So Lisa and I arrive a bit early at the spacious digs of the WLDG's own SFJoe so that we may sit at the feet of the master hospitalitist, perhaps be of assistance, perhaps learn a few of his mysterious and delicious secret gourmetic ways. He's poured us a nice Austrian starter bubbly when the phone call comes. It's Joseph "Lou" Dressner's security coordinator Mona Moore, calling to make sure the coast is clear and to assert rather forcefully that no photography will be permitted at this event after the great man arrives with João Roseira of Quinta do Infantado, tonight's guest of honor.
Word is passed. Cameras are confiscated. We sip our Bründlmayer Brüt 1995 nervously while we wait; it's a pale straw-tan wine with light butter-butterscotchy-bready notes on the nose, and a creamy apple juice & pear taste, a bit round, with a hint of sweet oxidation, more like a creamy white burg with bubbles than a typical blanc de blanc. Interesting and very sippable (for a chardonnay), although there is some feeling that this bottle isn't showing the zing that others have. Jeff Connell and .sasha confer on this wine and on bubblies in general, a luxury that has become a necessity. I listen with furrowed brow, nodding occasionally.
The doorbell sounds and it's Callahan, bearing his usual twelvepack of wine, saying only that he prepares the way for the one who comes after him. We know Joe and João can't be far behind. We gather in small groups in the kitchen and living room, with Marco Freitas, Jayson Cohen and the irrepressible Brad Kane trickling in one by one and shaking hands all around.
Another white, a Delager Chassagne-Montrachet Les Vergets 1990: Medium gold, deep color; whoa, very limp, buttery & flat. More oxidation, this time in spades. Callahan, wrinking his nose, calls it a waste of alcoholic intake.
Marco and I chat about the soon-to-be-arriving guest of honor and the house style at Infantado. I haven't had enough of the wines to offer up much insight, and Marco mentions that he's read a certain Mr. Callahan's notes on the Garnet website, so I suggest he go right to the source. He looks puzzled--you mean... he's here? Yep. I know. Not what you expected, universal reaction, had it myself. I point out the non-elderly, non-fusty guy with the glasses who's over by the table calling something or other 'fake,' and we're right back on track again.
Oh, the fake wine: Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 1999: Very pale straw color. Lime cream, grapefruit & a nice shot of grassy boxwood on the nose--the wine prompts a discussion of our kitties, and it turns out that Jayson's cats and ours share a veterinarian. It's vivid Marlborough sauvignon, bright and effusive, with a sense of balance along the lines of the 97, not quite as extreme as the 96, but zingy and cheerful with rounded edges. Callahan loudly derides it as 'Fresca' but this is a pretty, friendly wine that's racy and flavorful. Good stuff, and a great match for Joe's fresh sea urchin roe with shoyu dip.
And here's another white making the rounds: P. Pernot Bienvenue Batard-Montrachet 1993: light, creamy-lemon & pear notes, soft and nonconfrontational. Medium-light in the mouth, good balance with a slightly viscous feel, bit of yellow appleskin. This is a bit one-dimensional, but it's a fairly pleasant dimension, and there's a nice long soothing finish. Small and quiet and pleasant enough, it lulls you along with soft whispers and gentle entreaties.
The door is flung wide and in strides Joe Dressner, with João not far behind. Introductions all around, hands are shaken, cheeks kissed, glasses filled. Dressner proclaims "Let the drunken festivization begin! Bring me bottle after bottle to taste and understand!" and we obediently begin to do so, starting ceremonially with a special white to celebrate João's fortuitous presence in our fair city.
Chateau Morrisette 'Our Dog Blue' White Table Wine N.V. Virginia: Pale straw color. Light gardenia & honey hints on the nose, sweet-smelling and simple. Bit of sweetness in the mouth too, a bit like a simple, slightly underripe spätlese, sweet and lightly quaffable, not a particularly jagged little wine. There is no designation on the bottle of any kind of alcohol level, so Dressler immediately gets on his cellphone to try and track down the vigneron, but can only reach a voice mail. I can only think that the alcohol level is something you you you oughta know. I learn later it's apparently mostly riesling.
Mittnacht-Klack Riesling Rosacker 1996: Lisa throws the yellow flag on this one. Corked. And here we thought that corked wines were a thing of the past. Just goes to show you can't believe everything you read.
And just like that, we're done with the whites. We begin with some reds just in time for our host to pass around samples of his famous tuna tartare. I make a point of trying to watch him prepare it, but it's like trying to pick up playing the violin by watching Paganini. He grouses about having to use table water crackers instead of rice crackers (the preferred delivery platform), but we assure him that it's okay, really. No, really. Seriously.
Tapada de Coelheiros Alentejano 1996: Deep medium garnet. Tart rich black fruit, smoky oak, good balance, some strong rough tannins clamp down on the finish. Dunno. Nice dark tangy fruit, but it's not saying much to me. Seems closed.
Arns Cabernet Sauvignon Napa 1993: Medium-dark garnet. Aromatically light, seems kind of shut down, showing some signs of unsteadiness, more disjointed than the bottle we had last summer. Dark black & red fruit, some smoke & cedary hints, a medium-bodied wine, tight and crisp and a bit hard & tart. There is some kind of misunderstanding as to whether the people who make this wine are 'farmers' or 'foreigners,' at which point Drezhner perks up and endorses it heartily. Apparently they work with their hands, or they work on their tans, I dunno, the conversation turns importer-esoteric on me. This is a controversial wine, as it seems to upset the more sensitive types. Andrew, feeling his oats, dumps his out in a gesture of exaggerated horror. Poor .sasha is seen wandering through the kitchen eying his glass and muttering "Why? Why?" Frankly, I don't see what all the fuss is about. It's a decent wine, but it doesn't do much for me now and seems to be coming a little unglued.
Niepoort 'Redoma' Douro 1996: This is a Niepoort wine? Can't tell from the label. Deep medium garnet. Rich, tight nose, blackberry tinged with red raspberry, smoke and dark earthiness. A big wine but a tight one, a bit rough around the edges, smoky, not giving much, but good weight, backbone & balance. Time?
Ridge Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley Lytton Springs 1991: Medium red. Smoky black cherry-raspberry nose, velvety and beguiling. The dark, earthy zinberry fruit has taken a step back, but has a nice rich core, and is open and feathering slightly at the edges, turning dark on the lingering finish. Nice crisp acidity buoys the frame of fruit. Drinking nicely, but I wouldn't leave any more too much longer.
Ridge Geyserville 1995: Others were more taken with this than I was--I found it a little shy, aromatically reticent. Silky, softer than the Lytton and tighter as well, the berry fruit has receded a little more than I'd expected, leaving more tarriness in evidence on the midpalate that turns a bit harsh on the finish. Normally I'm a Geyserville slut, but I'm a little dubious about this one.
Ridge Monte Bello California 1990: Medium to medium-dark garnet. Dark rich cassis & graphite, with a clear herbal oregano-olive streak that puts Kane momentarily off his beet-stuffed ravioli. Silky-rich, supple and balanced, with cedary high notes and a minerally bass line. This wine is a bit sharp now, still has some rough edges, some gritty tannins, but it's a beauty, with a long and distinguished future ahead of it. My favorite of the night so far, and the winner of the Thunderbird Prize.
Ravenswood Pickberry Red Table Wine 1987 (50% cab, 35% franc, 15% merlot): Slightly funky-barny edge to the plain, slightly tired cassis flavors, an odd earthy-mushroomy quality. Tangy cassis fruit is a bit thin and gives way to a host of gritty tannins. Very acidic for the remaining fruit. Strange, disjointed and over the hill.
Now SFJoe brings out his Flintstonian standing rib roast and all of us who eat such things (and a few of us who don't) set to our plates with renewed vigor. Oh my god, Monte Bello and rib roast... this certainly beats a sharp stick in the eye.
Quinta do Mouro Estremoz 1997: Nice velvety-smooth nose, almost zinlike choco-black cherry/berry. Forward and rich and silky in the mouth, friendly and appealing, richer and riper than the 96, which I was ambivalent about. Now I'm sold--this is good stuff. Portuguese zin? Works for me.
M. Bulas Cruz Gouvyas Douro Colheita 1997: (I don't know why this says Colheita, as it's dry table wine.) Medium garnet; cherry, cassis, cola on the nose. Medium bodied, undremarkable, finishes abruptly.
Now it's time for a mystery wine that I've brought specifically to horrify certain tender easily-horrified souls: Lava Cap Petite Sirah El Dorado 1996 is poured blind, and the shrieks and howls of dismay and horror are heard clear across town. "Trancendental!" enthuses Drenssler, and he doesn't exactly mean in a good way. Poor Robert has to actually be held down and have a leather bit put in his mouth so he doesn't bite his own tongue during the seizures. It's quite a spectacle, and I think I see João nervously looking for emergency exits. No one Actually, tasting it myself later, the wine isn't quite right (although even though if it was it would've gotten the same reaction): Deep dead purply-black; the tart blackberry-laced fruit has an oddly medicinal edge to it, a burnt-rubber quality that makes me think this wine is just a bit cooked. Nevertheless, mission accomplished, little feller.
Château Roc de Cambes Cotes de Bourg 1989: Earthy-mushroomy hints are the first impression on the nose, muted, slightly faded dark red fruit underneath. A wine with a light mouthfeel and a crisp fleshy earthyfruit attack that fades a bit too quickly. Crisp, but soon thin and tannic. Seems past its prime.
Biale Zinfandel Sonoma Monte Rosso 1996: Translucent medium-red color, oddly light considering the lush overripe black cherry-brown sugar nose that is permeating the area around this wine. This is a big raisiny-lush zin creature, with a healthy dose of wood & more brown sugariness, over the top and in big need of spine. Not my kind of zin. Roundly pelted with metaphoric rocks and garbage, but it's not quite that bad.
And now we come to the real show. The table is cleared, desserts are poised and João starts the ports flowing.
Quinta do Infantado Tawny Port Meio-Seco: Matte dark reddish color, with a slight brownish cast; slightly nutty berry-based aromas, seems redder than most tawnies, more berryful. Tastes earthy--matte red clay mouthfeel with an overtone of nuttiness. Nice balance, good crispness, medium-light sweetness. Very tasty.
Quinta do Infantado Ruby Port: Almost the same color as the Tawny, only a bit more reddish and lacking the brownish cast. Plenty of dense earthy brambly berryfruit, dark and grittily rich through the midpalate and staying keyed on red through the smooth finish. A great deal of character and depth for a ruby port. Twelve bucks? (Lisa, if you're reading this, go buy some of this please. HURRY!)
Quinta do Infantado 20-Year-Old Tawny Port: Translucent brown-red-amber. Nutty-almond dominates the nose, more nuttiness, less fruit. Nice, but I actually prefer the freshness of the regular Tawny.
Quinta do Infantado Vintage Port 1989: Not getting much of a nose on this one... I swirl and swirl, but it's very quiet, soft dark red fruit, hints of similar earthiness as the ruby, but fainter, more muted. Tastes a little muted and quiet, too. Not a whole lot going on. Curiously mute--João says it's matured already.
Suddenly the powers that be decide that now is the time to open Marco's venerable Madeira. I think Marco itching to get out of here before midnight might have had something to do with it, but you never know.
Barbeito Malvazia Madeira 1900: Muddy medium-brown, matte brownish. It certainly smells beguiling. I've never been a fan of Madeira, but this has a great sour nutty-brown ginger-shoyu nose, complex and strange. A taste, and I'm a little surprised by the level of sweetness, which is fine by me. There's a sweet-sour thing going on--the wine is feathery-brown and more curious than pleasurable, a bit sharp. Joe says it reminds him of army men under the magnifying glass. The conventional wisdom seems to think it won't open up for three to five days. Andrew thinks it needs another hundred years to work out the kinks and opines that the truly great wines only show best when you're dead. Connell agrees. Jayson head-butts the strudel.
Finally, sensing that the level of intoxication may be minimally sub-optimal, Joe hits the storage unit and pops a Nikolaihof Reisling Steinerhund Spatlese 1997: Pale gold; very tropicalfruity & spritzy, is there botrytis, or is my nose playing tricks on me? Very tangy & tart, stern white & yellow fruit with a green-apple tartness to the taste. Smells very lush, tastes stern and tightly-wrapped.
Well, the time is creeping towards the witching hour when all good winos must scurry back under the rocks they prefer to call home before they fall into a motionless heap. João takes the opportunity to very graciously pretend he wasn't shocked and appalled by all the silly goings-on and we all drink a toast to both our guest of honor and our Iron Host, whose hospitality is such stuff as dreams are made on, then begin to disperse. João, Lou and Callahan all weave off into the night, and the rest of us soon follow.
I realize I've missed the strange Greek wine-in-a-red-clay-pot that Callahan has been toting around, as well as the 97 Infantado. Well, you can't catch 'em all, and I've already posted on the '97, so whaddaya gonna do?
Thus endeth another night of festivization and understanding. We are indeed blessed.