Once upon a time, there were ten well-meaning members of the NYC winegeek demimonde who had only the best of intentions. Lets have a tasting to try to find some hidden gems, they thought; we'll start with a region that's a known source of values, keep our price ceiling relatively low, learn something and maybe even find that rare gem, an inexpensive daily drinker. What could be more hopeful than this idealistic notion? And thus was born the soon-to-be infamous Under-$20 Spanish Jeebusito.

The naysayers said we were crazy to think anything good could come of it, this was masochism, we shouldn't even try. Perhaps they were right. And yet I can't help but feel that the effort was its own reward, even if the end result wasn't what one might have hoped.

Or not. Maybe it's just all Kane's fault.

The first tipoff that the evening isn't going to be jeebus-as-usual is when Lisa and I arrive at the appointed hour to find no one there at all. No, not even Jay Miller, punctuality incarnate. Happily, Jay arrives within seconds of us getting settled in, but we have just time enough to make a big show of rolling our eyes, pointing at our watches and sighing noisily.

We kick things off with a Bodegas Martinez Bujanda Viura-Chardonnay Vino de la Tierra de Castilla 'Infinitus' 2004. Tastes yellow-appley and limp, touch of residual sugar in the old Kendall-Jackson mode. Amiable right up front, it quickly slides away into hollow bloppiness. A lifeless, bland wine that has nothing to recommend it except for maybe the fact that it isn't overwooded. Awful.

By now we've got a quorum; Chris & Lisa, Camblor & Kane, Eden & Scott, as well as Jay, Jeff, Jeff and Josh, the last two Js being friends of Kane's who I can only wave at, as they're at the far end of the table. Hi all you J men!

Here's a Gramona Penedès 'Gessami' 2004. Sweetly whitefloral aromatics, honeysuckle dusted with ginger candy. Tastes lightly honeyed and pure, like deep spring water with a touch of spiced apple. Pleasant and restrained, a middleweight wine whose only real shortcoming is any real sustain at the end--it just kind of stops short with a gingery sigh. Other than that, though, the wine is very decent and has a pleasantly unadorned purity.

Next is a Viña Clavidor Verdejo Rueda 2004. Mmmm, green chiles, limeskin and litterbox. Tastes lightly lemoncreamy, smooth and decently crisp but fairly simple. Were this a New Zealand sauvignon we could have the old enzyme/Fresca argument, but it's not and this doesn't seem the time or place, so it's pushed to one side, dismissed.

Eden shushes the assembled geeks and makes a startling announcement: she has, it seems, joined the fast-growing sorority of Chick Sommeliers. Hearty congratulations all around. She passes around copies of her restaurant's wine list, then begs Lisa for Star Chick Sommelier Vanessa Trevi–o Boyd's phone number so she can ask her the big Chick Sommelier questions, chief among which is apparently "Where do you keep your corkscrew?" We mull this over, I suggest that it sounds like the punchline of a ribald jape, but ultimately no one can come up with a satisfactory recommendation and the matter is let drop as best left in the hands of experts.

To celebrate Eden's ascension into the Sisterhood of the Tastevin, we pop a L'Hereu de Raventos i Blanc Cava Brut NV. Lightly stony aromatics, hint of almond. Pleasant, frothy and bright. No great depth, just hints of complexity, but friendly and mouthclearing squeaky-dry fizz.

Bodegas Godeval Godello Valdeorras 'Viña Godeval' 2004. Smells of white honey and white flowers. Tastes pure and minerally, light but snappy green apple acidity, good composure and focus, nice balance. A straightforward and flavorful wine with fine tensile strength, good stuff.

Jay, perusing Eden's wine list, points excitedly. "Hey," he says, "You've got Boxler Sonnerberg for only $24. Wow!"

"We do?" Eden looks puzzled and squirms minutely. "Ah, I think you must be looking at the by-the-glass list..."

Jay, taking a closer look: "Ooooh... different wow."

Bodegas Itsas Mendi Hondarrabi Zuri Bizkaiko Txakolina 2004. Quiet-smelling, light honey-lemon with a hint of white coral chips. Medium-lightweight, is that a touch of sugar, not sure. Citrus flavors turn towards lime on the finish. Decent enough, rather uninspiring but quite drinkable.

Along with this wine comes a packet of Xeroxed promotional material--that tiger Brad Kane is never too busy to let a sales opportunity slip by. "You want to buy some for your restaurant?" he asks Eden, but the ITB talk is shouted down by the more well-mannered geeks present. Nevertheless, he slips me a sawbuck to drop in a link to This pertinent Information.

Enate Gewürztraminer Somontano 2003. This seems to really bother some people, so I'm curious to try it when it comes my way. Hmmm... smells faintly of lychee jelly-candy and plastic wrap, oddly fakey-perfumey smelling. Tastes watery, with a bitter tang in the midpalate, not much going on and what's going on isn't very nice. Okay, I begin to understand the cries of anguish that preceded this down the table. Awful Lousy.

More hopeful is a Bodegas Cerrasol Verdejo Rueda 2004. Gentle floral aromatics, touch of citrus, hint of herbaceousness. Light and loose, not well honed but decently balanced, pleasant and innocuous (which may be as good as it's going to get tonight).

Jay inhales verdejo, coughs, chokes, coughs again. We all look at Lisa, she shrugs. "As long as he's coughing, it's okay," she says. "If he turns blue, let me know and I'll Heimlich him." By then he has already recovered, and, wiping his eyes, declaims the following:

"It isn't the cough that carries you off,
It's the coffin they carry you off in."

Impressed murmurs, appreciative applause. Jay takes a polite bow for his sangfroid and with that, we move on to the multitudinously incarnadine portion of tonight's festivities.

Bodegas Fuentespina Ribera del Duero Reserva 1999. Uh, oh. One sniff and I know we're heading for the rocks--sawdust-laced cough syrup infused with black raspberry jam. Abrasively tannic, fat and limp. Awful Ghastly.

As I'm considering the horrorshow Fuentespina there is a commotion at the far end of the room, and a murmur runs through the asssembled geeks--"Devlon Moore, it's Devlon Moore, he's here, he's finally here."

I lean in and whisper "Who is this mysterious Devlon Moore?" and the word comes back: turns out that he's the New Lyle Fassª. Damn, you need a scorecard to keep track of the players around here.

Someone calls out "Hold on, there's one more white!" and here comes an Ameztoi Getariako Txakolina Txakoli 2004. Basque Muscadet, or perhaps, given the petillance, Basque Vinho Verde. At any rate, it's lean and minerally and very spare, happily zippy as always (even in '03) but not a lot of meat on the bones. Actually, no meat at all, just happy zippy bones.

Okay, back to reds, with a Bodegas y Viñedos de Murcia Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon/Monastrell Jumilla 'Mad Dogs & Englishmen' 2003. The label claims that the combination of 'two noble grapes and a local grape' are what make for vinous magic. Who knew that 'shiraz' was a local grape in Spain? Apparently a tribute to the spirit of Noel Coward, this wine has none of the master's grace or piquance. Nor, at least as far as I am aware, did he smell like "new carpet" (Jeff's term). Yes, there's a plastic or chemical aroma (I might've called it 'bugspray') in among the lightly jammy plum and smoke aromatics. There's also some oddly spiky acidity trying to hold up fleshy blackfruit and failing, plus a hollow center, and finally a general sense of disjointedness. Awful Heinous.

'Mano A Mano' La Mancha 2003. I can't figure out the producer, it's some cooperative; between that and the overdesigned cartoony label I should've known what awaited. Namely, cherry cough syrup mixed with warm butter. Ugly wine, ick. Awful Gruesome.

Bodegas Piqueras Castillo de Almansa Garnacha Tintorera Almansa 2004. Spanish alicante bouchet?! Ripe, loose, cherry-bloppy and candyfruity. Watery in the middle and bitter on the finish. Awful Ugly.

I sense a lynchmob mentality growing among the disgruntled geeks. Cries of anger and dismay are echoing up and down the table with every newly opened bottle. I shake my head, must take a step back, keep calm, stay focused.

Almira Grenache/Syrah Campo de Borja Old Vines 'Los Dos' 2004. Oh, so it's "grenache" now? Sure, why not. I guess that means it's not one of those local grapes we've heard about. Soft, ripe, simple and loose-tasting redfruit. Squishily inoffensive, if not terribly interesting.

Castillo Labastida Rioja Crianza 2001. Smells gently cherry-spicy. Here's a bit more complexity, a bit more mouthgrab, a bit more balance. An unassuming little medium-lightbodied wine with some interesting earthy-spicy hints and a nice flickery-licorice note on the finish. Pretty decent.

La Rioja Alta Rioja Reserva 'Viña Alberdi' 1999. Vanilla, toast and sandalwood hints overpower the earthy leatherberry wine that lies beneath. Wood-infused, like wine sucked furiously through a knothole in a pine fence. Underneath the carpentry there's a firm, balanced middleweight wine wriggling uncomfortably. Maybe it needs time, I dunno, but a disappointing showing for what I thought would be a reliable wine. I guess Devlon thought the same thing, because he brought it too, more fool both of us.

Olive paste pizza makes for an unusual but strangely compelling appetizer. Kind of too strong for the wines, though. Fortunately.

Bodegas Tomàs Cusiné Costers del Segre 'El Vilosell' 2003. Stripey wine, the label is all stripes! Alarm bells go off in my head and I try to recall the pertinent law... what was it? Something about heavy bottles and design concept labels being a sure tipoff to bad wine, but I can't call the specifics to mind. Geez, this is a woody little thing, black cherry and toast, smoke, toast, coconut husk, smoke, toast. Blowsy-ripe, hollow in the middle, abrasive and jarringly tannic. Ugh, a caricature. Awful Horrific.

Viña Herminia Tempranillo Rioja 2003. Smells a bit cheesy-lactic, dark cassisberry 'n toast underneath. Loosely wrapped and surprisingly nonponderous, given the aromatics. Touch of astringency on the finish, a plump little thing with a bit of weird funk, quite forgettable.

Bodegas y Vinedos Herederos de Martinez Fuente Bierzo 'Pucho' 2003. Smells of raspberry sorbet, scalded milk and coffee grounds. Tastes overextracted, gritty and clumsy, with sandpapery tannins on the bitter, angry finish. Jeff takes a sip and recoils as if bitten. I briefly consider a note that reads merely "Argh! Blech! Pfui!" but don't have the restraint. Drinking this is like trying to swallow Kane's chainmail glove. Awful Appalling.

I glare balefully at the thing. How can you not hate a wine that sounds like Eli Wallach's character from The Good, the Bad & the Ugly? "Bite me, Pucho," I rasp in my best Man-With-No-Name voice, and immediately feel guilty. What if this is the first effort from a biodynamic maverick who has a mission to bring real, honest wine to the people and has mortgaged her home to support her startup winery and bring hope to her young son who is stricken with an expensive and debilitating disease? My god, how can I rush to judgment so without visiting the terroir and understanding what she's trying to say, she who has risen from poverty and maybe just gotten some bad advice from a pointy goblover, most likely her attorney?

I'm a cold, sorry sonofabitch, I am. I hang my head in shame and cry a single bitter tear for my benighted soul.

Ooh, crabcakes! Yummmmm...

Bodegas Yuntero La Mancha Crianza 1997. Freaky-deaky at first, funky-spiritous-smelling, odd, thin and disjointed. With about an hour of air it comes around to a light cherry-leather banality, no small triumph. The polar opposite of the chainmail-down-your-throat Pucho, a wine that's so light and vague that it seems barely there. Ghost wine, haunted by the spirit of faded cherry and dusty old wood. Awful Bad.

Lisa turns to me. "I'll be curious to read this one."

"Why is that?"

"It'll be hard to come up with that many synonyms for 'awful.' You'll need the thesaurus."

Hmmm. I'll file that away, yes.

Just when I thought things couldn't possibly get any worse, along comes a Casa de las Especias Yecla 'Forte del Valle' 2004. Scorched sour milk and toasty blackberry jam, yes that's what it smells like. In the piehole it's only marginally better, low acid, purple and reduced-tasting, like wine sauce, then a swarm of tongue-scraping tannins. At first sippage I think 'Well, it's a dumb jam-on-toast kind of wine, but it's okay,' but I quickly come to dislike it with a rather unhealthy passion--the tannins just won't stop trying to commit genocide on my epithelial cells, and the damn thing has a jarringly bitter-n-boozy aftertaste once the blackberry sauce flavor falls away. Blech. If it continues downhill from here I'm spitting the bit and switching to soda. "The soils of ancient seabeds rich in minerals are responsible for these unique wines" says the label, so at least we know who to blame. Where the hell's the TCA when you need it? Awful Despicable.

Is the lesson here 'Beware of wines with apostrophized nicknames'? My palate is starting to feel like an abused spouse. Whomp, whomp, whomp, but always coming back for more. Perhaps one day the wines will change and not be so mean to me?

Bodegas Riojanas Rioja Reserva 'Monte Real' 1998. Thin red fruit, generous wooding; a taut wine that turns mouth-dryingly tannic. More complexity here, there's some tobacco and dark liquorice-spicy notes, but I'm not having an easy time of it, no pleasure here for me. Plus, I'm angry at wine now for what it's been putting me through over the last few hours and I don't feel like cutting it any slack. Awful Displeasing.

Scala Dei Priorat 'Negre' 2002. Smells dark and ripe, earthy raspberry, a bit jammy-smelling. A sip, and here's more promising matter--it's new-styled and boisterously fruited, but there's restraint in both the muscularity and the weight. It's a relatively easygoing fruit-driven wine that gains from a deceptively matte texture and licoricey underpinnings. Plumpish, but enough acidity to get by, straightforward and decent, this is the kind of wine I'd hoped to see more of. Of which I'd hoped to see more. Whatever, no dangly-thingies.

Agricola de Falset-Marca Garnacha Montsant Old Vines 'Etim' 2002. Decent, blowsy-ripe and simply berrrybombish. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it remains ripe, decent and simple straight through. Not as interesting as the Scala Dei, but amiable in a juicy-fruity sort of way. Not bad.

Valduero Ribera del Duero Crianza 1999. Loose, cherried, medium-lightbodied, I dunno, not much going on but nothing offensive either, just kinda nondescript wine.

I've had several of these wines before, and found them much more easy to take on a solo basis. Singly, it's easy to forgive blowsy overripeness, but when they come in battalions there's an overpowering sameness or conversely an unsettling ugliness that tends to be cumulative, endless processions of jammy-ripe syrupy wines that attempt to beat your palate into submission, whomp whomp whomp. When did the blackberry jam fruitpedo become the model for cheap wines? Is there a market segment that is under the impression that "toasted blackberry liqueur" is a positive descriptor for table wine? It's just so tiring tasting these things, no subtlety, no seduction, nothing but whomp whomp whomp on my tongue.

Fine. I'm done bitching now, it's enough to make one want to get depressed and sulk all the way home, quite possibly pick a fight with one's beloved wife on the PATH train. I resolve to do just exactly that.

Alvear Pedro Ximenez Solera 1927. A whiff of date at first, then fruitcakey maple-toffee hints, spicy fig and walnut. Syrupy-sweet but with a firm acidic core. Pleasantly complex and developed yet quite vibrant, a strikingly positive note to end a troubling evening.

I offer a toast: "Let's never do this again!" Throaty cheers all around, slight desperation as drinkable wine proves elusive; more than a few empty glasses join in the clinking.

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