Word spread through the New York geek community like wildfire: Jason "Brandt" Lewis, he of the gimpy knees and the breathtaking thirty-four years of dedicated service to the wine industry, was slouching towards Manhattan, trailing drunken festivization in his wake like Marduk, Babylonian God of Yowling.
The call went out, the gauntlet was thrown down, the die was cast, and a coterie of battle-hardened Veterans of Vinous Wars assembled upstairs at La Rochetta on Manhattan's historic Upper West Side for a night that promised to be like no other.
It had been the better part of a year since we last hosted Jason in our fair city, and in the interim many of us had lost our innocence about the things that dominated our socializing back then--things such as the genuine effectiveness of magnetic wine aging devices, the solidity of the Giuliani marriage and how good our knees felt. We had been through many travails and trials since those halcyon days--would we even recognize each other?
These are the thoughts that plague us as we await his arrival, we few, we happy few, we band of winos. Oleg is there in high spirits, and Mike and Kim Bassman as well; the lively Lisa Allen is our hostess, and the irrepressible Bradley Kane shocks us all by bringing his own glasses in order to read the menu. What cheek! The WLDG's own SFJoe is in attendance, happily freed from cooking or fungus-gathering duties, and Jayson Cohen is as happy and shiny as only the newly-employed can be, but Jeff Connell is present only in the form of a sock puppet that sits on the end of my arm and smiles cryptically, occasionally making incisive remarks in a benevolently polite manner. [It had been my intention to have a Callahan puppet as well, but try as I might I could not get the horns to look presentable, so the idea was abandoned.]
To break the tension, someone fills my glass with a Donnhoff Oberhauser Brucke Riesling Spätlese 1998. I take a sniff, and concerns of the world melt away: it's a pale, pale wine and smells of wet gravel in a stream bed, bright and stony-rainwatery. I can't resist a quick gulp, and it's pretty and oh so gulpable on a hot Manhattan night, lightly sweet, insouciantly acidic and racily nimble and tight. Not a weighty wine, this one cuts through the dust of the day effortlessly and lightly but gives the impression of wiry, lean strength as it goes down. I ask Jayson why I ever bother to drink wines other than riesling and he points out a few other nice grapes, but I'm in love and I'll hear none of it.
After a nice riesling, what better than a nice madeleine angevine? That would be a hypothetical question still, for the Three Choirs Madeleine Angevine Estate Reserve English Vineyards Quality Wine 1997 was not nice at all, no, not in any human sense, with a downright scary nose of rotten eggs and litterbox. Even now, days later, I shudder as I type, thinking of this stuff. Jayson, ever the cockeyed optimist, offers that it doesn't taste as appalling as it smells and suggests drinking it with nose held. He is absolutely right. It tastes fairly neutral, actually, a bit like an industrial pinot grigio, crisp and lightly lemon citric, but the nose-held method of wine drinking isn't one I can fully cotton to, so this one gets dumped. And rinsed, vigorously.
I go to ready my glass for the next offering, but wait... it's still there! Rotten eggs and cat pee, rising from the dead like a slasher-movie villain!
Lisa notices it too: "It won't come out!" she says in awed, slightly panicky tones. I take both our glasses to the bathroom and wash them with hot water and soap, which finally does the trick. We all breathe a sigh of relief, briefly consider taking the half-full bottle up to St. John's Cathedral for a rite of exorcism, then decide to simply move on and put this ugly chapter behind us.
As we're sitting in stunned silence, Jason ambles in with his ITB pal Michael from New Zealand (apparently Michael is the proprietor of Isabel Vineyards, although I don't find this out until much later, as he and I have the entire table between us and don't exchange more than a hello or two). We stand to sing the ritual song of welcome, have a brief group hug, and then my Connell puppet, having seniority, is allowed the incantory phrase "Let the drunken festivization begin!" and we're off once more.
Next at bat is the Zind-Humbrecht Gewürztraminer Turckheim 1996: pale straw color, lightly aromatic, pleasantly classically gewürzish; rosy attar, lychee and limestony hints. In the piehole it's a muscular wine with a bit of oiliness, but utterly dry and somewhat rough and sinewy going down, with some stern tartness to the fruit and a gap in the finish. There is a moment of consideration as to the the notion of adding a sugar packet or two to the bottle, but the idea is voted down as overly interventionistic and possibly illegal in this state. This young gewürz needs time to settle down and find itself, maybe bum around the country for a few years, see the sights, you know, smooth out.
Hirtzberger Gruner Veltliner Smaragd 1998: Oh boy, fruity-floral honeydew-pineapple nose. A wine that fools you with friendly fruitiness, then slowly reveals the muscle and sinew underneath. Lightly sweet, strong, dense and coiled up and gnawing its own tail. Good, seriously intense stuff, needs lots of time, but rich and impressive now.
Domaine Barmès Beucher Riesling Rosenberg 1997: Pale tan color; slightly cheesy-funky on the nose, with lemon-stoniness under the odd dairy note. Weighty in the mouth, a bit heavy in fact, with lemon-limey and green-apple tart fruit swimming up through a rather ponderous mouthfeel and coming to a lemon-tangy finish.
Elvenglade Pinot Gris Elvenglade Vineyard Yamhill County 1999: Interesting honeysuckley-floral-kiwifruit notes over some light wet stone minerality. Better acidity than the '98, not nearly as limpid, with plain light yellowfruit and whiteflower notes. Very decent, I like this much more than I liked the last release.
Okay, that's it for whites, and the reds begin to flow around the table. First up is an Isabel Pinot Noir Marlborough 1998, which is a medium-translucent but vibrant ruby-garnet color. Quite a bit of toastiness are the first and second impressions, dark cherry fruit, light clovey hints, but rich cherry and toast predominate. Richly flavored and crisp, medium-bodied and nicely balanced, flavorful and forward but fairly simple, this is a very decent New World-style pinot.
Next is a Roumier Chambolle-Musigny Les Cras 1997: Translucent medium garnet; aromatically a bit ungenerous, I swirl and sniff and coax light beety-earthy-clove-cherry notes out of my glass, but it's quite tightly wrapped right off the bat. The impression of tightness and youth is reinforced when I sip for a minute or two, but there's a lot going on here, a medium-bodied and quite spry wine with plenty of dark coiled-spring cherry-earthy-spicy fruit that is a bit shy of knife-hard but promises delights down the road a ways before it segues into a dark tarry finish. Very beguiling, if not entirely pleasurable at this stage, with a reservoir of hidden strength.
Quinta do Crasto Touriga Nacional Douro 1996: Medium-dark purply-garnet color. Smoky cherry-berry nose with a hint of black olives. Full-flavored, big and roughish, this wine just elbows its way into your mouth and sets up camp where it pleases. Plenty of smoky tart cran-raspberry fruit over a dark base of earth and tarriness. A great match for my rack of veal, and a wine that is drinking rough and friendly now but has plenty of potential for development. Yummy, fun rough & rustic stuff that is also serious cellarworthy wine.
I watch as the next wine comes down the line. Jason pours himself some, takes a sip, and his face turns red while his eyes cross. He casts desperately about for the nearest spit bucket, but it's a good six feet away down the table. "Go for distance!" I urge, and he nearly messes his shirtfront, just making it to the bucket in time. SFJoe's reaction isn't dissimilar, so I suspect this might be a wine for me. I take a pour of the Paloma Merlot Napa Valley 1996 with high hopes: medium-dark to dark garnet-purple; smells of cherry-cassis and chocolate, rich smelling but very two-noteish, with lots of redfruit and lots of chocolatey oakiness, smells like a cocoaberry breakfast cereal. Tastes rich and dark at first, a big burst of choco-berry fruit, but quickly turns astringently wood-tannic and bitter. Kane tries feebly to think of nice things to say about it, but by the second or third sip he's decided to get rid of his remaining bottles. I go back to it late in the evening, and it's even worse, with the exuberant fruit fading and the wood tannins emerging to dominate even the initial attack.
I try to goad Kane into saying something nice about the Paloma, but he accuses me of always misquoting him. I promise to do so no more.
He then goes on to praise my sartorial sense (although he didn't use the word 'sartorial'), calls me a fine figure of a man and finally winds up by tearfully proclaiming that I was truly "one splendiferous individual." Or at least that's what it sounded like from across the room.
Slightly miffed that someone has usurped my place as Bringer of New World Horrors, I pour my own little mystery selections for the assembled.
Mystery Wine 1: Medium-dark garnet; brown sugar and black cherry on the nose, hint of raisin and nail polish. I know what it is so, I sit back and listen happily to the groans of horror. The first "Turley?" guess rolls in, as I thought it might, followed quickly by "Coturri?" and "Brown?", with people quickly running down their mental lists of volatile, raisiny zins. This one also has a bit of a stalky note that SFJoe points out as an interesting conflation of the worst problems of unevenly-ripening zin--unripe greenness and overripe raisininess in one glass! Whee! The wine has good structure in the sense that there's plenty of decent acidity, followed by some assertive fine tannins, but the flavors are all wacky and all over the place and the Jason reads the back label, with its claims of one ton per acre yields, native yeasts, 100-year-old vines, with a "How can they do everything right and yet go so wrong?" voice. (Edmeades Zinfandel Medocino County Ciapusci Vineyard 1997)
Mystery Wine 2: Medium-dark garnet; light nose of smoky black cherry-raspberry. Tastes plummy-earthy and lean, with some rough strong tannins emerging and choking off the finish. A bit of a letdown for me, as I liked the 96 and 97 versions very much as QPR gems, but this is not up to the past two years. There is no real consensus on this except its much more "correct" than the wackily-made Edmeades, but there's not a whole lot of fruit and the wine is a bit nondescript (there is a guess or two that it's cabernet) and lacks the balanced exuberance and cheerful fruit I've found in the past two vintages. (Turley Zinfandel California Old Vines 1998)
Château Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape 1997: Medium to medium-dark garnet color; Surprisingly forward and accessible meaty-fruity nose, very lightly Birkenstocky, but mostly nice clean dark raspberry redfruit. This wine is a beauty; balanced, tangy and meaty-rich, but light and crisply acidic, with a long smoky-berry finish. Really fine stuff, dense and nimble and earthily flavorful. Red of the night? Gotta be, at least so far.
Oh, wait, there are no more reds.
Well, a sweet red, sort of, a Trentadue Angelica 1973: Muddy brown, bit of rancio on the nose, very sweet tasting, slightly goopy feel in the mouth, earthy-brown sugar, raisin and shoyu flavors; thick, sweet and feathery-earthy, an interesting and odd old wine. Pronounced gingery-molasses notes emerge on the finish. Very curious.
And finally, a Domaine des Petits Quarts Bonnezeaux 1995: Medium-light gold color; honey and pineapple on the nose, a wine I've had many times and always enjoyed. Plenty of acidity, good rich fruit, not the size of the 97, and probably not the tight focus of the 96, but who's going to quibble about this nice sweet chenin at this hour? Very tasty, with good happy fruit and a fine minerally background. What's not to like?
Based on his thirty-four years of unselfish service to the wine trade, we summarily and without recourse induct Jason into the New York ITB Hall of Fame, present him with his ceremonial plaque, then, there being no more wine left, we flee like goons afire, knocking down various immobile but innocent diners in our rush to exit the premises.
Just another night in Gotham.