So I manage to unchain myself from my desk long enough to shamble over to the Upper West Side for dinner one summery Manhattan evening not too long ago. The occasion? Up-and-coming WIWP Paolo Faustini is making a brief sojourn from the City of Brotherly Love to our own City of Brotherly Get Bent, so that he may sit at the feet of the local geeks and learn a thing or two about thin, sour wines from places nobody's heard of.

Paolo's a classical singer, so I had hoped Lisa would trot her taut little fanny along and share some colorful opera world gossip to amuse and alarm, but she managed to pick some kind of virus up from one of her young charges on the pediatric ward and has to bow out at the last minute. During the solo walk across town I'm scratching my head, trying to remember that damn thing the opera singers always say to one another before a performance, like 'break a leg,' only in Italian. Something about a wolf... damn, it won't come.

When I arrive fashionably late at La Grolla I spy Eden Blum and boytoy Scott sitting at a table that is positively festooned with streamers and balloons. My, this is festive, I think to myself, what a nice touch. And here's Paolo himself, looking remarkably unlike the photo he sent in advance for identification purposes. No top hat, no pointy ears, no whiteface, no big gold ruff, no white tights. I'm a little nonplussed, but I suppose he figured mufti would be the way to go in the big town.

Well, we're not a quorum yet, but there's a lot of heavy drinking to get done, so we get the barrel rolling with an old favorite, a Francois Pinon Vouvray Brut NV. Lightly bready, green apple and quinine aromatics, tastes pure and fresh and crip, with a gentle underlying chalkiness and a hint of almond. Pretty, invigorating bubbly, as always.

As we're slugging back the fizz the maitre'd approaches us and apologetically explains that we've been seated at a table that's reserved for a birthday party at 8:30, and if we want to be here longer than that we'd do best to move. Ah, so the balloons weren't for us? More's the pity. We look at our watches, 6:20--yep, we'll certainly want to be here longer than that. So we gather up our paraphernalia--bottles, stemware, notebooks, bags, pens, fossilized shark teeth, icebuckets, etc., and move to a table next to the bar. Somehow in the move my pen that I won in a trivia contest disappears. I am perplexed, but Scott is kind enough to spot me a spare. Eden looks annoyed at having to move. Paolo and Scott don't look annoyed, but I don't know them all that well so they could be sublimating.

Okay, deep breath, turn that frown upside down with an Ottaviano Lambruschi Vermentino Colli di Luni 2005. My first impression is 'Muscadet on steroids.' Stony-lemony, broad, disjointed, with a discernible burn on the finish. There seems to be some interesting qualities, but as a whole it's all ahoo.

Here come Jim and Jeff, soon Dale Williams arrives, now we're getting approaching a quorum. Dale, seeing a dark-haired fair-skinned nice Jewish girl sitting next to me, says 'Hi Chris! Hi Lisa!' It's been a few too many years since we've seen Dale. Eden just goes with the flow and says "Hi Dale!" I like Eden, she can be my pretend wife any night of the week.

Hey, where's Jay Miller? Can't that guy ever show up on time?

To punish Jay for lateness, we open a Francois Cazin/Le Petit Chambord Cour-Cheverny Cuvée Renaissance Vendange Manuelles 1996. I haven't had a bottle of this in a year or two, and it just keeps getting better. The aromatics are rich and flickery, hints of grapefruit and raspberry mingle with a beeswaxy-polleny streak. The aggressiveness of youth has given way to a sense of taut relaxation, as of a dancer at rest. Just beautiful wine, layered and caressingly stony-citric, just goes on and on. Boy, if only Jay had gotten here on time, he'd really have enjoyed this.

I'm taking notes tonight, something I've had precious little time to do lately. Paolo appraises my Hello Kitty notebook with a weather eye, pronounces it "very gay." I point out that I walked with Kitty before Kitty was cool. She has no mouth!

"The perfect woman," sighs someone who has just compensated me very generously for preserving his anonymity in this matter.

I attempt to recapture some straight cred by displaying and passing around my most recently acquired megalodon tooth. Okay, it's not a seven-incher, but that's pretty butch, right? Okay, geeky, but butch. Right?



Screw you guys, here's the newest cult rosé, a Caves Cooperatives de Donnas Valée d'Aoste 'Larmes du Paradis' Rosé 2006. Gentle strawberry-cherry aromatics, crisp and minerally-tasting. Charming, simple, bright, friendly, a pleasant wine for a summer's eve. Not sure why this became the cult hit of the summer (good PR?), but it's a nice little sipper.

Well well, looky here, it's Jay Miller, deigning to put in an appearance after all. "I was delayed at work," he explains. "And what's worse, I have to go back later tonight." Head shakes, clucks of sympathy all around. I try but fail to suck down the last of the Cour-Cheverny.

Jay spots the Pinon, quizzes Scott as to when he bought this bottle, finally determining it to be the release before the most recent. "Ah, the GOOD one," he purrs. For some reason, Jay has a peculiarly inflated view of this bottling.

"They're all good, in different ways," I grumble. "Curb this manichaean thinking, latecomer!"

"Well, it is better," he insists.

"Maybe," I admit. "Maybe, if you're the kind of winegeek who has a bias towards betterness, you might think it better. But to those of us who aren't necessarily slaves to betterness, the other releases have definite charms."

Jay stares blankly at me, unsure of how to parse this. Just in time, Jeff distracts us with a wondrous sight: his bottle of Lungarotti Rubesco Torgiano 1973 has the cork extruded from the top like a sinister black fungus. We gather round to ooh and ahh while he rather unoptimistically goes to work on it with an ah-so. I remind him that we had the '80 at the first culinary jeeb, a bottle that had been stored in a non-climate-controlled New York kitchen cabinet for twenty years, and it was alive and kicking. "One to put on the list of Freddy Krueger Wines--they can't be killed, no matter how hard you try."

And in sooth my prediction is as wise as it is witty, for the Lungarotti, though possessing the color and texture of river mud mixed with prune juice, actually lives. Semi-kooky aromatics--sage and crushed brick, touch of VA, orange rind, bay leaf, shoyu and used tea leaves, with just a hint of faded redness. It smells a little bit like that strange old Barolo-digestif thing that was floating around a few years back, although maybe not quite [i]that[/i] weird. Tastes quietly fleshy, firm core of dark leathery redfruit, feathering out to a gentle brownness at the edges. Medium acidity, quiet composure, the flavors seem almost sedate after the aromatics. Quite charming, really.

Jay's swung a deal with the restaurant that if we order fifty bucks per person each they'll waive corkage, and we're all trying desperately to spend as much money as possible to reach that. I choose my menu by simply picking the most expensive dishes in each category. Carpaccio, gnocchi, veal, easy as falling off a log, that should bring me close enough to the total to let a double espresso or two push me over the top. Can we just order things and give them to other tables, or would that be cheating? Damned reasonable price structure, why must you confound me!

More elderly Italians: the Marchese Villadoria Barolo Riserva Speciale 1964 comes wrapped in a delightfully rustic pullstring jute bag. There is a general group consensus that more wines would benefit from being wrapped in either jute or hemp--think of the endorsement possibilities! Once dejuted and disgorged, the wine is a medium pale cloudy bricky-ruby color. Mmm, smells spicy, dried cherries and wet sod, just a whiff of horse barn mingles with tar and attar hints. Tastes lean and taut, a little more severe in the piehole than up the nose, but mingling with a gentle decay is intense flavorosity. Medium-lightbodied Barolo, gently funky, plenty of acidity without an ounce of fat: anti-Kane wine.

The Franco Fiorina Barbaresco Riserva 1974 seems very shy after the assertive Barolo--softer and gentler, lower acidity, with some whispery-soft cherry-leather fruit sneaking up on my tongue, grabbing hold with some assertive tannins on the finish. There's a lot going on here, but it's on a much smaller, softer scale. This receives far fewer table-plaudits than the Barolo, but I find it just as interesting.

Jay flags the waiter down and tries a new construction of a classic request: "May we have some kind of a bucket... that we can pour our wine into... that we're not drinking...?" The waiter balks at the word "bucket," clearly envisioning us wanting a mop pail as our centerpiece, but further explanation yields a perfectly serviceable vase-type vessel. [Note: the use of "bucket" is not as bad as the dreaded S-word, but it's not a good choice.]

Paolo has a hankering for some Lebanese wine, so here's a Château Musar Lebanon 1991. Spicy-earthy aromatics, crushed brick and dirtberry, cinnamon and a touch of yamskin, pipe tobacco, touch of volatility. Enters silky and elegant, with a gentle leatherberry flourish, swells and expands in the middle, pauses languidly for a catlike stretch, then finishes with a tobaccoey flicker. Really nice, a happy combination of strength and delicacy, this hits both high and low notes with equal finesse. Wonderfully complete wine that has only a whisper of tannin left. Seems pretty resolved to me, I probably won't hold my remaining bottle all that much longer.

A younger sibling is next, a Château Musar Lebanon 1995. Friendly whiff of VA here, far more primary smelling than the '91, the dirtberry aromatics veer more towards berry than dirt. Slight glossiness, a candied edge to the dark redfruit. There's a puppyish quality to this one, an easygoing fleshiness and amiable simplicity. It's nice enough, but not nearly the wine that the '91 is.

Michel Lafarge Volnay 1998. Pleasant enough, nice balance, decent flavors. Drinkable, even pleasant, but quite nondescript. Does my lack of descriptors summon the impression of nondescriptness? If so, my work is done here. Move on.

Clos Rougeard Saumur-Champigny 'les Poyeux' 1996. Another in the long line of shut down '96 red Loires that we've been inexplicably driven to open recently. All potential, tough and angular now--jabs me in the ribs, kicks me in the knee, runs away and hides.

Montevertine Toscana Riserva 1996. Continuing the theme, this is also hard and taut, shut down good. There's a core of tarry cherry-earthy fruit, but it's not tipping its hand just yet.

An Arcadian Pinot Noir Monterey Sleepy Hollow Vineyard 2001 comes along, the sole representative of the New World so far. Gaah, it's FRUIT! RUN! No, no, don't panic, important to stay calm. Seems very candyfruity at first, ripe plum-cherry aromatics laced with light clove and cola hints. With air the aggressive shininess dissipates somewhat, the wine acquires a bit of a matte finish, but there's still a plush blanket of ripeness that's jarring in the company of faded old Italians, funky Musars and various underfruited '96s. Hard to gauge the wine in this context, judgment withheld.

Inniskillin Vidal Ice Wine 2000. Too sweet, gloppy-glossy and simple. Every time I taste this wine I wonder who drinks it and how they get away with the kind of prices they charge. Is it some kind of special needs wine? Is is government-subsidised welfare wine? The pieces just aren't adding up for me yet, but I'll get to the bottom of it. Until then, I'll feel obliged to renominate this for the prestigious Most Overpriced Wine in the World Award for 2007 (Sweet/Dessert Category).

We finish the evening with a rambling drunken discussion as to the nature of art and why Jim and I aren't big opera fans.

"Hey," says Jay suddenly, peering over at me. "You cut all your hair off."

"Not all of it," I point out. "Just about two feet. But thanks for noticing."

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