to me, and only one of us will fit, so I ease back and let her take it, opening my own umbrella, trying not to put Jay's eye out. The waitress comes running with extras, we hunker down in position and eye one another balefullly.
Michel Ogier Côte-Rôtie 1996. Smells gently baconberried, smoky blackfruit dusted with violet petals and a touch of gaminess. Tastes crisp and a bit thin, not a whole lot of depth. Seems closed to me, or maybe it's just a shy wine, more aromatically than mouthistically interesting.
Disclaimer: my appraisal of the Ogier may be suspect, as there's a good amount of rainwater in my glass. But just as quickly as it started, the downpour stops.
The Rhôning continues, with an Alain Graillot Crôzes-Hermitage la Guiraude 1990. Big ripe blackberry aromatics, hints of violets up high, dark smoky-meaty vein down below. Tastes broad-beamed, with a sinewy smoky streak keeping all the velvety flesh honest. Medium-low acidity, plump and puppyish. I've always been ambivalent about this wine. It's so fleshy-ripe yet so recognizably Graillot that it's like a familiar figure in a weird incarnation, Billy Bob Thornton as Santa Claus. That said, it's very enjoyable in a pleasant, pillowy sense. I sip at it furtively as the rain slows, then abruptly ceases. My crab cakes are only splash-dampened, but they're still quite tasty, others aren't so lucky and have soggy appetizers.
Marie-Claude Lafoy et Vincent Gasse Côte-Rôtie 1990. Smells ripe, hints of iodine in a wash of red berryness. A Côte-RÖtie that secretly longs to be a Châteauneuf, this is Kane-style Northern Rhône, plump and fleshy. A jellyfish of a wine, bloppy and loosely-wrapped, richly flavored but unfocused, short and not terribly compelling. Next?
Something plonks off the top of my head and I glance upwards, alarmed. There's been a squirrel clambering around in the peach tree behind us, a natural culprit for something like that, but another flying object that comes accompanied with hoots from the far end of the table clues me in that it's just "Timmy" or Camblor or one of the other reprobates down there at the noisy end. Bored and drunk, they're heaving corks at us to liven things up a bit. I fire one back just to show that we won't take this kind of thing lying down, but it's best to ignore these outbursts; I know from experience that making a fuss just encourages them, the drunken louts.
Big bottle time, with a Château Lynch-Bages Pauillac 1985 (magnum). Cedary-blackfruity aromatics, pencil shavings, quiet at first, opens very deliberately as the evening progresses. A sip, and it's a middleweight wine, matte mouthfeel, firm at the core but with a light velvety fleshiness. For the first hour or two the wine lacks midpalate focus, seems diffuse. By the end of the night tobacco-cedary blackfruit has emerged to give it some creamy heft, and the tobacco tones turn dark and linger on the finish. If you're drinking this soon, give it a lot of air.
Here comes the rain, and once again those of us who aren't covered desperately attempt to cram ourselves under the big umbrellas, only to be repelled by the sharp-elbowed fair folk and forced to fend for ourselves. Again we sit grimly and wait it out, shielding stemware with our hands as best we can.
More offbeat wine (TWO Bordeaux at one dinner? What are the odds?), this time a Château Pichon-Longueville-Baron Pauillac 1986. Darkly cassis-blackfruity smelling; aromatically taut, with a gravelly-graphite undertone and a touch of oregano. Mediumweight wine, brighter and leaner than the Lynch-Bages, but with better composure and focus, an expressive little thing at first. Interestingly, as the evening goes on the Lynch-Bages blossoms and composes itself while the Pichon-Baron retreats into its shell. While the Pichon-Baron was the clear favorite when they both came around, later on it's the Lynch-Bages that's more interesting and vivid; ships passing in the night.
Jay complains that his pork is dry (the only thing about which that can be said), but my steak is pretty darn good. I'm back on the steak bandwagon after the whole steaming debacle (another event with "Timmy's" fingerprints all over it). Whoops, here's some more rain, this time in windblown flurries.
We cling to one another until the flurries pass, shielding the wine as best we can, letting the food take the brunt of it (one must have priorities after all, and we know ours). Once it's slowed to a trickle the umbrellas come down and we once again gamely pick up where we left off.
More serious bottle girth, with a Fourrier Gevrey-Chambertin Combe aux Moines 1995 (magnum). Quiet cherrypit/forest floor aromatics, touch of mushroom, aromatically shy but pleasant enough to sniff at. Tastes hard at first, fine focus and purity but little else. With air it relaxes a bit, but then clams up again and refuses to talk. As the night goes on, this opens and closes like a barn door in the wind, but if caught in a good moment it's a taut, well-honed wine with a gentle spiciness and fine precision. Shy and a bit puzzling, but pleasant.
Augh! We let our guard down too soon! The trickle suddenly turns back into a torrent, then slows and stops. My glass of Fourrier, having caught umbrella runoff, is now twice as full as it was before the latest deluge. Rainwatery notes dominate.
Here's a birthyear wine for Lisa, a Travaglini Gattinara 1968. Medium ruby color, browning inwards from the rim. Mmm, here's a sweetly decayed earthy nose--shoyu-soaked cherry, sandalwood, leather and bay leaf hints. With a bit of air a mushroomy forest-floor streak arises and mingles with the rest, soothingly layered and complex. Tastes firm and lean at the core, feathering out with proscuitto-thin layers of earthy/brown herbal flavors. Lovely, medium-light bodied wine, heading towards a senior citizens discount, but charming and vivid in its early dotage. Lovely old nebbiolo for those such as I who favor a bit of decay in their glass.
There's a Pierre Peters Champagne of some kind. I miss it. Oh well, it's fizzy, how good can it be? If it were real wine they wouldn't feel the need to carbonate it, would they now?
Now is the very sweeting time of night, and we start off with a Domaine de Petit Quarts (Godineau) Côteaux du Layon Village Faye 1996. Brightly tropical aromatics, pineapple and apricot, quince and lemon. Plump, glyceriney and apple-pie-spicy on the finish. A big, rich infant with medium-plus sweetness and fine broad shoulders. One to lay down for a few decades, at least if you're planning on being around in a few decades.
Domaine Cauhape Quintessence du Petit Manseng Jurancon 1989. If this is the quintessence of petit manseng, it looks like the stuff is best drunk young. Tastes very caramelly--very sweet, like melted caramel cubes [BLUR SMEAR BLUR SMEAR SMUDGE] too long, or at [BLUR SMEAR BLUR SMEAR SMUDGE] tonight, would I?
(The rain has done bad things to my notebook.)
Surely with all the birthdays there will be cake and singing or something along those lines, yes?
No. We order dessert off the menu and I hum 'Happy Birthday' to Lisa in an undertone.
My continuing efforts to get the waitress drunk finally hit paydirt with a Château de Malle Sauternes 2001. "Ooh wow," she says, eyes lighting up, "That's really good." Yuh, it's a semigonzo wine that'll knock your socks off, I've posted several notes on it lately, it tastes the same now as it did then.
Weingut Schmitt + Kinder Silvaner Randersaker Main Sonnehnstuhl Eiswein 1998. Tangerine, pineapple, mandarin orange and honey, tropically vivid but almost like fruit syrup, hugely sweet and viscous despite a vivid acidic spine. Startlingly flavorful and intense, but a little bit goes a long way.
Domaine des Baumard Quarts de Chaume 1971. Medium gold color, ambering lightly at the rim. Smells spicily apricot-honeyed, with a bit of a burnt-sugar hint. Tastes crisp and rich, the flavors swing towards apricot-orange citrus in the midpalate and back towards honey again as it heads into the finish. Generously sweet (What?! Not magically turned dry!?), but with bright acidity and lovely cohesion, a wine in a good place, possessed of great sustain and persistence, still with the pink of youth but oh so nice to drink now, really coming into its own, the rare Baumard wine that I find genuinely exciting.
Quintarelli Amabile del Cere 1985. Medium gold-orange color. Smells nuttily complex, mandarin orange, chestnut and apple pie hints. Amber flavors, rich and sweetly caramellish tasting, with a [BLUR SMEAR BLUR SMEAR SMUDGE]. The rest of the note suffers water damage; I remember liking the wine but finding it pretty weird, nutty and almost Tokajiish.
Château Rieussec Sauternes 1990. Medium-gold color, orange-amber at the rim. Rich smelling, orange rind and apricot, toasty vanilla-caramel hints and a curiously dark botrytical streak. Big and sweet and glyceriney-rich, the crisp spine holds up the plushness nicely, a size XXL Rieussec. Quite good, but I find it strangely precocious, very orange-rindy, with eyebrow-raising caramel hints. Would that I had someone nearby willing to salt my dessert; I've found that Rieussec always goes very well with generously salted desserts, but no such luck.
Sadly, there are no more wines, and a cry of dismay goes up as we realize that at twenty-seven we've fallen one bottle short of the two-per-person mark that would keep our average up an unreachable half-point over the Boston gang's. Someone (Camblor?) offers to run to a local liquor store to pick up some Yellow Tail, but there's no consensus, and we gradually accept the lot that fate has dealt us, crossing our fingers that the Beantowners don't go on a hot streak in the dog days of August.
As we trudge back to the subway one last downpour drenches us, just for good measure. At least there wasn't a tornado.
And damn, it's a shame Brad Kane couldn't make it.