LUCID DREAMING AT CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-JOE



When the call comes in from SFJoe that he's planning a small weeknight shindig in his swingin' downtown bachelor pad and would appreciate our presence, it's a little tricky to weasel out of the family reunion (our airline tickets are nonrefundable), but such minutiae cannot be allowed to interfere. Resolved: when Joe calls, you show up.

I hustle down after work, patiently endure the obligatory stripsearch in the lobby, give a little wave to Scarlett Johansson's security detail, and head upwards towards the gourmet heaven at the end of the elevator.

Joe greets me at the door with an Oscar Acciaioly Sercial Dry Fine Madeira Apertif Wine 1922. Madeira right off the bat? Joe points at the label "See, it says right there that it's an apertif, so we have to start with it." Can't argue with that. It's an amber-orange color, with (as Joe points out) a touch of green at the rim. Smells of marzipan, caramel, toffee & vanilla bean, toasted marshmallow. Tastes sour and aggressively acidic, quite vivid, even has a bit of a finish. Pretty decent, for Madeira.

Turns out this is a dinner with guest of honor entertainment mogul Eric Ellenbogen, the man behind Lassie, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Underdog and the Lone Ranger, among many other pop-culture milestones. Eric's brother Mark has flown in from the West Coast, where he's apparently a bigshot sommelier of some renown, and we're also joined by Eric's friend with the euphonious name of Chris. I'm told other VIPs will be along soon, but am given no details as to their identity. Well, except for Lisa, who'll be along in her own good time.

I sidle up to Eric's brother, who has the wiry-artsy mien of a jazz dance instructor, and toss off my obligatory witticism: "You know, I hate to say it, but this Madeira seems like it might be cooked...." He eyes me blankly for a moment, looks into his glass, mutters something under his breath like "Yeah, well, that's pretty much the definition of Madeira." SFJoe assures him I'm just being silly, but he doesn't seem convinced.

Oh dear, this could be a long night.

But here's .sasha at the door, looking lean and hungry as ever, and here's Joe passing around a bottle of Huet Vouvray le Haut-Lieu Sec 2005. Hey now, smells quite ripe, with almost tropical pineapplicious hints over the usual taut lemon-chalk. Not as severe as young Huet secs can sometimes be, not as focused and nervy as the '02, more broadbeamed, more heft, with an almost languid friendliness that I find striking. Perhaps a hint of sweetness takes the edge off, but it's very happy to be consumed tonight. .sasha ponders aloud that it's almost rieslinglike, "Could be an Urzinger Wčrzgarten, perhaps...?" This doesn't make a damn bit of sense to me, but because it's .sasha I nod solemnly and pretend to understand. At any rate it's a very nice match with the wild boar sausage.

There's some kind of 1908 Madeira as well, but it passes me by during my Huet reverie. Smells nice though, lots of toffee and caramel, orange rind. And here's Lisa, fresh off her surgery rotation and still sore from some non-ergonomic retractor holding and toe-severing. We all soak in the grandeur that is Châteauneuf-du-Joe, admiring the fossilized annelids inlaid in the fireplace stone, the twin dishwashers, the ermine-lined commode, the comprehensive Girls Gone Wild library, all the delightful trappings of a winegeek who made good. Joe announces that tonight's main course will be a preparation of the rare heirloom Kurosawa pig, culled from hogs raised on small family farms in the Mauritius Islands on a diet of ground dodobird bone meal, or something along those lines. I'm not a foodie so I don't recall the exact details and am forced to invent them at a later date, but it sure sounds like it's going to be a treat.

But first, here's a Franz Hirtzberger Riesling Singerriedel Smaragd 1990. Wow, lots going on here, nosally speaking: lamp oil and beeswax mingle with quiet pineapple-pear yellowfruitiness, touch of gardenia whiteflorality up high. Tastes imposing, tart and weighty, with some fleshiness around the edges, but a solid rocky core. Very nice, very substantial riesling that muscles its way down my throat and plants a flag somewhere near my spleen.

The guest of honor mentions that he eats at the same swanky Manhattan restaurant every day, opining that lately the food hasn't always blown him away. I suggest that it might in fact be because he eats there every day. Can one be blown away by a place one eats at every day? I offer that if I drank nothing but '61 Latour and '21 Huet with lunch every day the bloom would eventually leave the rose. "It's a social scene," he explains, "everyone knows everyone else, we all know the staff, it's a friendly place to be."

This I can appreciate. "Like Cheers," I suggest brightly, "And you're Norm!" I'm not sure he buys the comparison, but he's unfailingly polite and plays along nicely.

Among these luminaries I begin to feel a growing sense of inadequacy, something I find can usually be reduced with the generous application of wine, so I apply myself therapeutically to an F.X. Pichler Riesling Diersteiner Kellerberg Smaragd 1992. Another big-smelling wine, broadly tropical, lemon and ripe pineapple wrapped in vinyl, pressed flower hints, yum. Tastes similarly large, tart and crisp but round and mouthfilling, broad-shouldered riesling with just a whisper of sweetness and a hint of a burn on the finish. Lovely stuff that just keeps getting better and better as the night goes by. At ten o'clock I really like it, at eleven I'm infatuated, by midnight I'm in love, by one I'm pleading with it to run away with me to Brazil. Plus, it's totally the wine to drink with the Kurabati pig.

Midway through dinner I glance around, and .sasha is curled up on the couch. "Poor lad," I cluck, "He's had a long day."

Jasmin Côte-Rôtie 1985 (magnum). Medium ruby red color, bricking slightly in from the rim. Very pretty smelling, smoked meat, dirt and African violets, maybe a hint of plumeria whiteflorality up high. A sip, and it's a lightbodied wine that still manages a substantial mouthprint, bright acidity enervating muted dirtberry redfruit. Seems to be fading slightly around the edges, but there's plenty to like here. Fades a bit on the finish, light bitterness poking through the earthy redness. Supple, earthy and expressive. I probably wouldn't hold it a lot longer, but it's awfully nice tonight, and matches with the Kumumoto pig almost as well as the riesling.

.sasha is back from the couch, tasting the Jasmin, murmuring under his breath, returning to the couch, curling up into a ball.

Huet Vouvray le Haut-Lieu Moëlleux Premiere Trie 1947. The few occasions I've had the opportunity to taste the storied '47 Huet, the bottles have been a bit off, not in good form, damaged or just cranky. This one isn't, and I begin to understand in my gut what all the fuss is about. Topaz-amber color at the core, with that greenish-tinged rim that so beguiles Joe. Smells like love, all quince paste and dried apricot, honey and tangerine rind, clove, toffee, hay, other unidentifiable spicy things. Tastes quite sweet, perhaps not as sweet as the modern Constance Cuvées, but certainly the equal of the big '97 1ere Trie wines, markedly sweeter than the '02 1ere Tries. There's firm but not aggressive acidity, a bit of tannic fuzziness on the caressingly long finish. Spicy, delightful, happymaking stuff.

I have this wandering notion in my head, which at times crystallizes into something like this: the nummiest Vouvrays will never be the very sweet ones, because anything much above demisec-level sweetness acts like lacquer, filling in bits and glossing over others, weighing down the delicate highs and plumping up the delicate lows. Sometimes this idea seems to make sense, sometimes it seems absurdly reductive. Demisec Vouvray is my idea of heaven, and sometimes in Vouvray this sweet the sugar threatens to gloss over the complexity; in this case it doesn't quite manage. Perhaps best to leave this another ten years until it's bone-dry? Or maybe not, it's awfully nice right now in its sweet state.

I remark that I'd never heard of pre-90s wines with the 1ere Trie designation until the recent reorganization at the domaine. Was this perhaps a retroactive designation? No one is certain.

Joe drops a bombshell. "That's not all: there's an even rarer third Huet '47, even sweeter than this: the legendary '47 Doux, thick as pancake syrup. I have some, but I've never tried it."

Awed silence.

"So what you're saying," I stammer, "is that you're serving us second-tier '47 Huet?" He confesses that yes, it is so. "Works for me," I admit.

.sasha, back in his couchnest, is jarred awake by his electronic gizmo ringing tinnily like a 70s rotary phone ("I LOVE that ringtone, I've got to have that," says Chris). When he checks it his bleary eyes widen. "Looks like the Mature Huet in Play Signal has been lit--Jayson Cohen is in a cab, on his way over." Joe, checking his GPS system, says "Jeff Connell, he's racing in this direction too. How do they find out so quickly?"

There is a collective dive for the Huet bottle as we gamely attempt to polish it off before the poachers arrive. Sadly, we are not up to the task; enough amber liquid remains to present an attractive nuisance to any Loire geek within a twelve-mile radius.

Speaking of which, there's a sudden banging on the door and here's the elusive Citizen Connell, fresh faced and pink cheeked from this afternoon's LDM Real Wine World Domination Conflagration. He's followed close behind by Dr. Jayson Cohen, Esq., dressed in full monkeysuit regalia. Both immediately begin sniffing at the wainscotting, casting about for the resting place of the '47 Huet while the rest of us stand and watch.

"Maybe we can distract them with Bordeaux," whispers Joe, who races to the storage unit and plucks out a Château Haut-Bailly Graves 1970, only to have the cork disintegrate on him. "My kingdom for an Ah-So," he mutters darkly as he fusses with the increasingly stubborn corkshards. Lisa fidgets, wanting desperately to put her corkskills into play, but restrains herself nobly as Joe takes the entire burden on himself. After a good while he succeeds, but it's a Pyrrhic victory, as the wine is flat and tealeaf-tasting, oxidized. Ah, good ol' tree bark, gotta love it.

Joe heads back to the storage unit while Jayson measures Lisa's and my hair, finds mine "at least two inches longer." Hah! When I congratulate him on his having joined one of the three proper professions he points out that he's now a Jewish mother's wet dream. "DOCTOR! LAWYER! I ROCK!" he crows, and is showered with praise for his many accomplishments. Can a Divinity degree be far behind?

On his return swing, Joe rousts .sasha from his nest on the couch, saying "We'll need your identification skills for this next one!" .sasha stumbles out blearily. I take a sniff and recoil. "We don't need .sasha, I can identify this: it's a corked wine."

General dismay. Joe sighs, "I think you might want to pay a little attention to it anyway," and shows us the label. It's a Château Montrose St. Estèphe 1921. I feel my stomach do a little sideways lurch into my spleen. Goddamn, a wine waits around eighty-five years to be drunk only to have this happen. Oh, hamburgers.

"I know this wine," says .sasha. "I've had it several times today."

"Today? Did you just say you'd had this wine several times today?" asks Jayson incredulously.

"No," says .sasha, "not today today."

Or at least that's what I think I hear. But I'm distracted by the wine, so I can't swear to it. It's medium-lightbodied, lean and racy, crisply acidic and taut. I marvel again at the youthfulness of the well-honed redfruit; served blind I'd peg this as a corked wine from the 70s or thereabouts. There's a tannic streak that is shy at first but becomes rather aggressive as the wine heads into its finish. Damn, this must've been a pretty severe mouthful when young.

Here begins a peculiar exercise in wishful thinking, as everyone swirls and sniffs, swirls and sniffs, attempting to will the wine to not be corked. Strangely, it seems to be working for a little while, as the character of the wine starts to show through the mustiness. It's quite startlingly youthful for a near-nonagenarian; calm muted redfruit laced with stewed tomato, cedar chips and flinty minerality. And of course musty cardboard, the skunk at the garden party that we're all trying to ignore. Connell brightens a little. "It's better if you don't swirl it," he suggests.

I cease swirling. Is it better? Maybe, maybe.... or perhaps we're just getting used to the taint, as the wine does seem to stage a rally of sorts. Hopes soar as the mustiness seems to recede. "By god, it may be a first," says Lisa, "I may have to pick up the yellow flag and put it back in my pocket." We're poised at the edge of a miracle!

But it is not to be. The taint, seemingly on the run, rallies and soon puts down roots, never again to be budged. This is the kind of thing that makes anti-cork fanatics out of otherwise rational winegeeks. When five cheap Portuguese table wines in a row are corked when you're trying to open something for dinner (as happened to us earlier in the week) you can shrug it off and bitch a little, but when a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is destroyed it gnaws at your brain at night, in the twilight time between sleep and wakefulness, until it drives you mad.

Final consensus: this is the best corked 85-year-old red wine most of us have tasted recently. Well, besides .sasha, of course. Joe wistfully places the empty bottle on his wall of honor, right next to the '91 Monte Bello.

Where it remains to this day.




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