Clearly there had been a mistake.
The invitation came, unlooked for and embossed with gold leaf, hand delivered to our home late one Sunday night by a gaunt man strikingly dressed in the uniform of a Vatican Swiss Guard. It read "Wine Therapy's own SFJoe Is Pleased to Invite Robert and Carolyn Callahan to a Gala Fête in Honor of Lou and Bettylu Kessler" and gave particulars of place, time and dress.
We were stunned. What could this mean?
It quickly dawned on us that we could turn this apparent delivery blunder to our immediate advantage. Invitations to Joe's legendary soirées only come along once in a blue moon, and we knew from experience that once we were in the door it wouldn't be worth the scene that would necessarily ensue when the security goons tried to remove us. Lisa has finally perfected the art of the party killing harangue-fit, and this fact is no secret in the greater New York/New Jersey winegeek community. I tipped the delivery man, ignoring the halberd marks on our front door, and Lisa and I high-fived each other until our hands turned pink. We were finally getting back with the A-list crowd; our long national winegeek nightmare had ended.
On the big night we decide to go all out and splurge on a stretch SUV to take us across the river and up the FDR Drive to the chic Manhattan digs of our reclusive host. His ward Bradley answers the door cheerfully and informs us that the master is hard at work in his kitchen, but if we are patient and wait until he has finished polishing his truffle we would be presented. Even as he says this we see a tall figure with a Ginsu knife in hand loom behind him; we instinctively shrink back a step.
"My dear fellow, my good woman" says our host, perhaps a bit vague as to our identity, "you simply must have a dram of bubbly to wash the road dust from your mouths. No need to stand on ceremony; Bradley, their coats, please, at once." And with that he pours us two glasses of Pierre Peters Champagne Blanc de Blancs 1995 and sweeps back into his sanctum sanctorum to finish whatever culinary alchemy he was up to.
I sniff at it: yellow apples... plaster of paris... bread. A sip, and there's tangy yellow fruit, smooth and bubbly, a nice combination of overt pear-apple fruit and bread-mineral spine. Nice bubbly, well balanced and friendly, substantial yet bright and fresh, serendipitous yet obsequious.
Peeking over the rim of my flute at the assembling crowd, I see the créme de la créme of Manhattan winegeek society arrive one by one. The reclusive Denyse Louis of Louis/Dressner Selections has come out for a rare appearance, escorted by her husband, Joe, who is looking fashionably svelte and trim in an outfit by Yves St. Laurent. Denyse is, as always, Gallic charm personified, but her eccentric husband grabs my arm in a viselike grip and thrusts a bottle at me.
"Try this!" he whispers conspiratorially, "It's bitter!" And with that he pours a glassful of Huet Vouvray Clos du Bourg Sec 1999. It's a pale wine, smelling lightly chalky and pearish, flecks of lemon-citrus tickle my nose. A sip, and it has lovely balance and cohesion, but it's a bit dilute in the middle, the yellow fruit lacks oomph and depth. And yes, it is indeed marginally bitter, markedly so in the midpalate. Still, even if it's a lesser effort for a great producer it's no slouch and I don't judge it as harshly as Mr. Louis does. Frankly, I could drink this most nights.
As I'm turning the bitter streak over in my mind I hear a whispering in my other ear: "Don't listen to him," the voice says "a flaw in a wine like this, it's like a mole on Cindy Crawford, it's a beauty mark that makes it human, you have to love it..."
I turn. The eyes that are piercing into mine can only be .sasha's, and he snatches away my glass of Huet and says "Now. Try this. Do you think a seven year old bottle of Bourgogne Blanc would be fresh, or would it be dead? Think, now..." And he presses another glass into my hand, full of what turns out to be Coche-Dury Bourgogne Blanc 1993. I feel his burning gaze on the back of my neck as I tentatively swirl and just as tentatively sniff. It smells bright and lively, buttery-pear lemon-vanilla swirl with toasty almond hints, nice and bright to smell, happily yellowfruity. Tastes much the same, pleasant, young, fresh. A soft, slightly round mouthfeel, but there's quite a strong spine deep under the creamy fruit right at the surface. Quite decent, and then some.
My glass is pulled back the other way by an Yves St. Laurent-clad arm. "No, no, no, if you want chardonnay, here's the real thing" and a glass of Domaine de Roally Mâcon-Villages Cuvée Tradition 1999 is thrust into my startled hand. This one smells much more fresh-fruity, lemon-pear and white grape juice hints, unmarked by overt oakiness or yeasty-leesiness. Tastes good, too, balanced and smooth, with a light touch of sweetness in the midpalate mingling with a nutmeg-spiciness, sweeping into a feathery-soft finish. Very nice, lots of happy expressive fruit. I'd take it over the Coche any day of the week and twice on Sunday.
Unwilling to be the rope in a game of tug-the-winegeek, I mumble some excuse about having to find Lisa and scuttle off in the direction that I had last seen her go. There are voices coming from the kitchen, and I arrive just in time to hear someone cry out "Tell Plotnicki not to climb any tall trees!" to general hilarity. I laugh uncertainly, and all eyes turn towards me as a hush falls over the kitchen.
My mouth opens and closes without sound. Just in time there is a cheery uproar from the foyer as the guests of honor arrive. In the ensuing tumult I grab the closest bottle to hand and scurry back into the main dining hall, pouring myself some Domaine Schoffit Pinot Blanc-Auxerrois Cuvée Caroline 1998 and suckling at it with damp relief. Schoffit is the king of pinot blanc in my book, and this version is no exception, smelling bright and happy, white-flowery on top, minerally underneath. There is a touch more sweetness than in the past few years, but there's also nice crisp acidity to balance it out. A robust pinot blanc that is smoothly integrated and easy to sip, a fine wine that we like to have with spicy Asian of Indian food.
The crowd assembles in the dining hall to meet and/or greet the esteemed visitors from the distant West. I bring up the rear of the receiving line, suddenly feeling overconscious of my tatty flowered dinner jacket and rented spats. But in this swanky crowd Lou and Bettylu show no signs of the effete snobbery that we've all heard infects West Coast winos, offering up firm handshakes with hints of main grillé and a crisp vigorous handfeel, finishing gently with a reassuring squeeze just as Joe calls for the crowd to move out onto the terrace for the official Gruner of Welcome.
As the crowd begins to shift outside, I spot Brian My Vinous Godfather by the door to the conservatory with his fiancée Virginie, but when I shake hands I find myself unaccountably calling her 'Josie.' Fortunately she either doesn't hear me or makes the merciful decision to pretend she doesn't, but I am mortified and decide not to open my mouth again for at least an hour.
Well, except to pour things into it, of course.
The handblown gruner glasses are beginning to circulate, and once we've all got one Joe begins the ritual gruner call-and-response, and even though we've all heard the words many times before they never fail to move me. The final refrain of "For ever and always, gruner without end, amen!" is roared lustily, and the gruner flows like wine. I tip back my glassful of Nikolaihof Gruner Veltliner Smaragd Wachau 1990, and the wine is a little green lizard sitting on a rock in the sun. Or so I am told. It does have a bit of green cast to the color, I must admit. The nose is lightly kerosened over green apple and yellow flowers, and the wine has a waxy accent in a big racy body. Very good gruner with a few years under its belt, a big package with nice focus.
The happy crowd knows this means the festivities have commenced, and we tuck into the passing plates laden with heaps of Joe's legendary tuna tartare topped with spoonfuls of Olestra. I stop Bradley as he passes with a tray and ask him if I'd better take it slow and easy with the first courses. He nods, winks and puts his thumb aside his nose conspiratorially. I think he may have even called me "guv'nor," but his voice was drowned out by the crowd.
.sasha has called for attention. 'Attention!' he says, and he means it. He proposes a toast to our fair visitors and bids Bradley ring the riesling bell the prescribed three times before we begin the riesling hour. We all pause and listen quietly to the deep tolling overhead. Now is the very riesling time of night, and as plates full of otherworldly uni-scallop risotto start circling the massive central table we start off with an Egon Muller Riesling Scharzhofberger Spätlese 1989. There is a hint of gasoline over the lime-accented minerally fruit, what the English call "petrol." Lou actually calls it better as kerosene (although I don't know what the English call kerosene), citing years of experience with petroleum products. Tangy attack, nice sharp lemon-lime accents come right at you, but the wine fades a bit right away, turns decent instead of special, with a soft stoney-rainwateriness turning towards a lime-rind hint on the finish. A good start fades quickly; this wine is not working up to its potential. Bradley says something about it being cooked, everyone listens more or less politely, which is a nice change from the usual open derision and mockery that can sometimes get out of hand.
Next up is a Dr. Burklin-Wolf Riesling Wachenheimer Spätlese 1998, another pale wine, this time with an aromatic peachy streak on the nose over a minerally backdrop. Tastes loose, open, lightly sweet. There is a curious hint of red currant in the midpalate, a midpalate which fans out and spreads in my mouth. The wine is smooth, rich and open, but lacks the focus that I, as the average riesling consumer, have come to demand from my Wachenheimers.
At this point an odd discussion breaks out about the specific fungus that is in the risotto, and its double life as a symbol of virility in the east. I know I would be thought a braggart if I jumped into this discussion, so I merely listen politely.
Moving on, here's an FX Pichler Riesling Dürnsteiner Kellerbërg Smärägd 1998, and the burst of exuberant tropical fruit that leaps out at me is quite unexpected. Guava, mango, that vaguely turpentiney smell that mangoes get when they're almost overripe, pineapple, boy, it's like I'm back home in the islands. I sip carefully and meet a gentle giant, a dense, muscular young riesling, tangy yellow fruit, a touch, just a touch of sweetness clothing a steel-spring structure, dense and flexible as it goes down, flowing with a heady rush towards a long tropical finish. Great wine, exciting wine, perhaps somewhat unsubtle, but truly some special FX. Wine like this makes you want to go find a bar brawl and watch it from a good safe distance.
After a brawny young brute what can you do but shift gears towards age and class, with a J. J. Prüm Riesling Zeltinger Schlossberg Spätlese 1959? It's a young-looking wine, pale straw-gold in color. People are concentrating on this one, swirling and sniffing with fixed expressions. There's a lot going on in the nose, a limestoney-honey background with a saddlesoapy streak that takes some committed parsing to eke out. Lightly sweet, brown-edged yellow fruit, turning towards a lemon-earthiness in the midpalate, flattening out and losing a bit of definition towards the finish, but rallying sweetly and earthily at the last, a soldier who has come a long way but still has a bit of fight left. This wine, with its earthy streak, light sweetness and layers of yellow-brown flavor, blooms when consumed with the luscious uni-scallop risotto, a risotto to figuratively die for.
Just as we're polishing off the last of the Prüm, the three deep tolls of the riesling bell alert us to the fact that the hour is up and, no white wine being able to follow riesling, it is time to mentally prepare for reds. Somewhat puckishly and inspired by a few glasses of great riesling, I theatrically demand a proper large glass for truly giving the reds the appreciation they deserve. The crowd again goes silent, but I see an amused twinkle in our host's eyes.
"So you want a big glass, do you Mr. Coad?"
"Yes, sir, I do. The biggest that you have."
He smiles like the proverbial cat with a canary, takes a key from a silver chain around his neck, and proceeds to disappear into the stemware room, returning moments later with what looks like a glass cassaba melon on a stem, which he places in front of me triumphantly.
"The Riedel Gargantua Grand Cru Burgundy Stem, manufactured specifically for a 50-year vertical of Romanée-Conti. You can pour an entire magnum into it without spilling a drop. I was lucky enough to buy three at Hardy Rodenstock's yard sale. Enjoy!"
My mouth has gone a bit dry, but I decide to accept my role with aplomb, nodding appreciatively to my host and saying "Now what have we got for a trial run?"
He claps twice "Bradley! The Rioja!" and a bottle of Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva 1981 materializes. My glass is soon 1/300th full, and I sniff questioningly for any trace of wine in the 12 cubic feet of air in the bowl of the glass. It's there, all right, just difficult to pin down. This is a pale ruby colored wine, turning towards amber at the rim. Pale, muted hints of cherryfruit, crushed brick and earth, traces of.sasha's leather bag and old coconut husks. Not as young and fruity as the 1968 we had at Lisa's birthday, nor as barnyard-horsey as the 1978, this is a quieter, softer wine, faded and bricking but fine by me, happily complex and layered. Very light in the mouth, with firm but not aggressive acidity, a light, ethereal wine that whispers notions of earth and dried fruit in your ear. Not quite insubstantial, this is a pleasure to smell, but the damn terrarium-on-a-stick that I'm trying to drink out of makes it almost impossible to savor. Fun is fun, but this is wine here, and I sheepishly admit my folly to my bemused host and plead for a normal-sized glass, which he happily and good-naturedly provides.
Next is a cult cab, a Clos Rougeard Les Poyeaux Saumur-Champigny 1997. I savor the nose, mineral-spined deep red fruit limned with tobacco hints. Light to medium-bodied, the fruit is dark and strong, racy and nimble and stony, with a long cran-cherry sustain on the finish. Not as new-oaky as its big brother the 97 Bourg, this is a fairly friendly youngster even now--this needs time, but it doesn't need any time. It starts a discussion of the wines of Saumur-Champigny and Brian asks Dressner "Have you ever had a wine from the Fréres Foucault?" to which Dressner mildly responds "That's what we're having right now," and our host quips "And we've got Marshall McLuhan right here to explain it to you." There are gentle winegeek chuckles all around, and we move on to the next offerings.
Here comes the Bordeaux, just in time to conjoin magically with the seared flesh of animals. Ecstasy, dear readers, simple ecstasy.
Château La Conseillante Pomerol 1982: A delicate, rich nose, pretty and lush and feminine, with hints of oregano and slightly darker graphite notes over sweet-smelling silky-velvety red fruit. Oh brother this is good; balanced impeccably, rich and silky to taste, nimble, beautifully sculpted, lightly tannic. This wine is delicate and beguiling, pretty and curvaceous. The feel of a favorite old silk scarf against your neck, light and soft but oh so deep and right. This wine touches off a chain of emotional reactions: I find it strikingly pretty, almost perfect in fact, but something stops it from touching me deeply. This wine is Catherine Deneuve in 'Belle du Jour,' strikingly well put together and alluring, but perhaps a bit cold about the heart. Maybe .sasha was right, perhaps a wine, like Cindy Crawford, needs a mole to seem human, to be accessible. Is this too perfect? I don't know, I don't know. This is not, however, a wine to be ignored.
The next wine, the Château L'Arrosée St. Emilion 1986 is quite a different animal. If the Conseillante was a purebred afghan hound, this wine is a boxer-shepherd mix, barrel-chested and thickset, with ears that beg for scratching. I've always had a fondness for this house's wines, and this is no exception, exhibitizing a dark nose of coffee and muted cassis, hints of tar and graphite. A taste, and it's just like it smells, rough and rich and dense, coffee-accented red fruit, hints of tomato in a meaty, chewy mouthfeel, with some firm rough tannins. It will do better with some more time, but I find its roughness appealing. This wine hasn't the balance or breeding of the Conseillante, but when there is a choice between the two this is the one I have just one more glass of.
Then yet another bottle of the Conseillante comes around, much like the first except just a bit more so. Really, the balance and depth are quite striking.
Here's a curiosity, a Kazmer & Blaise Pinot Noir Carneros 1998. Um. Smells ripe and rich, cherry-cola and earth, clove and plastic purple plums. Very much in the style of those pumped-up Flowers pinots that the kids love, not a style that I cotton to. This also has a green stemmy streak under the fat cherry/plastic plum fruit. Several people wonder out loud whether it's a particular strain of commercial yeast that causes plastic aromas in these trendy Cal pinots, but Callahan isn't here to explain things for us so we sit in indecision. Big and overblown, a pinot on steroids with a healthy dose of toasted oak and a hollow center. Rather unpleasant, but perhaps the kids would like this one, I hear they dig the whole big wacky pinot scene, you know?
The era of reds is past, now the sweeties are upon us...
First up is a Domaine du Traginer Banyuls Vin Doux Naturel Grand Cru Somethingorother 1994: Quiet brick red fruit and hints of sod, soft raspberry-accented nose. I generally like the wines from this house, but this Grand Cru isn't markedly richer or more complex than the 1995 regular Banyuls that we've had at several past events. Nice enough, a light, slightly wan wine with a medium dose of sweetness and a pleasant soft earthy finish that redeems it a bit in my eyes. A light, elegant dessert wine, rather quiet and thoughtful.
Here's another old friend, the Dashe Cellars Zinfandel Russian River Valley Late Harvest 1997, still in fine form, still richly red-berryfruity and cheerfully exuberant in its sweetness and zinnishness. It may not offer great depth and complexity, but it's a delightful mouthful nonetheless, bright and dense and red.
And would the night be complete without a Sauternes? Well, yes it probably would, but here's one anyway, a Château Rabaud-Promis Sauternes 1988: Medium gold color. Smells nice, orange marmalade, vanilla cream, honey-lemon and light botrytis mingle smoothly in my nostrils. Tastes rich and unctuous, a big, slightly heavy wine that has many things going for it but lacks zing, it's a bit ponderous. Still, a very decent Sauternes with many layers of flavor that is hard to fault for a bit of listlessness.
The Kesslers bid a fond farewell having savored the best Manhattan has to offer, hospitality casualties on a night like no other. Lisa is put to work assisting with the postprandial activities, something she does with flair. The evening rolls on and on, the wines don't stop flowing, Joe keeps reappearing with new delights, the last thing I remember of the night is trying to dip the unlit end of my Cuban cigar into my glass of eighty year old Armagnac. I don't know why this seemed like a good idea at the time, perhaps I read about it somewhere, I don't know. Next thing I know we're heading back down the FDR Drive towards a warm bed.
And Callahan never found out that we took his spot.
The perfect crime.