At 4 a.m. the sky was clear. When I looked out the window after doing my 5 a.m. waxing I gaped at a Siberian vista; swirling white sheets of snow, already an inch thick on the ground, two inches on the tree outside our window, piling up in drifts. It was clear that our flight wasn't going to be leaving for Pittsburgh in four hours. We were trapped, trapped like two people unable to go anywhere because of a snowstorm!
This seriousness of the situation settling in on us, we leap into action trying to horn in on someone else's festivities. Dozens of frantic phone calls yield nothing; kicks just keep getting harder to find. Ultimately we decide that the best course is to present someone with a fait accompli, so in a mad final act of desperation we simply jump onto the first train out to the country and arrive shivering and plaintive on the doorstep of internet pariah Andrew Munro and longtime companion Jennifer Munro-Munro, case of wine in hand, an orphaned look in our eyes.
Happily, they fall for it.
Some quick phone calls are made to what they insist on referring to as "The Diner," a stash of crabcakes is broken out and fried up, some bottles are roughly persuaded to render up their contents, and we settle in for some preprandial sippage.
Here's an old friend, the ropeless Puzelat Sauvignon Blanc Touraine 1998, pale and gingery, light hints of chalk and nonspecific citrus. A light, pleasant little wine with a harmonious, crisp feel, although tonight it seems rather wan. There is some other non-ropeless Puzelat wine as well, but I've had my fill of ropey wines lately, and abstain.
Becherelle (Joly) Savennières 1997: After the airy Puzelat this seems quite the menhir, a great serious wine with serious wax and lemon tea with honey hints over a serious base of moist white-quartzy minerals. With air the waxy note resolves into an earthier brown crayon sort of a thing. Quite serious, but when you sip it you sense a hint of a smile, there's some openness here, nice weight and density, a bodybuilder with a Schwarzenneggerrian sense of the absurd. Not a whole lot of striation, but rich and impressive. Serious Savenni¸rres, solid, stony and strong; seems somewhat stern, but strikingly smooth and straightforwardly satisfying. And serious.
Andrew is once more off to prove the merit of his Finger Lakes favorites, which somehow never seem to show well when others are around. He races back from the cellar, a gleam in his eye, saying "This one showed beautifully just last night," while opening a bottle of Hermann J. Wiemer Riesling Finger Lakes Late Harvest 1990. It is, of course, quite badly corked, and poor Andrew is visibly deflated. The rest of us laugh raucously at his consternation, cruel bastards that we are.
Our mirth is probably the result of our poor logic: Ha! we think, we've gotten the obligatory corked bottle out of the way early on with another Finger Lakes wine of Andrew's. Surely, we think, this means we're safe for the rest of the evening...
...or ARE WE?
Well, yes, as it turns out, we are. But that doesn't really negate the bad logic behind our cruel mirth.
Hugues Beaulieu Picpoul de Pinet Coteaux du Languedoc 1999: Pale lemon-gold color. Lightly tropical nose, hints of pineapple with a minerally undertone, some waxy and lanolin hints, kind of interesting if not terribly complex. Tastes pretty good, crisp and full-flavored, with a hint of mineral-oil texture. A bit chunky and not much of a finish, but rather amiable, quite decent, purty okay by me. At around $7, what the kids might call a 'QPR fave, yo.'
Clos de Coulaine (Papin-Chevalier) Savennièrres 1997: One whiff of this and Andrew blurts out "Smells like an ashtray!" I posit that the charry note that he's speaking of reminds me more of the used charcoal in an aquarium filter; we agree to disagree. He sees me jotting this down, leans in and suggests "Disaster in a bottle?" as a possible summation, a notion that I find somewhat extreme. Smoky, flinty smells are the first impression. The wine has nice weight and balance, but is tight and says little, except for an unpleasant charcoal note that floats up in the midpalate and lingers on the finish all by itself. This is odd. A sport.
Domaine de Rochepertuis Cornas 1990: Medium muddy ruby color. Light nose, stirrings of smoked meat and baked yam, dark hints of shoyu and iron, all in a light muted raspberry frame. A lean, layered wine with a lot of structure. Good, although this bottle is showing a little more wear and tear than the last few.
The cab, we are told, will be here in twenty minutes to take us to the "diner." Oh, check that, it's here now. Quick! Don cold weather gear! Scamper, my pretties, scamper for your lives!
On the way out, Andrew turns to the group and says quietly "It's not really a diner. But the woman who runs this restaurant has no business running a restaurant." We accept this information at face value, as we must at this point, and hop in for the five-minute ride into the nearby village.
Once afoot we find a small crowd spilling out of the restaurant and onto the windswept, icy sidewalk. Only the two ladies can fit inside the crowded foyer, but as we peer through the steamed-up plate glass we see that fully half of the tables are quite empty. We keep our noses pressed to the frosted glass, hoping that someone will notice that patrons are slowly succumbing to hypothermia, but the proprietress merely waves cheerfully and proceeds to go about her business of chatting and then chatting some more, followed by what seems to be some urgent nattering, followed by refractory light gossip.
After forty-five minutes our extremities are beginning to turn blue, something that no one should have to hear about. The conversation outside is just turning wistfully to the poor souls who froze to death on Everest when suddenly there is movement from within, space finally opens up, it appears it is now party-seating time. Apparently an employee who had come for dinner has seen the disarray, put her work hat on and taken charge of the situation from the mad proprietress, who is still absentmindedly shifting tables around. The four of us are somehow squeezed awkwardly around a tiny table for two that is situated right in the middle of the only aisle going to the back of the restaurant. Our smiles are starting to feel fixed and glazed, but thank god, we've got scads of wine! Open the bubblies, man, a toast or three!
H. Billiot & Fils Champagne Brut 1990: Pale lemon-gold, lots of bubbles. Smells biscuitty. Tastes tangy and biscuitty, a touch off-dry. Nice balance, nice biscuits. Good enough, but leaves me a little cold.
Huet Vouvray Petillant 1998: Lightly fizzy, light breadiness, lemon-limestone. Not showing quite the richness or depth of the '97 (although the '97 at a similar age was very tight), but it's still very nice, racy and yellowfruity, with an underlying mineral streak and a fairly mellow, easy character.
Domaine du Clos Naudin (Foreau) Vouvray Brut NV: Another lightly fizzy wine, this one is much richer in the nostrils than the Huet, chalky and waxy-yellowfruity, minerals wrapped with yellow apple and pear. Richly fruity, more of everything than the Huet, the wine is still tangy and balanced and quite deep. A joy.
As I am kicked or jostled aside by the seventeenth person going to the restroom or kitchen I decide that my only hope to avoid a fistfight is to shift my chair so that the aisle is blocked completely, thus closing the seven-inch gap that is so attractive to the other customers and staff and forcing them to go around the counter and behind the bar. This seems to work, and the few who ask to get by me are strangely embarrassed by my exaggerated leaping up and overly polite lifting of my chair over my head so they can pass. The lesson is thus learned.
Jennifer, feeling the first sweet rush of alcohol enter her brain, interrogates me blearily about the use of innuendo in my notebook, using as an example my continued use of the phrase 'young and tight.' I attempt to deflect this with a well-timed jape, pointing out that we were all on our way to being pretty tight! Ha! Ha! Everyone stares at me blankly, even when I point out that 'tight' is a synonym for drunkenness. There follows an escalating brouhaha/rhubarb/melˇe/fracas in which my antagonist pulls out her Palm 7 and announces that Merriam-Webster has nine synonyms for 'tight' and that being drunk was NOT one of them. I am forced to wrestle her to the floor, snatch the infernal contraption away, point out that definition number six IS in fact 'slightly drunk,' and squall "In your face, Red!" in a festive New Year's shriek.
Once we've righted the table and composed ourselves we try a Domaine Pinson Chablis Mont-de-Milieu 1996: Pale straw-lemon. Smells rainwatery-stony, tight at first but soon giving up some nice wet rockiness. The wine has a coiled core with a velvety skin, the beginnings of softness. Pretty good, quite young now.
Our sixteen-year-old waitress has thoughtfully provided us with a bread basket full of stale hamburger bun-bottoms and slices of old bagel that resemble tree ring samples, only harder. "Wait," I say, "This must be ship's biscuit. I've read about this in seafaring novels... you have to soak it in water or milk to make it edible, but watch out for the weevils, ha ha ha!"
Our waitress is not amused.
The sound system launches into a cycle of disco hits from the late 70s/early 80s, except that something is curiously missing--the vocals. Yes, you guessed it: our entertainment for the rest of the night is a series of secondhand karaoke tapes, minus of course the vocal track or the live person singing. Baffling at first, by the end of the evening this seems an absolutely perfect choice.
Lisa likes lobster. Lisa orders lobster. No lobster for Lisa. Lobster all sold out, or perhaps they just froze to death while waiting in the cold.
Huet Vouvray Le Haut-Lieu Demisec 1971: The most interesting thing about having this one every two months or so is discovering the individual personalities of the various bottles: each and every one has had its own character, a slightly or not-so-slightly different variation on a theme. This one seems more layered, less intense than the one at last year's Huet-a-Thon, but still with a core of youth and vibrancy that gives the impression that's it's only halfway to where it's going. I am still vigorously kicking myself in the ass for not picking up more of this. Ow. Ow. Ow.
The owner flits around, chirpily dealing out various celebratory trinkets, but I draw the line at putting on a plastic lei. Whence this tradition, my friends? Have plastic leis acquired some kind of association with New Year's Eve? We generally don't wear leis on New Year's Eve in Hawaii unless we're flying or getting married or both, and the whole idea of a plastic lei is just too perverse to get into, but in the spirit of holiday peace I keep my bilious rant mostly in check, choosing to don a festive tiara, something with which I have no cultural associations whatsoever.
Ow. Ow. Ow.
Here's a couple of Burgundies, first a Lignier Clos Saint-Denis 1996: Cloudy medium ruby color. Smells quite beetrooty, clove and raspberry notes. On first tasting there's a touch of petillance, then some pleasantly tart fruit emerges, nicely balanced, medium-bodied, with earthy forest-floor leafy notes emerging more with time and air. Not terribly deep or layered, but very pleasant pinot with poise and grace.
Then a Domaine Jacques Prieure Volnay-Santenots 1995: Medium to medium-light ruby color. I am struck immediately by the ripeness of this wine, with a rich slightly candied cherry nose, hints of horehound, cola and smoke. After the last wine this comes across as very ripe, almost Californian in style and Andrew looks troubled. After twenty minutes or so he finally smiles and says "Ahhh, now it's doing what it's supposed to!" for the wine is slowly losing the candied quality and turning towards spicy earthiness. Surprising, interesting, a bit on the soft, easy-drinking side, but a smooth, velvety specimen with a vague assertion of "11% to 14% alcohol."
Domaine Filleatreau Saumur-Champigny 1986: Tobacco-edged cherry fruit. Light, balanced, earthy. Nice enough wine with some development and some pleasantly layered flavors. There is a certain lack of oomph, a two-dimensional quality in the middle, but the wine rallies on the finish to an earthy-cherry hum.
Moved by this wine, Andrew stands and declares "The Loire is where Burgundy and Bordeaux meet!" We at the table understand, but many of the other diners are confused by this. He then proceeds to sit and focus entirely on constructing a precarious tower of three corks and a conical party hat balanced on top of the bottle of '71 Huet. It is a triumph of structural imagineering.
At the stroke of midnight or thereabouts (the owner runs around shrieking "Anybody got a watch?!") we toast absent friends and the infant year while the proprietress stands and launches into a weepy speech about "friends... being together... memories... sharing special moments..." I can't make out much of it, but she's clearly affected deeply by her own mawkish sentiments and is soon too moved to speak further.
We flee the madhouse soon after midnight, skitter back across icy roads and curl up in front of a crackling decanter. We've got some samples from Andrew's cousin Tony to sort through... I pay close attention because they pay me a lot of money to write about these wines, but only if I say nice things... the more nice words, the more money... they give me other things, too... t-shirts... caps... free dental work...please buy their wine or they'll stop giving me things...
Scott-Clark Cellars Pinot Noir 'Weeds' Central Coast 1999: A retraction: a year ago I called a tank sample of this wine "Light in the mouth, tangy and ethereal and almost not there at all. Where's the beef? A ghost wine... a rare miss for Scott-Clark." Well, color me surprised after tasting it from bottle; it's gained a great deal of weight in the interval, turning darker and more substantial, although it's still far from being a bruiser. No, it's still a light, easy wine, but no longer so entirely insubstantial. Now it's a flickery-light mouthful with some clear pinot character evident. The rains had apparently come right before the grapes were harvested, and there was a brief flirtation with an unnamed French consultant's notion of cryo-extraction, but ultimately it was decided to just let them go and see what happened. It doesn't seem to me that this will ever be a substantial wine, but it's coming into a decent place and is no longer drain fodder.
Scott-Clark Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Unwooded Bin 747 Central Coast 2000 (tank sample): Medium to medium-light garnet color. Quiet hints of red cassis and oregano, clean and pretty and bright-smelling. Not terribly complex, but quite present and accounted for, nasally speaking. I always applaud these folks for their unwooded chardonnay, now this is an even rarer bird, an unwooded cabernet. The nose is juicy, not a lot of richness, just a friendly-fruity quality with the beginnings of complexity, and I'm not nearly as bothered by the flashes of volatile acidity as Andrew is, as I remember the pinot being volatile a year ago and not tonight. Tastes light and fresh, not a lot of weight or density but good balance, nice crispness and cohesion. I'm curious to note a tarry quality that I usually mentally associate with toasted barrels to be quite noticeable here in this sample, which apparently sees no wood anywhere along the line. If this, like the pinot, gains weight with time, it should be quite compelling.
Here's a Lucette and Martin Daubrée Côte-Rôtie 1996: Medium garnet. Light nose, lean and slightly green, with hints of metal shavings. Tastes tart and thin, with a distinct streak of metallic Quonset hut permeating the puckery, green fruit. Unpleasant. Bad bottle, or bad wine?
Sheesh. Let's try a Fattoria Galardo Terra di Lavoro 1997: Dark garnet. Smells of cedar and dark candied cherry. We taste it, and the taste is very different than the smell--the wine is dominated by a strong brown bay leaf or tobacco leaf taste; tasting this is much like chewing on the end of a cigar, and the rather stern tannins can only distract me for a minute. Very strange, not very tasty at all.
Okay, let's soldier on, with a Barone Ricasoli Casalferra Toscana 1997: Dark garnet with a purple rim. Smoky-toasty nose, slightly candied raspberry aromas. Tastes ripe and fairly generic--piles of smoky oak, forward berry-cassis fruit, some fine strong tannins. Undistinctive, until it falls apart with a bit of air, and the cherry fruit, alcohol and astringent wood tannins emerge to brawl feverishly with one another.
These last wines angry up our blood, and one by one we hurl the guilty bottles to their doom on the driveway below, each landing with a satisying crash. "Haaapppy Noooo Yearrrrr!" we wail as each bottle explodes into a festive shower of ugly wine and glass shards. This ritual seems to alarm the cat, who flees yowling into the cellar.
Andrew suddenly freezes, blurts out "I know what we need!" and races down the stairs, returning with a Château Cheval Blanc St. Emilion 1964.
I'd have started flinging bottles hours ago if I'd known that was all it took for him to break this out.
The fill is a little low, and Andrew is concerned because his last bottle didn't show well, but when he eases the cork out and takes a sniff, a wide smile breaks out on his leathery visage. A pour, and it's a medium ruby color at its heart, ambering and slightly brown at the rim, smells big and spicy, brick-red fruit that has spread and feathered but remains strikingly sweet-smelling and lush at the core. Hints of earth, tea, fruitcake spiciness and the long-unused bowl of a pipe that you find on the mantle of an old, old house. At first taste there's a muted tart cherry-earth foray and the wine feels rather lean, a bit thin and worn, but as it proceeds on its way it fills out, turning more towards earthiness and gaining weight until the quiet finish is like the sustain on a concert grand piano. I smell it some more and think of old burnished mahogany. Just great.
The Cheval Blanc calms our raging blood, and we dig into Jennifer's cherry-chocolate chip cookies. I almost lose a tooth biting down on a cherry pit. I look over at her and she only shrugs and says "Unfiltered?"
Andrew brings up something that has been a topic of conversation every time we've jeebused lately: "Is it true that 'moëlleux' translates literally into 'full of marrow'?"
I'm not certain, say I, although Robert told me that it translates best into 'mellow.'
"Oh," he says. "Well, maybe it's just one of those things that nobody's sure about?"
Sure, I say, that's probably just what it is.
There is an uncomfortable silence, then we plunge ahead, as we must, with a Pierre Luneau Le "L" de Pierre Luneau Muscadet SevSurSomething 1989. This label... this label is really hard to read. It's all swirly and swoopy... whirly and whoopy... girly and goopy...
Oh yah ho, sorry. How many wines have we had already? This one is a stony-smelling wine, smells like a rock pile. In fact, it's quarrylicious! Stoneriffic!
Huet Vouvray Clos du Bourg Mëllow Premiere Trie 1997: Andrew puts his glass down and says "How could this wine ever be any better?" I reply that I'm sure with some age it will gain additional depth and complexity; he shakes his head. "How could this wine ever be any better?" I reply that, well, you were at the big Huet tasting, you saw how the wines got more and more profound over the decades, and he says, rather more insistently "How could this wine ever be any better?"
I say merely "Couldn't happen. Not possible."
He seems satisfied, and goes back to smelling what's in his glass. It is rather hard to imagine, as the wine is a complete experience even now. I find this most extravagant of the three 97 PT wines, and tonight it's as compelling a youngster as any of us can envision, layered and rich, exuberant but with a happy, festive sense of balance. There is a nice firm spine, but it's covered with silky, sexy layers of velvety flavors and scents. Truly profound and sinfully pleasurable, a wine that stirs the intellect and the loins equally. Medium-sweet and then a bit more, it's not really desserty-sweet. Jennifer looks thoughtful and says "I don't even like dessert wines, but I'm going to buy some of this."
We sit quietly and enjoy. Finally, our eyes meet: it's Banyuls time.
Why, it's a Traginer diagonal tasting! First the token white one, a Domaine du Traginer 'Tuilé' Vin Doux Naturel NV: Gold-amber color (tuilé is 'tile'), smells bright and vividly apple-melonfruity, almost muscatlike in its sweet brightness, with a light hint of orange-vanilla creamsicle. Tastes medium sweet, honeyed apple candy and orange marmalade, tangy through to the finish, with a creamy coating. Someone calls it a 'gewürz on steroids,' but that only captures the character and exuberance of the flavors, not the specific flavor profile itself. Very nice.
Here's a Domaine du Traginer Banyuls Rimage Mise Tardive 1995: Medium ruby with garnet highlights. Black cherry and cocoa powder on the nose, medium sweet to taste, raspberry and cocoa. Soft, light, earthy, expressive.
Then it's a Domaine du Traginer Hors d'Age Vin Doux Naturel NV: Medium-light ruby color. Bit sweeter, a bit more oxidized and sherrylike--nutty berry fruit, hints of caramel. Not as tarry-dark as the RMT, a bit sweeter and simpler-smelling, more aromatic but not as earthy and deep. Tawny hints over medium muted berry fruit. Not bad at all, but I prefer the others.
Finally, a Domaine du Traginer Banyuls 1995: Fairly light amber-brown color. Smells layered and complex and older than its years would indicate--toffee, leather, rust, sweetly earthy and brown, light but interesting. A light bodied wine with medium-light sweetness and sufficient but not aggressive acidity. Mellow, earthy and feathered.
This last one finally does me in, as it goes down sooooo smoothly and sweetly that I just keep filling my glass, filling my glass, until suddenly it's 7 a.m. and we've settled the important philosophical issues that have plagued mankind down through the ages, but when I attempt to head towards the guest room the stairs seem to have lost a good measure of their solidity.
Five hours of troubled sleep later it is suggested to me that I may have a potential course of legal action to pursue against the manufacturer of such a seductively sweet liquid, but I eschew the court system in the spirit of New Year's forgiveness and say only "Muh" as I shamble out into the day.
And so I begin the year 2001: drunk on heavenly wine, in somebody else's bed, hot babe by my side.
May it ever be thus.