McNETTA DAY ONE: Arrival, Reconnaissance, Inebriation

[I apologize for the delay in putting these notes together, but this year's McNetta Midsummer Madness was the biggest and best-attended since the storied New Brunswick McWinterfest of 1996, and I've been sadly tied up, um, maybe having surgery or something else sympathy-inducing, and unable to do it justice until recently.]

So after a very picturesque three-hour drive Lisa and I arrive at the DoubleTree Inn and Conference Center in historic Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania ("The Switzerland of the Northeast"), nestled in the heart of the Pocono Mountains. As we pull up to the parking lot we wave to several familiar faces from the New York/New Jersey area who are unloading crates of wine and carefully-packed cases of stemware. Some of us had run into each other along the way at the Sylvin Farms Sparkling Rkatziteli retrospective earlier in the day--this little detour has cost us the chance to witness the opening ceremonies, so we take our time getting settled into our spacious room complete with mini-bar laden with tiny souvenir McNetta Midsummer Madness bottles. It's a pity the wine inside was something along the lines of Fetzer Merlot, but all the more reason to preserve them unopened and pristine.

After a quick cleanup and cup of warm Bosco we head out to the informal 'Welcome to McNetta Spam-B-Q' that is as always presided over by Morton "The Spam Guy" Klingenfus. The weather is warm but comfortable, the setting idyllic, and the aroma of Mort's trademark succulent mesquite-smoked Spam shank draws a hungry, cheerful crowd. There is much happily contentious debate over the perfect Spam/wine match, with Beaujolais and Austrian riesling the two top vote-getters.

I start off with a Domaine Ogereau Anjou Rouge 1997. Light and a little vague, on the lean side but straightforward and honest. Light piney-tobacco hints amidst cherry and cranberry. The midpalate is a little lean and unadorned, but the finish is dust and cherries, long and silky. It's not quite brawny enough to stand up to the main course. Perhaps that's the reason that I fail to feel the internal enthusiasm that this perennial internet wine board favorite seems to stir in others; I see Kay Bixler and "Good ol'" Robert Callahan positively swooning over the stuff and feel a little ashamed for not "getting it." Will I ever fit in with the cool kids?

Another problematic accompaniment to everyone's favorite Hormel product is a Domaine Richaud Cairanne Côtes du Rhône Villages 2000. Sweet black cherry-raspberry nose. Tastes warm and muddily fleshy, a soft, meaty wine with something of a reduced quality--richly fruited, but a bit harsh and amplified, as if it had been boiled down. Simple, rich, slightly unpleasant.

For my money the best match is the Clos de la Roilette (Coudert) Fleurie Cuvée Tardive 2000. Medium garnet with purple highlights. Velvety ripe strawberry-raspberry nose, sweet and smooth smelling with a hint of sour cherry pit at the heart. The nose is fairly loose and warm but has a light rocky edge to it. Tastes darkly berryfruity and warm, loosely knit and easygoing, rich and fleshily ripe. Here's nice integration, a cohesive package. There does seem to be a little bit of a burn on the finish, although that could merely be attributed to the richly spicy smoked Spam. At any rate, a lovely match.

By now we've rounded up some of our usual gang of New York cronies. The novelty of the Spam-B-Q is wearing off and the Allman Brothers are cranked up a little too loud, so we gradually detach ourselves from the main mass of McNettans, drift off and turn our several adjoining hotel rooms into party central.

To kick things off there's a Domaine du Clos Naudin (Foreau) Vouvray Petillant Brut Reserve 1995. I get an odd hint of bug spray at first; odd that is until I realize that there is a substantial amount of OFF on many of the geeks now in close quarters. Anyway, smells of chalk, lemon and stones with a whiff of yeastiness. Lightly moussed, it tastes tight, young and in need of a decade or two. There's whiplike strength here, mostly hidden now. More tightly wrapped than Foreau's NV fizz, deeper and harder. An impressive glass of bubbly, great potential here.

Always nice to visit with an old friend, a Huet Vouvray Le Haut-Lieu Demisec 1985. Light gold color, with a bit of light funk that blows off after a few minutes. Happy smells emerge from my glass, pollen and flint and lemon with just a tiny trace of quince. Still young and primary, more so than the various moëlleux from that year have showed lately. A sip, and the impression of youth is reinforced--an aggressive thrust of tight yellow fruit comes at you quickly, swells briefly in the middle and glides into a long lemony finish. Infantile; I'm not touching another for ten years.

By way of contrast here's a Domaine du Clos Naudin (Foreau) Vouvray Demisec 2000, and it's young and fresh and bright, apples and lemon and quince all in light balance, the most pleasurable young Foreau demisec since the kickass '97. It doesn't have that wine's extravagance or density, but it's an equally valid wine on a smaller, more easygoing scale, without the vagueness or dilution of the past few years. A friendly, complete Vouvray of medium amplitude.

I start to explain how I've been enjoying the 2000 Vouvrays more than the '98s or '99s, but Callahan rings his little silver bell rather insistently and I realize that I've crossed the thin magenta line into vintage generalization. My bad.

Always nice to visit with an old friend, a Pierre Luneau Le "L" de Pierre Luneau Muscadet 1989. Smells like a quarry, rock dust limned with lime, traces of honeydew. Racy and bright in the piehole, the light skin around the steely spine is starting to feather out at the edges--the sense of being clenched is less than the last time I had it (a year or two ago). It's coming around, but still in need of time.

By way of contrast here's a Domaine de la Pepiere Muscadet Cuvée Eden Vieilles Vignes 2000. What's left to say about the wine that put Marc Ollivier's name on everyone's lips? Why is it in a Burgundy bottle? Is it really fermented in acacia wood? Ollivier is giving a talk tomorrow, perhaps we'll find out. I taste, I smell, I can't figure it out. Not the lime-and-rocks profile of the regular Pepiere, there's an almost Lemon Pledge or shoe polish streak in the nose, I can't pin it down, there's yellow apple but also a green-brown thing going on, like honeydew soaked in dark rum. The balance is impeccable, the acidity bracing, but I can't cut to the heart of it and after fifteen or twenty minutes I quit trying and vow to meet it again another day. Eden 1, Chris 0.

McNetta's own SFJoe has bagged a bottle and is passing it around for study. I take a sniff.

SFJoe's Mystery Wine: Pale lemon-gold color, smells of light pear and yellow apple, chardonnayish. Apparently entirely unmarked by wood, light-bodied but flavorful and supple. Seems well-rounded but fairly light, honestly flavored and straighforward. I guess Brun Beaujolais Blanc. Most other guesses range across the white Burgundy spectrum. Turns out to be Scott-Clark Cellars Chardonnay California 'Pigeon' 1999, the unwooded luxury cuvée from the iconoclastic Lodi producer ("Minimal Process"). Shoulda known. Or not.

Manuel 'The Cuban Castigator' Camblor, surly from having firmly declared the mystery wine to be Neuchâtel chasselas, threatens to kick my ass and eat my head if I misquote him one more time. At least that's what I think he said, at this point I'm a little shy of being definitive on the subject.

On second thought, I retract the last paragraph entirely. Please accept my apologies for the misunderstanding, Manuel. If in fact that is your real name.

I'm a little startled to hear actual squealing--Kay Bixler gets all excited when she pours a Domaine des Sablonettes Anjou 1999. "Watch!" she cries. "You can actually see it oxidize in the glass!" We all cluster around. Nothing happens. "Well, maybe after a little while," she says sheepishly, "but I promise you, you'll be able to see it!" That aside, it's a medium gold colored wine, with aromatics that just leap out of the glass and flood my worried sinuses with ripely cheninistic smellies. David Lillie (the Wizard of Chambers Street) posits that this wine "pushes the envelope of dry chenin," and I see what he means. It's a big, almost loopily ripe-smelling wine, honey and tangerine and lemon-lanolin hints, all kinds of extravagances in evidence. It just loves attention, the strumpet, sitting in my glass and wafting all those saucy aromas for all to sniff at. Shameless.

The rumor ripples quickly through the assembled geeks that Steve Plotnicki is speeding towards us on the Turnpike in an SUV full of Coche-Dury. I heard this same rumor last year; I didn't believe it then and I don't believe it now. Concern about this is abruptly tamped out when it is discovered that there is actually a Jacuzzi somewhere on the premises--Dressner suggests that we ought to careen drunkenly down the hallways at random until it is discovered. Fortunately, a) we are still sober enough to realize what a poor idea this really is, and b) Kane hasn't arrived yet, so there seems little point. No one is really sure if the seminars tomorrow include anything about drinking while in a hot tub, but it seems like a potential winner of a topic somewhere down the line.

What better way to end the evening than with a true cult rarity, the Claude Papin (Pierre-Bise) Gamay Anjou 1995, hand-carried from the domaine by the reclusive Andrew Munro Scott. I have been lucky enough to sample a few of the more recent vintages of this rare bird, but one with a few years of bottle age is a special treat. A hush falls over the room as the bottle is lovingly opened and poured. I only get an ounce or perhaps two, but it's enough. Smells peppery-spicy, deep purple berry-grape aromas over a base of minerals. It's not as big as the legendary '97, but it has better balance and completeness--a supple, rich wine of great finesse and length, drinking very smoothly now but with the structure and depth to go a long way yet. Superb stuff.

And thus we fall into a deep contented sleep, full of alcohol and hopes for tomorrow.

McNETTA DAY TWO: Fêtes and Fireworks

Day two dawns a little earlier than I'm used to, but I want to stay in the swing of things and today is when McNetta really gets rolling, starting with a wine breakfast at Uncle Nguyen's Pancake House well outside of Jim Thorpe proper. The theme is "Token New World Wines to Be Gotten Out of the Way Before Our Taste Buds Wake Up," and the crowd is happy and hungry, although the shouted question "Where is Brad Kane?" is heard more than once.

The reclusive Andrew Munro Scott (the J.D. Salinger of WIWPs), clad in his usual overalls, pours another of his pet Finger Lakes wines, a Red Newt Riesling Finger Lakes 2000. Pale, pale straw color. Smells of green apples, hints of pine, with slatey undercurrents. Just off-dry, crisp, not quite laserlike focus, but well knit and cohesive. Not complex, but not simple either, a small, pleasantly zippy wine that turns tartly lemony on the finish. One of the better Finger Lakes rieslings I've tasted, and a good match with maple syrup--the acidity cuts through the syrup's sweetness with aplomb.

Next up is a saucy little number from the Jeff Connell portfolio, a David Bruce Petite Sirah Central Coast 1999. Ripe smoky blackberry-plumskin-tar nose. This is a dark, hard pool of grapey black fruit, plenty of stuffing but rather monolithic, well balanced and cohesive. The matte texture turns coarse in the midpalate, roughly tannic on the finish. A chewy-rich wine with that loveably PSish lack of subtlety, there is still a fine core of fruit and a feeling of restraint, of putting a tie and porkpie hat on the gorilla. If you like PS, this is a rich, honest version that doesn't go over the top, a nice match with Uncle Nguyen's famous blueberry pancakes.

Even less restrained is the D'Arenberg Shiraz McLaren Vale The Dead Arm 1996 ($50): Dark asphalt-black color. Smells intense: shoyu, plum, shoe polish, licorice, more plum. Tastes as big and dark as it smells, matte mouthfeel, nice balance of acidity for such a big wine, purply-black fruit with a eucalyptus high note emerging to hover over the middle. Smoky shoyu-plum-coaldust finish. Yes, it's a big silly brute of a wine, but a few years in bottle have been kind, allowing it to come together and open up. Despite the size there is a good balance here and it's hard not to like, even at this early hour. I declare that it's quite drinkable and am immediately hooted at and pelted with scraps of wheat toast and packets of grape jelly. Bounders.

Catena Cabernet Sauvignon Agnelo Vineyards Mendoza (Argentina) 1999: Bright cherry-candy nose laced with smoke and a trace of mint. Tart, simple but cheerful, slightly hard in the middle, tangy red fruit--cherries and red currants. Acidity in the midpalate turns spiky, out of step, the wine fades as it struggles towards the finish, turning watery and finally lightly astringent. Not actively unpleasant, but disjointed and not particularly interesting.

De Loach Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon OFS Russian River Valley 1995: Very smoky-toasty smelling, sawdust and graphite over muted red berry fruit, hints of clove. A sip, and something is coming unglued--the fruit has faded in the middle, leaving mostly toasted flavors and an alcohol burn. Finishes with a lot of stern gritty tannins. Drink up, drink up.

De Loach Vineyards Zinfandel Pelletti Ranch 1996: After the cab I am a little wary of this, but one sniff gives me hope--velvety dark berryfruit, muted and smoky and smooth in the noseholes. The smoky planking that was jarring a few years ago has integrated well and comes across as tarry-spicy accents until the finish, when a little charred wood astringency makes itself known. But that's a quibble, as this is a good example of a zin that has improved with a little age, losing its exuberance but gaining cohesion and balance. Quite nice, and doing much better than the cab--really in a very good place right now.

Venge Family Reserve Merlot Napa Valley 1996: I fully expected to dislike this; the two bottles I'd tasted before had been brutally oaky and clumsy, but once again a little age has been surprisingly kind--the smoky wood component is still too prominent, but has calmed down enough that the meaty red fruit doesn't seem battered into submission. There's a hint of VA and some gritty tannins; the smoky plum-berry fruit has turned muted and lost its bright redness but is rich and chewy and the acidity is firm and supportive. Decent, quite drinkable if you don't mind a good dose of toasty wood in your merlot.

This being more wine than I usually consume before noon (I'm normally a late sleeper), Lisa and I decide to go for a little walk along the main street of the "Switzerland of the Northeast" to see the giant chunk of coal in the center of town, bringing along a thermosful of Château d'Oupia Rosé Minervois 2001 to keep us from crashing too hard. It's a light salmon color, rather pale. Light aromatics, white cherry and white flowers, traces of mushroomy earth. Balance is good, very tangy-earthy on the finish, long finish. Crisp, light, flavorful and easy to like. Has enough earthy complexity to please, but it's an easygoing wine, a little heft to it, a little creaminess to the mouthfeel.

Following Jancis Robinson's unfortunate cancellation (some underhanded snake apparently told her about my unassuming living room shrine and she got a little spooked), Dean "Loire Schnauzer" Delahanty is the keynote speaker, and he takes the opportunity to once again nominate Nicolas Joly for sainthood and vehemently deny the existence of the much speculated-on 'Schnauzer Cuvée' of nonsulfured Coulée de Serrant.

Before he can finish speaking, Joe Dressner, full of righteous wrath and cheap chenin, loudly accuses Delahanty of being a pawn of Joly and his "cadre of biodynamie thugs." A frank exchange of views ensues, with a great deal of very strong language, finally resulting in the two having to be pulled apart by Sue Ng and Peter Steinfesse, with Delahanty shrieking "Remember Pete Seeger! Remember Pete Seeger!" at his antagonist until they can be separated. Canadian paysan vigneron Jeff Connell is scheduled to deliver the next talk, but the situation has degenerated dangerously, and he merely strides to the dais and calmly raises his glass amidst the chaos in silent toast to the assembled geeks, smiling Giacondalike. This is oil on the waters, for what winegeek can resist a raised glass?

What were we drinking during this rhubarb? It's hard to put the pieces back together, but I do remember a Glatzer Gruner Veltliner Carnuntum Kabinett 2000 that had a friendly white pepper, lemon and white grapefruit nose, cheerful to smell. Tastes bright and crisp, vague in the midpalate but with a persistent grapefruit rind tang on the finish. Not big or concentrated, but flavorful and easy to drink, a happily unchallenging wine.

There was also a Kurt Darting Scheurebe Pfalz Dürkheimer Spielberg Spätlese 2000. Pale straw-gold color. Effusive floral-tropical aromatics with a lipsticky or yellow-crayon undertone. Slightly oily mouthfeel, but then some puckery-crisp acidity wells up and counterbalances the oiliness while flashes of lemon-tangerine fruit appear in the midpalate. Interesting, if a little all over the place. Still, Darting makes wines with character and keeps the prices fair, so I'm a fan.

Following the banquet, everyone disperses to the various special-interest seminars. I know Dressner is running one called MULTITASKING IN THE VINEYARD, but given his history of last-minute topic changes (last year's WHAT'S STUART YANIGER'S PROBLEM, ANYWAY? talk springs to mind) I suspect he's going to take the opportunity to continue his feud with the Schnauz, so we hit the one with Muscadet guru Marc Ollivier that ostensibly concerns defining a marketing niche for the melon grape (BRANDING MELON: THE CRISIS OF IDENTITY IN MODERN MUSCADET).

Unfortunately for M. Ollivier, all the agitated and now well-oiled participants seem interested in are the persistent rumors of experimental acacia-barrel élevage, whether or not these acacia barrels were truly leftovers from a famous producer of Gris du Toul, and the reason for his Cuvée Eden being bottled in a bottle with a traditionally Burgundian shape. Flustered and not entirely comfortable in English, Ollivier finally sputters "I just LIKED IT like that way, okay peoples!?" before storming out in a Gallic fury. As he goes after him Robert Callahan casts a stony, minerally glance our way. "NOW you've done it," he hisses. "Can't I take you people anywhere?" There is general guilt and unease; Jay Miller and I decide to slink off and try to meld into the jovial, less formal crowd over at the Poor Wine Seminar (POOR WINE: NICHE MARKET OR NOWHERESVILLE?).

It's dark in here so I can't tell much about color, but here's a poor bubbly, a Martini & Rossi Asti Spumante NV: I recall this was the first bubbly I remember enjoying--at the age of five I would slug it back with my mother at Sunday brunch until the room spun. Ah, those were the days. Smells plasticky, apple candy with a hint of licorice. Moëlleux-sweet, more apple-candy muscat flavors, lightly fizzy but just too sweet for me now, with a syrupy mouthfeel. Fairly poor.

Next up is a poor chenin, especially noteworthy for being a poor wine from a great year. Château de Fesles Anjou 'B' 1997: Pale to medium straw-gold. Smells baked yellow appley with a bit of quince and coaldust. Tastes a bit diffuse, flat and lifeless, with a sour streak that wells up in the midpalate and dominates the finish. Cooking wine? Very poor.

The combination of wince-inducing name and moderate poorness is a beguiling one in the Old Fart Côtes du Ventoux Grenache-Syrah 2000: Medium light garnet color. Smells soft and quiet, light cherryberry, hints of cola, trace of mint. Small, balanced but on the dilute side, a wan little wine with decent fruity flavors, turning watermelony on the finish. Two-dimensional, light but flavorful-- entirely forgettable but not actively unpleasant. Shrug. Moderately poor.

Here's an odd one, a Bernard Dugat-Py Bourgogne 1999. Smells big and ripe, berry-beety with a minerally understreak, but tastes downright weird--beet-raspberry reduction sauce that has been filtered through aquarium charcoal and garnished with Sour Patch Kids. No, really. Gritty-textured and angular, sour and disjointed. Thoroughly poor--an angry, rude wine that leaves me feeling pissed off.

I'm not sure why Château Lafite-Teston Madiran 1998 is here, but it's got a muted blackberry nose. Tastes a little thin, blackberry and red grape notes in the middle, structure and tar on the finish. Fairly small for a Madiran, not boisterous. On the contrary, rather subdued and a little wan, the fruit is slightly harsh and unyielding, a little too tart at first, a little too watery in the middle. Not friendly, although the wine has a sense of scale and decorum. Honest, not really poor. Much friendlier, though, when tarted up with a shot of...

...Mount Nittany Vineyard and Winery 'Tailgate Red' Table Wine NV (Pennsylvania): Sweet nose of cinnamon, cherry bubble gum, cranberry juice and spearmint. I have never smelled spearmint in a red wine before, so this is an exciting wine for me. I pass it to Lisa, who emphatically confirms my diagnosis. It smells like a fiendish new flavor of JellyBelly brand jellybean: CranCinnaSpear! Tastes lightly sweet, a demisec red. Could use a little more structure. After a few sips, the combination of flaccidity and sugar make it seem sweeter, a Pennsylvania moëlleux gummy-rouge. But really, although it's not exactly a style a geek would like, it has a lot of flavor and could conceivably make a good picnic wine on a hot day for someone who likes Pennsylvania moëlleux rouge. Actually, it goes oddly well with brownies hot from the oven, so perhaps a Pennsylvania Banyuls Lite is more the proper analogy. At least it's better than the Dugat-Py.

At this point we start wondering what the appeal of the Poor Wine Seminar was in the first place. Not having a solid answer we slink unsteadily out the door, fail utterly in our attempt to locate the LIVE NUDE GEEKS: PERSONAL REVELATION ON THE WINE BOARDS seminar, pause briefly outside the civic center to wonder who "GWAR" is and what that racket is all about, then decide we'd best conserve our energy, as tomorrow promises to be a big day.

And so to bed.

McNETTA DAY THREE: Amalgamation, Apotheosis, Afterglow

Dawn breaks early and ugly. We decide to shut the blinds, sleep in and skip the Celebrate Savagnin! brunch, starting our day quietly with the help of powerful analgesics.

A light breakfast of marmite and toast in our room is followed by an early afternoon wander through the 'Does Anybody Remember Italy?' tent to get away from the crowds for awhile. Inside we find only Kay Bixler, Mark Levesque and a kindly elderly couple from Chadd's Ford, all trying to cheer up the forlorn volunteer pourers.

We try to look cheerful as the desperate pourers descend on us from all sides like the living dead, proffering almost-full bottles and pleading with us to take a pour. My god, the humanity. A few ounces of La Carraia Sangiovese Umbria 2000 is thrust at me. Smells ripe--plum-berry fruit, hints of shoe polish and fresh-kilned clay. A sip, and it's warm and embracing, simply red, plush and a little vague in the middle. The balance is good, there's decent heft and the diffuseness of the middle isn't much to worry about, nor is the abbreviated gritty finish. Another friendly QPR wine from Umbria that would go well with a range of foods. I smile for the benefit of the lonely pourers.

Still smiling gamely, I try a Umani Ronchi 'San Lorenzo' Rosso Conero 1996. Black cherry smellies, smoke and a bay leaf brown-herby streak. Tastes warm, tangy plum-leathery, ripe and fleshy, with a rounded mouthfeel but enough acidity to make do. Not a whole lot of grab in the piehole, but it's satiny and smooth and fairly meaty-ripe. There is a sense of looseness, not very concentrated, but the wine is amiable and has some complexity so what the hell. A good quaffer.

I head cheerfully for the Santa Lucia Castel del Monte 2000 because I've always loved the shelf talker for this at Chambers, which reads something like (I'm paraphrasing) "The 1997 version got a whole bunch of "glasses" from some Italian rag. We haven't tried this year's version, it could be good, it could be horrible--buy a bottle and find out." I never bought, but here's my chance to find out. I take a sniff, and it smells like a slightly redder, less plummy version of the La Carraia--ripe and warm, simple friendly raspberry aromas. Tastes much as it smells, friendly-fruity at first, fading away quickly into wateriness. Nothing very interesting going on here.

Still grinning idiotically, I accept a pour of Cascina Chicco Nebbiolo d'Alba Mompissano 1999 ($20). Medium-dark garnet color. Light whiff of volatility hovers above some fairly plush dark aromatics, plumskin, nettles and tar. A sip, and there's a pleasant rush of forward plummy-dark fruit that moves into a meatily tangy-tarry midpalate, then is swamped by a wave of sandy tannins that stamps out the smoky finish. Good balance and concentration, rather a forward style of Nebbiolo (before the tannins kick in) that veers towards gobbiness but edges daintily away from the precipice.

It's getting harder to smile; my face is threatening to freeze into a cadaverous rictus. Here's a Livio Sassetti Pertimali Rosso di Montalcino 2000. Tart berry fruit tinged with red cherry, plush and soft mouthfeel. There's acidity that is lent a helping hand by the tartness of the fruit, but it's a fleshy, easygoing wine. Somewhat generic, but still pleasant and unmarred by anything weird. Some very fine tannins emerge on the finish, get a little raspy after the pillowy midpalate, but that's a quibble.

Finally my smile muscles are utterly worn out, so I finish up with a Domenico Clerico Arte Langhe 1996: Medium muddy red color. Smells of graphite, green herbs and cedar over quiet red and black fruit, rather Bordeauxish. Medium-weight in the piehole, a bit tight and lean, not giving much away, stern glassy tannins dry up the finish. Tangy, good acidity but very little character--although the fruit has tartness it's vague around the spine, which gives the feeling of being clothed in wet tissue paper. It's an underfruited '94 Bordeaux from Italy! Decent, rather severe, not very interesting.

We beat a hasty reatreat from the desolate Italian tent and wander over to the amphitheater, where Dr. Emily Peynaud of Chico State University is giving what sounds from afar like a rather stern lecture on the relevance of the Prong System as applied to wines from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. She is being insistently heckled by someone who claims to be from 'the Grateful Palate,' who has had perhaps a few too many glasses of high-octane shiraz. It's an uncomfortable scene, and we stay only long enough to collect our laminated souvenir Chico State ProngWheels before beating a hasty retreat.

After a quick midafternoon stupor it's time to wrap things up for this year's festival. We check out of the DoubleTree and sidle over to the site of the last official event of the festival. The farewell supper in the Grand Pavilion is a wonder to behold, acres of hungry winegeeks chowing down on butterflied veal chops with chilled potato salad, handpicked mushrooms courtesy of hospitality guru SFJoe, who as usual is permanently affixed to his cellphone, wheeling and dealing away.

But first there are fried calamari and sundry other appetizers to be dealt with. We begin with a Domaine de la Bongran (Thévenet) Mâcon Clessé Quintaine Cuvée Tradition 1998 (from Magnum): Pale gold color. Spicy nose, buttered baked yellow apples, hay, light honey, fragrant and sweet-smelling. Tastes a little harder than the nose would suggest, there's tightness here, a minerally subcurrent under the buttered-apple and pear fruit, the spicy fruit. Generous dollop of spicy-hay botrytis, nice addition to the complexity of the nose. Vivid and bright but wrapped up tight, the rare rare chardonnay that needs a little time to loosen up. Very nice, impressive aromatics but a little unyielding in the piehole. A great match with the uni pigs-in-a-blanket.

A bottle of Domaine Alfonse Choufleur Gris de Toul 'Jardin de Lutz' 2000 (from Imperial) is brutally corked. I understand Choufleur has gone to synthetics for his regular bottling; unfortunately he hasn't been so sensible about the luxury cuvée. Incidentally, this year's Jardin de Lutz is the first Gris de Toul to break the $30 barrier, a clear indicator of quality.

I know there are more whites around, but I'm falling behind and the reds are starting to flow, beginning with an Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage 1999 (from Salmanazar). Medium dark purply-black color. Pretty nose, expressively redolent (yes, expressively redolent!) of violets, tree bark, smoked meat and a high note of eucalyptus over a dark blackberry-raspberry base. A sip, and there's a crisp, darkfruity upfront rush of fruit that turns slightly sour in the middle, rallies, then turns charry with a rubber-tire finish and is clubbed down by harsh tannins. Interestingly rich, but disjointed and tough going now.

Château Dauzac Margaux 1993 (from Nebuchadnezzar): Cedary hints on the nose, cigarbox, warm cassis and violets. With air, an herbal streak emerges. There's pleasantly warm fruit here, racy and a little hard and tight, but decently stuffed. A medium-bodied wine, crisp and on the lean side but with good focus. The oregano streak emerges again in the midpalate and mingles with smokiness on the finish. Very decent wine that I had low expectations of. No worldbeater, but good lean claret with complexity and character. Were Brad Kane here he would make little squinchy faces and call it herbal, but he's not.

There's a bagged magnum making its way down the table now; what have we here? Dark muddy ruby-black color, ambering at the rim, with lots of sediment flecks. Sweet cedary nose, tobacco, muted blackberry and gravel. Crisp but surprisingly meaty tasting, snappy tangy muted fruit that flows into a long, sweetly layered finish that fights off a late surge of gritty tannins. I guess mid '70s Lafite. Wrong. Turns out to be Château La Mission Haut-Brion Graves 1964. Only .sasha nails it as La Miss; he is off by a mere thirty-seven years but points out that the '27, the '64 and the 2001 are numerological brothers under the skin and thus essentially the same wine and neatly ties it all in with my being thirty-seven years old. Or something. Or maybe Manuel said it, I should know better than to quote people by now because none of it makes any sense to me and it just gets me in trouble. Just forget the whole thing.

Right in the middle of the main course something happens that makes me wonder at the nature of the mushrooms provided by McNetta's own SFJoe. The lights are dimmed. A huge cake is wheeled out onto the dais, festooned with sparklers and a banner that says MCNETTA MIDSUMMER MADNESS 2002, and as the crowd gapes in astonishment, a booming voice comes over the PA system and says "Laaaaadies and Germans, here tonight for your entertainment pleasure is the one, the only, Internet cult winemaker ERIIIIIIIIIC TEXIER!"

And by heavens, a tousle-haired figure leaps out of the cake clad only in a loincloth of grape leaves and begins to sing "Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In" from the musical Hair in a bell-like tenor voice. Before long the whole crowd is singing and swaying, hands in the air -- organizer Sue Ng cries "Hermitage me, baby!" and the bottles begin to flow around the room with renewed vigor, the energy shifting into overdrive.

First is a Cuilleron-Gaillard-Villard Les Vins de Vienne Hermitage 'Les Chirats de Saint Christophe' 1999: Rich, chewy and toasty-woody in an international style, it still shows lots of Northern Rhône character. Plenty oaky, yet there's enough rich meaty fruit to handle the planking. I'm normally not a fan of the nouveau Rhônes, but this one rubs me the right way. A pleasant surprise: Negocialicious!

After the young bruiser comes an older flower, a J.L. Chave Hermitage 1986. It's quite a switch, light in body but pretty, with hints of violet, yam and earth. A soft, leathery-layered wine with darkly muted berry-earthy fruit, easy to sip at and quite developed. A light wine but a lovely one. Drink up.

The Hermitage conga line continues with a J.L. Chave Hermitage 1990. Yikes. Strikingly bounteous nose just fills my glass and from there my happy, happy sinus cavities. Dark meaty berry-cassis, iodine, smoked meat and humid eucalyptus forest. Wow. I sip at it eagerly--it's not as effusive in the piehole as it is in the nose, a little tight just yet. Not heavy but weightier than the '86, it's a lithe wine with a strong core of acidity that is somewhat ungiving in the middle. It's a beauty, still locked down, but the finish is quiet and understatedly elegant. Striking stuff.

Texier himself is pouring his Eric Texier Hermitage 1999. The bottle that comes around to me is unfortunately quite corked. I don't get another chance at it, but a schism develops among those who tasted the pristine bottle--Jeff Connell opines that it is drinking wonderfully, is open and ready to go, many others think it's too tight and in need of serious time. Texier himself seems to be spending inordinate amounts of time denying persistent rumors that the glass in his bottles is sourced from Guigal's private foundry.

Out of nowhere Callahan appears at my elbow and gestures at the loincloth-clad figure. "It's not Texier," he whispers. "It's that same guy that Dressner got to play 'nathan vandergrift' in New York. What a farce." And he walks off, shaking his head sadly. I don't know what to make of this, so I pretend I haven't heard it. Sometimes a little willful ignorance makes life much simpler, don't you think?

People are starting to make their farewells, but despite the long trip ahead I have a jones for desssert. With the artichoke ice cream ("Asa Packer's favorite") are a couple of sweeties, first a Domaine des Petit Quarts Bonnezeaux Le Malabé 1989. Smooth peach-apricot-hay nose, lots of botrytis. Dessert sweet, with zippy supporting acidity. Richly aromatic, richly flavored. Yum. That's all, just yum. Still a baby, but starting to come out of its shell and flap its butterfly wings. Really pretty, with the beginnings of complexity peeping through the babyfat, a pleasure.

Château Rieussec Sauternes 1998: Medium gold color. Light hints of vanilla, orange rind, firecracker ("like the smoke from firecrackers" says Lisa), butterscotch. Tastes creamy-sweet, pleasant enough, almost no evident botrytis but enough apricot-marmalade-vanilla character to make for a decent baby Sauternes. Well balanced, with the refinement and prettiness that is a hallmark of Rieussec even in weak years. Not a profound wine, it's nevertheless rich and pleasant and layered.

That's it. Time is up. Lisa has a physics class early tomorrow, so tonight we will not hear the chimes at midnight. And so, as we motor uncertainly away from the idyllic vistas of Jim Thorpe, we pass a hand-lettered sign on the outskirts of town that reads "181 DAYS TILL McNETTA WINTERFEST!!!"

Perhaps it's the Hermitage talking, but some people really have a little too much free time on their hands.

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