CAPE MAYHEM, OR DON'T LAUGH WHEN THEY SAY 'ABSOLUTELY'



FRIDAY: ARRIVAL

The preparations were worthy of the Army Corps of Engineers: Lisa and I had made our room reservations months in advance, as a huge crowd of winos and birders was expected to descend on the central historic district of scenic Cape May, New Jersey, for the annual Memorial Day convention of the New York-New Jersey Birding and Outdoor Imbibing Society.

The weather reports were discouraging, projecting thunderstorms all weekend long, and indeed it's ominously cloudy as we roll into the parking lot of the Hermitage Inn Southwinds, the quaint country motel (AAA-approved) just outside the main drag that many of the New York-New Jersey crowd have adopted as their seaside home away from home. We're in the La Chapelle Room on the second floor, down the hall from the lavish Chave Suite, which is occupied this year by noted wine impresario Denyse Louis and her lovely and unassuming husband Joseph 'Slash' Dressner.

After a quick cleanup we're off in time for the opening ceremonies, picking up old friends Jennifer Munro and her lovely and boyish husband Andrew Scott-Munro along the way. These festivities are always a bit of a bore, but we've always skipped them before and people are beginning to notice. At least they're pouring the Domaine des Baumard Vouvray Petillant Turquois NV, which is fizzy and lean and stony, a wine with an edge that washes away the road dust nicely but whose leanness doesn't bear a lot of scrutiny. We chat and tipple while the birders drone on about the success of the piping plover breeding program. There is a brief flurry of interest when Pierre-Jacques Druet, in his keynote speech, puts forth the notion that one cannot properly taste wine by the seashore, but there is much murmuring and rolling of eyes as well as some muttered protestations of "shame, shame" from the locals. During this fracas Andrew breathlessly reports a rumor circulating among the winos that Robert Callahan has been sighted buying shiitake mushrooms and brown rice at the local Wa-Wa, but no one can confirm it, and we finally decide to disperse for some sightseeing and reassemble later for dinner at Daniel, a local wino hotspot.

We meander around the town, window shopping and stopping for a snack at a local bistro, where our waiter introduces himself as "Josh," prompting Joe to obligingly go around the table introducing each of us to him. When we ask for water he yelps "Absolutely!" which Dressner finds somewhat excessive. More on that later.

When we arrive at Daniel the Maitre d' races over and insists on relieving us of our rucksacks full of bottles. I hand mine over slightly nervously, although the fact that there is a trio of very large glasses at each of our place settings plus an entire extra table covered with spare stemware does make me feel better. This and the rather overly attentive service makes me worry that perhaps they've mistaken us for rich Opus One-drinking snobs or something other than the common drunks that we are.

We are joined by Lisa's brother John and his new bride Nina, French scholars in town to attend the sister convention for the Alliance Quebecois Ornithologique et Oenologique (QAOO). Speaking of siblings, it turns out that Denyse's sister and her husband have sailed their boat up from the Central America in order to attend as well, so it's a real family weekend.

Our new waiter introduces himself as "Adam," prompting us to go around the table one by one introducing ourselves to him. Joe presses him for a last name, but he seems unsettled and launches quickly into a rambling fifteen-minute explication of the evening's various appetizers and specials. We basically ignore him, as there's drinking to be done. Joe asks about a spit bucket and I see Adam's eyes go wide as saucers -- I hiss Joe down ("Ixsssnay on the itssspay..."), reminding him that we want to say DUMP bucket, as the word 'spit' frightens and horrifies even savvy civilians. The rephrase made, the bucket appears.

First off is another of Andrew's pet Finger Lake projects, a Hermann Wiemer Dry Riesling Finger Lakes 1991. It's got some pleasant minerally hints, but the nose is dominated by vinyl, smothering anything that might be going on underneath--the wine smells entirely like a beanbag chair. Crisp tasting, but rather pallid and watery, not much going on. The followup is the Hermann Wiemer Dry Riesling Finger Lakes 1992, which apparently saw only 60% new vinyl, as there are low-intensity hints of mineral and pine peeping through. It's a quieter wine to smell and has more balance when tasted, with a touch of sweetness and some light sulfurous notes, but it too is fairly lackluster and seems tired. Perhaps it was the long drive down.

Adam is doling out the bottles rather too slowly, and we urge greater speed as we try a Domaine de la Pepiere Muscadet 1995. The lack of overt vinyl on the nose is somewhat disconcerting at first, but a quick nosal recalibration fixes that. The wine is all minerals, airy-rainwatery and steely, with a low-frequency honeydew note clothing the bright, slightly stern spine. Very pretty, a whiplike wine that wakes up my tastebuds and gives them the bitch-slapping that they secretly crave.

We're short on whites, so we move on to a Domaine de Peyron Cotes d'Auvergne Cuvée les Liens 1999. It's a juicy-smelling wine, smoky strawberry-plummy gamay fruit bounds happily into my nostrils. Tastes fleshy and juicy, well fruited with a smoky undertone, very decent up until a slight tarry astringency on the finish. Simple enough, but rich and fun.

Here's a Robert Ampeau Auxey-Duresses 1991: Smells pleasantly of sour cherries and bricky earth. Tastes weathered, advanced beyond its years, with tart earthy-cherry fruit feathering out at the edges. Smells nice, but tastes lean and underfruited, earthy in the fashion of many of Ampeau's wines, but more pallid than most.

Adam isn't able to keep up with our pace, so I snatch a Château Sociando-Mallet Haut Médoc 1985 off the bottle table. Ah, here's the real thing, a richly warm and layered smellishness, friendly waves of warm cassis, pipe tobacco, oregano. Very prettily balanced, nimble but with a rich and velvety mouthfeel, this is the first time I've had this wine when it has seemed to be in full bloom, holding no more back than is necessary for strength of backbone. Beautiful. Perhaps these '85s, after years of isolationist severity, are finally joining the community of nations. A wine worthy of toasting the one-year anniversary of the last of Joe's four heart transplants.

Out of the corner of my ear I hear Andrew and Denyse arguing heatedly about the Queen of England. "What did the Queen ever do for you?" asks Andrew. "The Queen was very very kind to me," says Denyse "gave me a scholarship--" "Oh sure," retorts Andrew, "but what has she done for you LATELY?"

Don't ask me. I just write it down.

Here's a Michel Ogier Côte-Rôtie 1998 with a lot of dark berry smellies, bacon fat and eucalyptus. Tastes smoky, densely flavored, rich and meaty, fairly ripe and smoothly fruited. It's rather primary now, but seems a decent bet for the the long haul, although I can understand the recent concerns about the more forwardly fruity style, something I'd have attributed to the ripe year. Joe grumps about fake yeasts and chaptalization and more fake yeasts and hormones and fluoride and other stuff, wonders what has become of the Cte-Rtie in this effete era.

Adam the waiter makes the mistake of saying "Absolutely!" to some request or other, sending Dressner off on a tirade about misapplied linguistic fervor--"It's as if we'd asked him if he was against slavery, or man's injustice to man, not for an extra dinner roll!" and so on in the same vein, riffing and vamping expertly into quizzing the waiter about his knowledge of Bethesda social climbing and finally sliding into a story about Dupont Circle in the 60s that ends with him overcome with remembered emotion, crying out "Dupont Circle... the tear gas, the tear gas..."

Denyse turns to our side of the table with a pained look. "You know," she says, "you'd think after all these years I'd be used to this sort of thing, but the truth is," she pauses thoughtfully, "you simply can never get used to it." We nod sympathetically, sharing her pain, and open a Lustau Tintilla de Rota NV to take the edge off. Major brownness in my nostrils, raisins and cinnamon, brown sugar and coffee. Andrew pipes up "Coffee with cheese in it. But in a good way." Nina, having a vision, says "Horse feeds... cleaning the horses... the grain bin!" and indeed she's pegged it, as there is an oaty-graininess underlying the brown aromatics. Quite sweet, muddy-brown in texture and very dense and earthy, a little goes a long way, but it's deliciously layered and Denyse happily downs several glasses, the sweet sweet wine taking away the pain.

I belatedly realize that the staff has, without prompting, spotted the tintilla as a dessert wine and served it accordingly, a pleasantly surprising feat of discernment in these here parts. It's the only bottle we take away from the table.

Just for the record, we make it to 10:45 p.m. before the word 'circumcision' is uttered, quite possibly a new record.


SATURDAY: REFRACTORY PERIOD

The day dawns sunny and cool, sullied only by the sad spectacle of Dressner and Andrew trying to shoot hoops in the parking lot--perhaps there's a glimmer of hope for some decent weather after all. We get into a brief squabble at Uncle Bill's Pancake House because they have a strict "No BYO" policy, but we finally throw in the towel and set our breakfast bottles aside for lunch or dinner.

When we finally make it back to the Hermitage Andrew is in a lather, reporting that Robert Callahan was once again sighted at the Wa-Wa, this time buying Boca Burgers, Chick-A-Stix and the New York Times. We pile into the Mustang and race over, but there is no sign of him, and there is much muttered speculation that the South Jersey wino contingent is having a little fun with us city slickers. We stop briefly at Collier's wine shop, where Joe picks up yet another California mondeuse and mortifies me by chatting with the cashier about Druet's theory of the drawbacks of tasting wine by the seashore and how that compares to what he's heard are the drawbacks of tasting wine while menstruating. I make a crablike sideways-leaping exit out the front door before I can hear more of this conversation.

We loll about and decide to go for a walk to see the piping plovers. Lisa posits that if I were a bird I'd be a pelican. While I'm trying to decide whether to be insulted or not it begins to rain and we hightail it back to the safety of the Hermitage balcony, where it's clear that the time to drink is upon us.

Here's an impertinent little bubbly to get things rolling, a Chidaine Montlouis Brut 1996, and it's showing the fullness that it's been acquiring of late, with a pleasant waxy-polleny quality coming to the fore and pushing the clean minerality to the rear. Very nice, still a fine, balanced glass of fizz that doesn't need to be terribly deep to give pleasure.

Andrew opens a bottle with the wordsMy apologies."

A Sylvin Farms/Tomasello Winery Sparkling Rkatziteli Atlantic County NV, the bottle in question, has light leesy-bready and flinty hints under a bright base of bubblegummy yellowfruit. The wine is lightly fizzy and simple, juicy-fruity and lemon-banana candied at first, sliding into a surprisingly bitter finish. Odd, and more odd. We all take a stab at pronouncing the name of the grape variety but ultimately decide more alcohol intake is needed for that task.

Here's the latest release of an old reliable friend, the Scott-Clark Cellars Chardonnay Central Coast 'Pigeon' 2000: Medium straw-gold color, smells apple-juicy, with delicate hints of acetone and good whiffs of lees and butterscotch. Tastes overripe, very little acidity, flattened out, a touch oxidized. If this is a representative bottle then Scott-Clark, a producer I admire (charmingly, the new motto on their bottles reads "Minimal Process"), dropped the ball in 2000 with this cuve. I've got a few more bottles of this from my allocation, so I'll give it another chance down the line, but if this was anyone else I'd dismiss it as an overripe, poorly-made freak of a wine along the lines of a Sine Qua Non white, minus the lumberyardful of new oak those unfortunate potions bring to the table.

After much milling and headscratching about what to do for dinner, we send the women to acquire buckets of lobsters, mussels, shrimp and various other ocean critters and let them set about murdering them in the tastiest fashion possible, racing from room to room at the Hermitage in order to coordinate various pots o'chow while the menfolk look on approvingly and pass the time with a Beaujolais sampler.

Joël Rochette Brouilly Pisse-Vieilles 1998: Lightly aromatic, quiet tones of lightly candied strawberry and a touch of a chemical odor that I can't quite place until John sings out "New sneakers!" which hits the mole on the head. Easy to drink, a bit wan in the middle, a light wine with a touch of dilution that finishes glassily tannic. Decent enough for a summery quaffer, although I could've done without Joe's long, graphic explanation of the phrase "pisse-vieilles," complete with enthusiastic pantomime.

Denyse's sister Susanne has come over during a break in the birding seminars and invites us out for a picnic on their sloop tomorrow, provided that we have good weather. We huddle, mulling the consequences of blowing off the "TCA: Myth or Mass Hysteria?" workshop, then throw caution to the wind and gratefully accept.

Pierre Savoye Morgon Cuvée Speciale Fût de Chêne 1996: The name makes me a little wary, but this is another lightly aromatic wine; touches of strawberry and gravelly undertones warm my nosal passages. Smoother and fuller than the Rochette, yet the flavors seem flat and somewhat tired, while in the Rochette they were brighter, more alive. There is an astringent streak that peeks out on the finish but doesn't substantially mar the wine in my book. I'm not sure those storied fts de chne did this wine any good.

Clos de Roilette Fleurie 1995: More richly smellerific, strawberry-raspberry redfruit over a gravelly base with a plaster-of-paris streak in the treble. Deeper, richer and more flavorful than the other two, medium-bodied, humming with depth and coiled strength, this is a lovely wine that flows warmly into a redfruity-mineral finish that purrs warmly under my tongue for a little while. Best in show, a class act.

Oops, here's a late entry, an Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir-Mondeuse Santa Maria Valley 1999: Medium dark garnet color. Lightly jammy nose, cherry-plum candy with smoky undernotes and light hints of root beer. The wine has enough acidity but it seems unintegrated, with the fleshy fruit not quite running parallel with the spine. The flavors are hard to place, plumskin, clove, dark cherry, somethingorother, something else, and the finish turns tarry-tangy. Decent enough, a bit all over the place, a little better with some time and air.

Here come the ocean critters, and we tuck into them with relish, along with drawn butter. I have never had mussels worth eating before these, fresh from the rocks and washed down with mugs full of Muscadet. We toast to the wrongheadedness of Pierre-Jacques Druet, briefly consider then reject the notion of finding his hotel and egging his door, and gorge ourselves on still-pulsating seabug flesh.

A Clos des Allées Muscadet Vieilles Vignes 1999 starts us off, and it's a breath of fresh minerally air, rainwatery and all about structure. Rich, coiled and crisply glossy, bringing out the flavor of the fresh mussels.

The shrimp, the corn, the Brégeon Muscadet Sévre et Maine Sûr Lie 1999. It's got a whiff of matchstick sulfurousness but is more aromatic than the Alles, more minerals, hints of green melon. Not as crisply coiled as the last, there's a slight roundness to the mouthfeel, a touch of looseness, yet more than enough acidity to get by. A kinder, gentler Muscadet.

During dinner Denyse explains her theory that toasted day-old bread with confiture is the true secret to French health. We listen appreciatively while sucking down lobster with a Domaine Les Hautes Noëlles Muscadet Côtes de Grandlieu Sür Lie 1999, another wine in much the same mold as the Allées, a touch more stony, but equally steely and crisp, with a velvety skin of light honeydew-green fruit to ease the thrust of structure into my gullet.

Nina, seizing center stage, regales us with true tales of growing up by the sea, of Old Blind Joe (who wasn't blind), Clammer Bob, (who was in fact a clammer, but a volatile one, with a shotgun), and Peggy The Swedish Woman Who Tows Boats With Her Teeth For Twenty Bucks. Somehow the conversation winds round to the notion that her ancestors were involved in the opium trade. Dressner makes much of this, riffing and riffing in a widening gyre until he notices that Nina is no longer present, at which point he begins to carry on weepily about how sorry he is to have been so offensive. Fortunately for the evening's entertainment quotient she soon returns, he quickly takes up right where he left off, and thus the circle is complete.

In the postprandial afterglow we decide to pop a few stray reds, starting with a Bitouzet-Prieure Volnay Taillepieds 1993. I haven't had this in a year or so, and this bottle is showing little of the richness of the last few. There's the usual burnished cherry-clove-horehound nose, but it seems aromatically quiet, not giving up much. In the piehole it seems shy and closed, less expansive than before. Perhaps this is just a tired bottle.

Definitely not tired is the Scott-Clark Cellars Grenache-Syrah Central Coast El Ni&ntild;o 2000. Scott-Clark's flagship wine is usually quite reliable and fresh, and this year is no exception. After the troubled chardonnay I breathe a sigh of relief upon nosing the bright sour-cherry-and-earth nose. There's nothing deep or dense about this wine, it's all pure light fruit with crisp acidity, unadorned and smile-inducing. Another "Minimal Process" wine, this is unmarked by oak and seems cheery and alive, a fine lively summer red that runs rings around the Volnay.

One by one the revelers fall by the wayside until Andrew and I find ourselves the last of the living, sitting and reexamining the Beaujolais and the Muscadet. A police car makes a U-turn in our parking lot, prompting him to screech "Callahan is here!" When he turns out to be wrong we console ourselves with a Quinta do Noval Porto 1982. It's happily cocoaberried, brick dusty and brown-earthy smelling, with warm softly feathered red-brown fruit spreading out slowly along my tongue. This is a wine I've found to have serious bottle variation, but this is a good one, warm and rich and smooth, a wine with no sublime high or low notes but with a pleasurably complex middle range, medium sweet and warmly striated. We sip at it thoughtfully until Lisa decides to take a shower and prance about in her scanties, breaking any possible concentration that we may have had and sending Andrew scurrying back to his room in terror.


SUNDAY: GEEKS AT SEA

At the crack of noon we are whisked off down to the harbor, where we meet a cheerfully waving Daniel and pile into his Zodiac for the ride out to the prettiest 60-foot sloop I've ever seen, his and Susanne's home for the past decade. We goggle a bit at the loveliness of it all, then settle in with a bottle of Domaine du Traginer Collioure 1999, a wine that I ignore because I'm on a beautiful boat on a beautiful day with better things to do than scribble little pointless notes. All I remember is that it seems kind of lean but tastes good anyway mingled with the briny sea air. Might Pierre-Jacques Druet be on to something after all?

Andrew, despairing of the angling prospects after hooking only seaweed and tiny clams, decides to face his darkest fears by climbing the swinging rope ladder to the masthead We urge him on as he inches upwards, uttering little bleats of terror with every roll of the boat. He comes to his senses about two-thirds of the way up and beats a hasty downward retreat. We celebrate his daring by opening a Domaine des Pensées Sauvages Corbieres 1998. This is a wine that has been brought to three separate jeebuses only to have it be brutally corked each time, so it's a relief to finally have the dice fall our way. Denyse points out that the winery had problems with taint in the past year's corks, but this one seems fine, a dark berry-peppery smelling wine with plenty of structure. In fact it's on the hard side, but only just, and there's a good deal of spicy black and red berry fruit to smooth things out, with a velvety-dark licoricey streak underneath. Good, flexible stuff.

We eat, fish, sleep, eat, drink, wave to passersby, drink, eat, sleep and drink until late in the day, when Dressner's face suddenly clouds over, and, in a rare serious mood, he begins to speak quietly in the measured singsong falsetto that is the universal signal that what follows is not to be published on the internet. I obligingly fold up and put away my notebook, and he goes on at some length. Several more wines are opened, but alas the WIWP Code dictates that I report nothing further, even were one of these wines the Huet Vouvray Le Haut-Lieu Moëlleux 1921 that Joe has been talking about opening when Kane wasn't around for years now. Not that I'm saying it was.

So.

Ah... yes, then.

Well.

Moving on, we ride in two groups back to the mainland in Daniel's Zodiac, the last of us arriving in time to find Andrew all aflutter with the news that Robert Callahan has again been sighted at the Wa-Wa, buying a carton of Lucky Strikes, a packet of Scrapple and the Weekly World News. This time we just leave it alone and go back to the Hermitage, where the balcony outside our rooms calls to us. We hunker down there with leftover shrimps and new bottles, beginning with a saucy little domestic rose, a Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare 1998. It's a light ruby-amber color and smells pleasantly earthy, with accents of pumpkin rind and red gummi bear. With air the red gummi bear note takes on a certain waxy weight, veering towards red crayon and melding with the pumpkiny-earthy base to give a burnt umber impression on the finish. Smooth and not particularly layered, with enough acidity to make it perky without shrillness. Not bad at all, a decent summer slurper with some character that matches well with shrimp cocktail.

Sylvin Farms Chardonnay Atlantic County 1999: A good whiff of sulfur and wood greets my startled nostrils. Underneath that there's lean yellowfruity hints and a celery-green streak. Tastes of lean pear, vanilla and smoke. Underripe, overoaked. One wag, nosing this, says "There's a lot going on here... and it's all bad." I'm not yet convinced that Atlantic County has the right terroir for chardonnay, despite Jean-Paul Brun's hopeful notions.

The Sylvin Farms Cabernet Sauvignon Atlantic County 1995 seems to follow along the same lines as the chardonnay, smelling of sawdust, rust and pine resin over a base of lean red cassis-raspberry. With air, though, the off-aromas dissipate somewhat--the piney notes resolve into more of a pleasant herbal streak and the red fruit plumps up in a first rush of muted cassis that carries briefly into the middle, then fades into tartness and tannins. It's drinkable, if a bit thin, and at least recognizable as cabernet sauvignon.

Here's a wine with an identity crisis, a Domaine de la Ferme St. Martin Beaumes de Venise Cote du Rhone Villages Cuvee Princesse 1999. At least we think it's a 1999, as the label actually says "1998" but with the 8 crossed off and a "9" written on it with felt-tip marker. I ask, and am assured that it is indeed the 1999, with a misprinted label. At any rate, it's a boisterously fruity wine, lushly boysenberry-raspberryish, so much so that I commit heresy and openly question the vaunted 'natural fermentation' claim. No, Joe assures me, that's how they do it, cross my heart and hope to sober up. There's nice crispness, lots of juicy rich fruit, a jolly little wine with a bit of babyfat and a positive outlook on life.

As we taste the storm clouds roll in from nowhere, there is a torrential downpour lasting ten minutes, then slowly two rainbows appear, one above the other. We take this as a sign from the gods that we ought to go out to dinner and drink a lot of wine.

So we do.

Our final evening is spent at 401 Bank Street, a local foodie place of high repute among local foodies. Our reservations had been made, oddly enough, under the name of Peter Somethingorother, but I go with the flow. Dressner immediately tests the waitron by nattering on about the dire consequences of the abuse of the word "Absolutely," but she is as practiced at dealing with hecklers as the comic with the 2 a.m. set at the Laff Factory, vollying back that she only uses the word when people order vodka, thereby passing the all-important waitron smartass test. Everyone laughs except Jennifer, who has been sipping all day and is now alarmingly glassy-eyed.

What do we drink with our foodie food? I'm glad you asked. We start off with a Chteau de Fieuzal Pessac-Lognan 1988, and it's a nice glass of madeira, cooked beyond recognition. Is there another white Bordeaux in the house?

Yes.

Domaine de Cantelys Pessac-Leognan 1996: Smells of grapefruit, honeydew and vanilla, decently wooded. Tangy, tight, citrusy-tart, lightly buttery and somewhat clunky, with the individual flavors sort of jostling each other rather than hanging together. Dressner grumps that they must've "used the grapefruit yeast for the semillon and the melon yeast for the sauvignon blanc." We may never know. It's too young now, all sharp elbows and uncut toenails, perhaps it just needs twenty years.

Here's a Prince Bobby Poniatowski Aigle Blanc Vouvray 1996. No sweetness designation, but seems like a demisec, with a light touch of sugar. Airy minerals and traces of lemon rind on the nose. Not bad, not particularly interesting, a middleweight, decent but undistinguished Vouvray.

Nancy the waitron comes around and tips us off that another waitron, tickled by the whole 'Absolutely' thing, intends to visit us and say 'Absolutely' to any and all requests. She warns us NOT to laugh. We promise to remain stonefaced no matter what.

The guy comes over, asks if we need anything, and when someone asks for bread he smugly sings out "Absolutely!" then awaits a response.

There is a second's pause, then Andrew shrieks with laughter, burdening us with a credibility problem. All we can do is open more bottles and try to move on.

So we do.

The perennial Olga Raffault Chinon Les Picasses 1996 returns, not having budged an iota. It's still wrapped tight as a drum, the stony cran-cherry fruit hard as nails and not giving much, young and tart and tannic, promising delights for the grandchildren. We once again grump at Dressner about the unavailability of the much friendlier '97, but he claims that due to contractual obligations it all had to be sent to the Pacific Northwest.

A Gilbert Alquier Faugeres 'Maison Jaune' 1996 is opened eagerly, but soon yellow flags are thrown from all quarters, as the wine is quite dreadfully corked. Pity, we'd been having such a surprising run of luck.

A have a little notation in my notebook that reads, in quotes: "I saw that she was licking your neck..." I have no recollection of the meaning of this quote or who said it, so please make up your own joke here.

Next up is a Clos Centeilles Minervois 1992, and it's an earthy, settled wine, smelling happily leathered and berryish, with muted red fruit aromas couched in light peppery spice and sod. Impeccably balanced, the first impression is of velvety quiet fruit flowing into my gob, pleasantly layered and complex, which flows into a welling up of dark leathery redness and eases into a softly spicy finish. Neither large nor dense, rather a marvel of balance and delicacy, a perfect little minuet.

Here's a Ridge Vineyards California Geyserville 1994, boisterously fruity and woody in this company, a wash of dark black cherry-berry zinny aromas mixed with toasty vanilla-coconut and smoky hints. Tastes quite rich as well, ripe and warmly fruity, with enough structure to do the trick. Some fairly gritty tannins well up in the finish. Still young, still needs time to settle down and smooth out a bit, but I find its exuberant bigness more charming than others do.

To cap off the evening, Joe stands to address the company and offers a blanket apology for what he terms "my general inappropriateness." There is a group huddle, and then, in the spirit of the holiday, we accept.

After a brief stagger back to the Hermitage, Andrew, Denyse and I are left to burn the midnight candles, sipping away and discussing the parlous state of viticulture in the Mconnais. Lisa strolls absentmindedly past the window behind us without benefit of clothing, amusing Denyse and me and puzzling Andrew, whose back is turned. Coupled with last night's scanty-prancing, I think it's a clear cry for help.

We sip and talk, sip and talk, until the flashing lights of a police car down the road frighten us back into temporary sobriety. We've been leery of the police since word started getting out on the boardwalk that Joe was loudly referring to one of the local constables as "Butt-head," but it appears they don't hold a grudge, as this is, oddly enough, one tale that doesn't end with Andrew's summary arrest and/or incarceration. As a matter of fact, we all lived happily ever after, at least until the next binge.




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