It's one of those east coast late summer days that starts out warm then turns gray and drizzly, a perfect day to wander the streets of New York and observe the local fauna in their natural habitat. So it is that I--moist, chilled and footsore after a two hour stroll across town--arrive at the swanky midtown digs of our own SFJoe uncharacteristically early. I won't attribute this strange punctuality to the absence of my dear chronologically-challenged spouse, but only because I fear a terrible retribution were I to do so.
Lisa, you see, is out of town exploring the vineyards of Oregon and driving up and down the Pacific Northwest in a shiny red Corvette, and I must perforce attend MoJoe 2002 stag. I understand Jayson Cohen is similarly exploring somewhere in Michigan and Laura is thus coming doe. And then there's Kane, who is as always coming Kane.
To my shock and embarassment, Joe answers the door colorfully clad in Aloha shirt and shorts. We eye each other uneasily, two girls who wore the same dress to the prom, then decide the styles and patterns are different enough to accomodate us both. To celebrate our burying the sartorial hatchet, we open a Huet Vouvray Petillant 1997 and thereby set the MoJoe wheels in motion. I've been drinking gallons of the 1998 over the past year, so I'd almost forgotten how different this is, much more ripe, robust and rich, more like a fizzy demisec minus the sugar. Why didn't I buy more of this? What the hell was I thinking, it was like seventeen bucks on release for what young vandergrift would call god wine. I think of the empty bottle of 1964 that has been sitting in my hallway for six months and know this will eventually be better. Stupid, stupid me. Two flowering Prongs formed of sculpted sod seeded with wildflowers and set on quartz pedestals in a sunny meadow next to a bakery that specializes in brioche.
Brad arrives, bearing beets. But, as our host is quick to point out, not nearly enough beets. Can Brad not count heads and divide by beets? I selflessly aver that I will not partake of beets, thus balance is restored and the festivization may proceed without beet-related concerns casting a pall over the fun.
Laura arrives, tart in hand, and is immediately concerned that she's underdressed. Not in the sense of showing too much skin, but in the sense of having clothes that are not sufficiently formal. I assure her that, this year's MoJoe being a stag n' doe affair, all bets are off. She seems unsure until I nod towards Brad, at which point she visibly relaxes, holding her glass out for whatever is flowing at the moment.
Which happens to be an Andre Perret Condrieu Coteau de Chery 1996. Muted yellow tropical-floral smellies insinuate themselves into my nose, waxy gardenia, pineapple, with an underlying minerality. I confess to having more trouble pinning viognier down than I do most other grape varieties (groslot and savagnin also tend to evade me), and this time is no exception. After the initial perfumed rush, a pleasant spinal rockiness emerges. A few years of age seem to have muted the bright flowerality, but the wine still seems to have the borderline slatternly impulse to wield that like cheap perfume. It's a flavorful, mouthcoating wine that seems outsized at first but soon slims; it's only when it relaxes and the minerality surfaces in the middle that a kind of calm grace is achieved. The finish is brief but satisfying, all stones no perfume. It's a mysterious glass of wine that has me frowning and muttering small exclamatory phrases to myself for a good twenty minutes, but when I've found its center I like what I see. Three and a half relatively small Prongs tied up in those purple velvet drawstring bags that Crown Royal whiskey comes in and set in a dark corner behind the bar under a nostalgia print of Carmen Miranda.
"What do you think of the Condrieu?" Joe asks in the midst of my viognereverie. I blink stupidly at him, and can only come out with "Muh, num, neph, dunno." He nods, understanding, then goes back to mincing his fairy ring mushrooms, humming his fairy ring mushroom-mincing song all the while.
Laura somehow manages to keep picking up Kane's wineglass and sipping out of it before she catches her error. Kane sternly brings her attention to repeated instances of misplaced lipstick on the rim of his glass. I explain to her that it's been a long time since Kane has encountered lipstick and he's not sure it's safe.
A flip side to the Perret's inscrutibility is the glass of Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Pinot Gris Clos Windsbuhl 2000 that somehow arrives in my glass. Sweetly floral in my nose, plumeria-gardenia, hints of tangerine and lemon. Fat and friendly in the piehole, a low acid, slightly oily wine with a good deal of heft and what seems like a touch of sweetness as well. It's pretty good pinot gris in a blowsy sort of way, eager to please, obvious and flavorful. What's not to like? Four and a half squat battered Prongs fried in peanut oil, then rolled in cinnamon and sugar and left on wax paper to cool.
Out of the corner of my ear I hear Brad telling tall tales about how he got the part as the voice of Aladdin in the Disney movie and his subsequent popularity in Greenwich Village drag shows. He announces, and I quote: "Guys used to squeeze my ass on the subway when I weighed one hundred and fifty pounds." No one is sure what to make of this except Laura, who observes "You probably looked gay when you were thin, right?" I sense the Furies beginning to hover ominously over this conversation, scourges in hand. Just in time Joe leaps to the rescue by putting Hayseed Dixie's stylish redneck renditions of AC/DC tunes on the CD player, and soon we are all lost in the mysteries of hillbilly "Big Balls" and yokel "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap." Transcendent.
As we begin to gather at the table Joe's friends Don and Virginia arrive. He's a DA, she's a professor at a prestigious eastern university, and also seems to have another, much smaller person inside her. Don, winegeek-curious, offers that he has learned the necessity of small pours and dumping since last year's MoJoe, which got a little out of hand. We tell him that's a very good thing, and expect to see him using his newfound skills in the field.
We plow through Joe's legendary scallop-corn risotto with the remainder of the whites. When the barbequed pork ribs arrive in great smoky heaps the reds begin to flow, first up a Ferraton Hermitage Cuvée Meow 1985. The neck label with the cute picture of the Thomasina the kitty is missing, but the wine is nonetheless purring quietly and arching its back when stroked. Light aromatics, sweetly leathery and leafy, a damp glen in a misty eucalyptus forest. Muted blackberry-plum flavors in the piehole backed by a rigid spine of acidity, the delicate flavors are mugged by the well spiced dry-rub ribs and the remaining acid gives a feeling of brittle hardness. Six and a half ceramic Prongs left outside over the winter then trundled around to craft fairs all over the eastern seaboard before finally being displayed on a lacquerware bookshelf next to a small collection of Hummel figurines, many of which are chipped. Pronged twice, with consistent Prongs.
Don, lacking winegeek jargon, says of the Ferraton, "It's too... I don't know, tough... kinda sharp." It's curious to see poor Don being slowly sucked into the winegeek maelstrom, I feel as if we're leading him down the primrose path to ruin. Which I suppose we are.
But if that's the way it has to be, so be it. The geek machine is in constant need of fresh meat.
Joe thinks for a minute. "These ribs really do need a zinfandel, don't they?" he says, and sashays around the corner, reemerging with a Ridge Lytton Springs 1993 clutched to his bosom. A pour, a sniff, a sip, and it's a Ridge zin all right. Smells darkly fruited, black cherry and raspberry, vanilla, dark earth and cedar toast. There's the rich red fruit, there's a healthy dose of wood, there's a dark underlying earthiness, a bit of zinny heat, all in a rather loosely-knit wine that hasn't got a lot of focus but delivers all the goods you'd expect. Time has been kind to this and it's in a pretty good place right now, but I wouldn't hold on to it much longer. Four rough-hewn Prongs carved out of maple, nailed to a sturdy redwood base that has been dipped in coal dust and extra-virgin olive oil, then set adrift on a man-made lake that has been stocked with brown trout, moonfish and crappies.
"Oh yeah, that's much better," says Don. "That has, what... guts? Is 'guts' the right word?"
"A SOLID WALL OF VANILLA" Kane announces. "And you can quote me on that!" I assure him that I will do no such thing, as it's clear that he's playing out some childhood drama rather than actually reacting to what's in the glass.
"What in the world is he talking about?" asks Joe, "This is lovely."
"I hear him," I say, "but I do not understand."
"A SOLID WALL OF VANILLA" Kane says once more, in case anyone had missed it the first time.
There are sighs, and we turn our attention to a Chateau Pradeaux Bandol Cuvée Speciale La Rose Folle 1998 (.375 ml). Smells sweetly smoky, dark raspberry, gravel and tar. A sip, and it's a muscular young thing, deceptively silky right up front, taut and intense in the middle and long and smoky-berried at the end. Here's another deep wine that's big enough to take on Joe's ribs and emerge triumphant, much more focused than the Ridge. Strong, impressive stuff in need of deep rest. One dark obsidian Prong smeared with ram's blood and motor oil and affixed to the shield of an extra playing a Roman Legionnaire in the first scene of movie 'Gladiator.'
Laura says "I need you to write down what we drank so Jayson can see what we had when he gets back." I promise to do exactly that, for a nominal fee. She leans in close to me. "This last one was my favorite," she adds. I dutifully write that in my little notebook. Jayson, she likes the Bandol. You now have a perfect excuse to buy some. Buy me some while you're at it, will you? She'll understand.
Don, on his job as a District Attorney: "You'd be surprised how many people get stabbed." There is general agreement, but he feels compelled to build on this theme: "I had a case where a woman stabbed her boyfriend with a windchime," he declares triumphantly. Did she go to jail, we ask? Oh yeah he says, which prompts Joe to quip "If you can't do the time, don't use the chime." There is general applause and a good deal of backslapping at the bon mot. It's clear that a toast is in order, so we open an Edmunds St. John Syrah Durrell Vineyard 1994.
Smells of blackberry, smoke, smoked meat, menthol, grilled plum. Grilled plum? Sure why not, adjectives are still free. This has quieted down a lot over the past few years and seems a little shy tonight. Muted, quiet syrah, not particularly expressive but layered and smooth, with enough acidity. Shutting down? Even reticent, it's honest wine with character. Five and a half juicy Prongs carved from slabs of gyro meat, rubbed down with Vick's Vaporub and that weird green algae that chicks eat, then buried in Leo Sayer's backyard.
After the obligatory 'I sat on a plane behind a snoring James Earl Jones' story, the topic of scrod comes up once more. Is it a fish? Is it a tiny cod? A fingerling? A dessert topping? Joe snatches my notebook and begins to sketch while telling us about his favorite political graffitto from the dark years of Ronnie Reagan and the war in El Salvador, finally turning it around to reveal a skeletal fish with an X through its eye with the caption "Death Scrod."
Somewhere there is a rim shot.
Hey, our host is opening a Burgundy: for this I need the colossal glass. I make my needs known, and he obligingly fetches one of his two Riedel Colossi Series named Magog, Swallower of Magnums, and sets it down in front of me on its custom pedestal. Don, flushing at the sight of the terrarium-on-a-stem, excitedly demands the services of its brother Gog. Thus equipped, we are ready to Burgundize. But where did the wine go?
After a few blank seconds of searching I locate my pour of Domaine G. Roumier Chambolle-Musigny 1999, a small purple spot deep in the cavernous crystalline interior of the über-stem. I sniff in a downward direction, the aromas wafting up beguilingly from another time zone deep below. Tight dark cherry-beet, velvety red plum and clove smellies cross my nosepath, I wave cheerily as they drift past. The aromatics are smooth and bound up with one another, not up for socializing. I use the custom Riedel wheel-and-pulley arrangement to tilt the glass, and the wine tastes like a precocious youngster--seemingly easygoing at first sippage, a sinewy elegance emerging in the middle. Tangy and dark, there is something hidden at the center, at first I think it's a vagueness or almost a dilute quality, but then it eludes me and I allow the robust stony-cherry finish to sweep me downstream into an eddy of fine tannins. Another difficult wine to pin down, there's a muscular tone to the initial fruit that belies the elegance of the mouthfeel. Whatever is going on, it needs time to come together and spread out. Not Pronged at this time.
Don and I repeat the same "Rey Ordoñez sucks/No he doesn't/Does too/Does not" argument that he and Lisa had a year ago, almost verbatim. But this time Don has learned the vital skill of dumping, so the reflexive contradiction stops after ten or fifteen minutes instead of continuing for an hour or so. The various extant conversations are all starting to whirl together, I can't keep a throughline going:
"...purple martens are excellent neighbors. They eat mosquitoes until they drop. No more St. Louis Encephalitis. Why does St. Louis Encephalitis not get the PR of West Nile Disease? Has West Nile got a better PR firm at its disposal?"
"...solvent outgassing from the surface treatment. Cool. COOL."
"...the internet used to be fun, now it's just exhausting. Is it me?"
"...and as he left he said to me 'That's the worst bottle of '47 Huet I've ever tasted.' Good old Robert."
"...A SOLID WALL OF VANILLA."
"...and I forgot to mention, on that flight James Earl Jones had a COLD."
An argument flares up as to whether the square thing that Laura's tart rests on is a plate, a platter or a platform. Does it have a rim, asks Kane? Does it hold juices? This segues into urgent chatter about knives and knife geekery. Soon Joe is waving a large German chef's knife at me in a manner that lesser or more sober mortals might find alarming.
I seek solace in a Nigl Riesling Beerenauslese 1998 A blizzard of tartrate crystals in the bottle, looks like a snow globe has been poured into the riesling. A sniff, and ye gods, a festival of botrytis and borderline-wacky tropical fruit aromas begins a conga line in my nose. Spicy hay, mango, pineapple, lemon, all bound up in light vinyl siding. A sip, and it's Yellow Submarine in my mouth, vivid colors and bright shapes, crazily dense and botrytised, Mr. Coad's wild ride. A moment later I'm deposited back in my chair, but I immediately get in line for another ride. Quite breathtaking in an over-the-top way, very sweet but still crisp and light on its feet, a beautiful match with Laura's plum tart. Exciting wine. Two crystal Prongs swathed in bolts of canvas, one of which is covered with signed drawings of Ralph Steadman and one of which has some kind of a Mondrian knockoff on it, the whole arrangement set on a wide hardwood base that has been rubbed down with ambergris and myrrh, then baked in a brick oven until it bursts into all-consuming flames.
Gradually everyone leaves but the diehard MoJoers. Joe is giving Kane a fatherly lecture about stopping the feudin' n' fussin' with everyone and playing well with others. I fear the sensible words fall on deaf ears, but my own ears are starting to ring from the 1934 Armagnac that Joe keeps trying to sneak into my glass as I'm puffing on the contraband cigar that has somehow materialized in front of me. I recall how the 1928 that I was plied with at last year's MoJoe was almost singlehandedly responsible for putting me on the national liver transplant registry, and sensibly decline any more than a brief sniff and sip, beautiful though it may be. I still have to weave unsteadily back home through the rain, it's a long walk across town to my train.
And this time I want to wake up in my own pants.