Jay Miller had a vision.
He dreamed of a time when order would be imposed on the chaotic New York jeebus scene, when he would no longer have to drink a New Jersey sparkling rkatziteli followed by a Finger Lakes lemberger and chased with a Cape Cod zinfandel and a vertical of biodynamic Romanian grenache-tannat. Could anything cohesive be made out of the slovenly and downright puzzling practices of the indigenous geeks? Could one man make a difference?
Yes, he thought to himself, I can.
And so it is that an even dozen of the New York metropolitan area's finest and geekiest assemble at Greenwich Village's storied Café Loup-Garou for a well planned and extremely organized evening of polite, orderly pouring and noiseless sipping of carefully prescribed beverages that hail from a few strictly mandated regions.
I grab a glass of Laurent-Perrier Brut Rosé NV and survey the scene. Jayson Cohen is here, as we all knew he'd be. Elyse Fradkin too, and there's Bob Ross and Marty & Jill L. Karl and Steve, whom I've never met, are visiting (from Boston?) and appear to have wandered in off the street and been caught in Mr. Miller's net. And finally, sitting opposite us, there's Jeff Grossman and Jim Whose Last Name I Didn't Forget This Time. (Sampson.)
Oh yes, the wine is a pale pale salmon color, smells lightly of earth and faint cherries and strawberries, hints of yeastiness and coral chips. Tastes crisp and lively, touch of sweetness meshes well with the earthy-berry streak. A happy wine, just complex enough.
Here are some white Burgundies. Sadly, they taste very much like chardonnay, so I'll be brief.
Drouhin Puligny-Montrachet Folatieres 1998: Sweetly charred vanilla, hints of pear and yellow apple underneath. Tastes limpid and blunt, mostly creamy oak, some toasty oak. Oh, and here's a hint of pale yellow fruit. Whoops, never mind, it's been clubbed to death by the oak. Creamy oak, toasty oak.
Domaine Cordier Pouilly-Fuissé Vers Cras 1999: Dé jà vu all over again. Smells of oak, vanilla-toast-pear-toast-vanilla-charcoal. Tastes of oak too, but is more skillfully constructed than the last mess. A cohesive wine with rounded edges, good balance and decent supporting acidity, merely tastes bad.
Matrot Meursault-Perrieres 1999: At last a lighter hand with the barrels. This smells minerally, an airy, chalky nose. Well balanced, medium-crisp in the piehole, has a lightly velvety-smooth mouthfeel with a slight edge to it. The sole drinkable specimen of the much-maligned white Burgundy genre, it shows that chardonnay needn't necessarily be a caricature of itself. Jay sums up the general mood when he says, in his diplomatical fashion, "I just don't get White Burgundy...." You got that right, brother.
Laura Cohen arrives. I'm not sure where she's been, but now she's here with us. I wave. She waves back.
At long last the reds are coming. Jay thrusts his corkscrew into the first bottle, gives a twist, another, furrows his brow and emerges with a quarter of a cork and a worm full of crumbly corkdust. Much consternation--a desperate call goes up for an Ah-So, but nobody has thought to bring one. Panic is beginning to set in, the assembled geeks wide-eyed and frantic until Lisa stands, hand outstretched for calm.
"Give me the recalcitrant cork," she says. Soon, with the deft hands of a surgeon, the offending bark is extracted and discarded. There is an audible sigh of relief and quiet applause as we finally get a taste of what we came for, a Domaine Clair-Dau Bonnes Mares 1983. It's a muddy medium-light ruby-brown color, smells deliciously decayed, old mushrooms, muddy underbrush and tea in a base of matte dried cherry fruit, with an ever so vague hint of nutty sherriness hinting at storage issues. Tastes crisp, lean and feathered, with well focused red bricky fruit that has a moist leaf quality at the edges but a core of still thrumming faded red fruit. It's a wine on the cusp, definitely over the top of the curve and on the long slope downwards, but I find its complexity just lovely. A wonderful start to the evening's program. Lisa, ever the anthropomorphosist, compares it to the seventeenth-century Frenchwoman Ninon de l'Enclos, to everybody's general confusion.
Next up is a magnum of Domaine Clair-Dau Bonnes Mares 1984: and it's not nearly as decayed as its older sibling but not as rich either. The wine smells quite funky right out of the bottle, more truffley-dark, the red cherry fruit younger and redder. With air the funk blows off a bit, turning sweetly fungal. Tastes crisp and balanced, but is more diffuse than the older wine, lacks the focus to give it that extra bit of zip. Still quite nice, but doesn't leave the same delightful impression.
As we're working on the '84 I discover that Jim works at a law firm that I used to work at in the late 80s. We swap stories about the kooky characters one meets while proofreading on the midnight shift. It's all very amusing, you'll just have to take my word for it.
Here's a switch, a Domaine Louis Jadot Bonnes Mares 1985: Warmly cherry-beety to smell, hints of clove, smoke and mushroom. There are hints of development but the wine seems quite young, tastes red and primary, easygoing fleshy red fruit spreads smoothly across my tongue. Hasn't the focus that I demand in my Grand Cru Burgundies, but is well constructed and friendly enough, if a bit robust.
A linguistic discussion arises, the premise being that Yanks turn nouns into verbs, Brits turn verbs into nouns ("have a lie down..." "have a wash..."). As befits my status, I take no position on the matter.
Domaine Louis Jadot Bonnes Mares 1988: Smells and tastes much like a looser-knit version of the 1985; warm, ripe and smooth to smell, red cherry-beety fruit (Lisa has been feeding me beets lately) and dark spice. Tastes primary and velvety, smooth and lazily easygoing, a nonconfrontational wine with soft edges, finely tannic on the finish.
Domaine Louis Jadot Bonnes Mares 1993: Smells tighter than the last two, a more minerally version of the same darkly truffled hard cherry candy fruit. This wine is the most focused and precise, admirably grabby in the piehole. There is a stern side but it's wreathed in satin, approachable and tasty even now, a keenly balanced and strikingly cohesive young Bonnes Mares with a long future ahead of it. Lovely, my favorite of the post-'83 wines.
Lisa is talking opera with Bob Ross, another big opera fan. "Domingo likes my tits," she explains, "but Sam Ramey is not a breast man..." Bob nods thoughtfully, considering the matter. She then uses Marty as a prop to illustrate how Domingo shakes hands. "Pleased to meet you," she says, inclining her head downwards towards his chest and staring intently. Marty nods thoughtfully, considering the matter.
Comte Georges de Vogué Bonnes Mares 1992: An interesting hint of dark pipe tobacco amidst the stony cherry fruit. Rather watery in the midpalate, vague and unfocused. Somewhat dilute but not unpleasant, suffers in this company.
Domaine Louis Jadot Bonnes Mares 1998: The last of the Bonnes Mares, this is a squalling infant--the oak is more overt, smoky-toasty charred notes over young red berrycherry fruit. At first it seems almost brutally young, but there is a streak of babyfat to the wine that gives some instant gratification. It's a rich wine that seems well built, perhaps not as compact and structured as the 1993, but not as fleshy as the '88 either. Seems promising. Four and a half sheet-draped Prongs of indeterminate origin, set on a fine-grained walnut pedestal and sprayed lightly with lacquer.
Jay is passing around the smaller "Sommelier" cousin of the colossal Riedel DRC vertical stems that SFJoe uses to amaze his friends and break the ice at parties. Even this smaller version is still too damn capacious to taste wine with--you stick your nose in and inhale several cubic meters of air, perhaps there's some trace of wine aroma in there somewhere, perhaps not. Someone across the table (Jayson?) shouts "Fie on this glass! Fie!"
Fournier Chambolle-Musigny 1998: Corked. Bought from Garnet. A deadly silence descends on the table. Who knows what happens now? Nobody speaks: the stench of dread is in our nostrils.
Bouchard Chambolle-Musigny 1999: Sweetly cherried and darkly spicy-toasty-smelling, lightly candied red fruit limned with smoke and horehound. A large wine, clumsily disjointed in its youth but with a lot of rich, interesting components. The ingredients bang around in my mouth, then grind to a halt with charred notes and fine stern tannins. Desperately in need of time to mellow and compose itself.
Legros Chambolle-Musigny Noirots 1999: A tsunami of TCA. This bottle is passed around the room to excited cries of "My god!" and "Amazing!" The third most brutally corked wine I've encountered, and those present who don't know the telltale smell of TCA are presented with a clinic. Jayson worries that he's out the money he spent on it, as it too came from Garnet. We plead with him to look at it as all part of the romantic crapshoot of the vinous lifestyle and not to return it and ruin the lives of the honest men and women who produced it and priced it as reasonably as they did. Not to mention the violence and humiliation that he might subject himself to in the course of such a rascally endeavor.
Legros Morey-St.-Denis Clos Sorbé 1999: After the cloud of mustiness a little Sorbˇ as a palate cleanser works wonders, and the murmurs follow this wine around the table--"Gobs, forsooth!" "This wine is gobbed, can I get a refund?" and so on, so that when it reaches me I'm expecting pinot shiraz. Fortunately the rumors prove false, as the wine smells dancingly aromatic, earth and stone-streaked cherry-raspberry fruit, smoothly angular in the nostrils. A sip, and you get a smooth velvety rush of rich grabby fruit--I see the origin of the gob rumors now, but any thought of gobbiness is put on hold as firm acidity wells up and thrusts through the center of the wine right down your throat, leaving a red feathery hum behind. A racy, focused wine that gives the initial illusion of gobbiness, can this be the best of both worlds? Crisp and happy, a crowd-pleaser that pleases the crowd. Delightful.
Henri Jouan Morey-St.-Denis Clos Sorbé 1999: Has more of an leaf-puddle hint to the nose than the last Clos Sorbé , but wait, there's the same dark plaster-of-paris minerality as well coming up through the red fruit. Another pretty wine, a notch below the Legros in terms of zazz and kapow, but well built and showing nice layering for such an infant.
Perrot-Minot Chambolle-Musigny Les Fué es 1999: Medium-dark garnet, darkest wine of the evening. Smells of smoke, clove and black cherry, toasty and somewhat peculiarly sweet to smell. Now here's a gobby wine, toasty and pumped up, with an artificial candied quality to the fruit. A strangely rich wine that's all ahoo, not of one mind, at war with itself. Does it need time, or is it just, as someone suggests, an overmanipulated oddball?
I write the words "We're drinking our Burgundy TOO YOUNG" in big letters on my notebook and hold it up for all to consider. Nobody chooses to consider the import of my proclamation, so I throw a breadstick at Jay and force him to acknowledge the sentiment. He smiles gamely but I think deep down he finds my behavior puzzling.
As if to prove my point, along comes a Roumier Chambolle-Musigny 1995: Another light, beguiling nose--truffles and sous-bois in a tart cherry base, sharp and bright in the noseholes. Admirably focused, although a bit on the hard side, this wine has no love handles to grab on to, and if you were to try the fine tannins would slap your hands until they stung. Young and tart and all lean, racy potential. Hold until the summer of '09, then shake, then hold again until May 2012. Then sell on E-Bay.
With no more Burgudies left to plunder the attention of the group begins to wander. Marty is racing about with admirable verve, polling the attendees as to their respective favorite wines of the evening. The end result is a three-way dead heat between the 1983 Claire-Dau, the 1993 Jadot and the 1999 Legros Clos Sorbé . I voted for the '83, but it's hard to argue with the other two either, all lovely wines.
For some reason there seems to be a question as to whether to open some sweeties. Plaintive bleats of "Should we open this? Should we open this?" are coming from across the table. "OPEN 'EM ALL," I shriek, "AND LET GOD SORT 'EM OUT!"
Thus it comes to pass that a Weingut Kurt Erbeldinger und Sohn Gewürztraminer Bechtheimer Helig-Kreuz Beerenauslese 1999 comes my way. I'm a sucker for sweet gewürz and I like what I smell here--apricot and lychee at the first whiff, with a dried-flower spiciness and hints of attar emerging on second sniffage. Very ripe, very sweet, but there's enough crispness to keep it from cloying. A freshly decadent little sweetie, pleasantly over the top and fun to sip.
Jayson apologizes several times in advance for the Weingut Landauer Ruster Cuvé e Grosslage Vogelsang Nieusedlersee-Hügelland Trockenbeerenauslese 1995 but his apprehensions are misplaced. The wine smells delightful, richly botrytised yellow fruit limned with apricot and mandarin orange hints. With air a sweet plumeria-floral streak emerges and mingles creamily with the orange-yellow and nobly rotted elements. A sip, and the wine has great balance and structure, a nimble and fresh mouthfeel, flavored with zingy lemon-grapefruit/orange-apricot flavors. Perhaps a little oversweet, but there's so much else going on that it's hard to quibble. Nobody knows what the grape varieties involved are, but it tastes like pinot blanc to me. Quite delicious, whatever it is.
I scout the table for scraps, find that there's plenty of the 1984 left, and settle in to nurse it for awhile. Maybe there's something to the Millerian worldview after all. Lisa sits down next to me with the remains of the Jouan Clos Sorbé . I take her hand. "Pleased to meet you," I say, eyes gazing steadily into hers.