IN WHICH THE NEWBIES ARE HORRIFIED



The poor dears. They were last seen fleeing down Columbus Avenue in wild-eyed disarray, shouting "We'll only ever buy thin, sour wines from the Loire Valley from now on--please god don't follow us!" back over their shoulders. It was a shameful spectacle, and when their cries were lost in the distance there were exuberant backslaps and high-fives all around.

But I'm getting ahead of myself; let me begin at the beginning...

So I arrive at the storied La Rochetta restaurant on Manhattan's historic Upper West Side for what has been promised as a Jeebus of "at least Village, perhaps Premier Cru" quality. We've got our usual sequestered banquette in the rear of the restaurant's Velvet Room, and as I wind my way back there I catch a glimpse of someone who, from behind, bears a striking resemblance to an ex-girlfriend of mine. My heart jumps into my throat for a moment, but it turns out to be merely a friendly newbie named Ana the Newbie who, lured by the spreading reputation of the New York Jeebusing Society, has made the pilgrimage to this temple of vinous solemnity in order to pay homage to the god of the grape. Or, alternatively, to get wasted on the good stuff for a change.

What's more, it turns out there is another official newbie here tonight, as a newcomer who goes by the name of Christian the Newbie has come out as well. The grizzled veterans eye one another slyly and more than a few calloused hands are rubbed together with glee. Fresh meat!

In dissipated attendance are the usual cast of layabouts, ne'er-do-wells and slugabeds. Oh, and SFJoe shows up too, just to class things up a bit. There's Andrew Munro Clark in his best overalls chatting with moll Jennifer. Next to them are Joe "Please Buy My Wine, I Have Two Starving Children" Dressner and gal pal Donna. Over at the end of the table is Bradley Kane, irrepressible as ever despite everyone's best efforts at repression.

SFJoe, sensing immediately the lack of anything resembling organization, takes up a station at the far end of the table and Napoleonically appoints himself Bottle Monitor and Emperor of All Corkscrews, mandating the pour order and doing all of the tricky opening himself.

Here's an Eric Bordelet 'Sydre' Sparkling Apple Wine NV to start things off. It's a medium gold wine that has a bright appley nose with underlying streaks of Fuji, suggestions of tart Rome Beauty skin and bright Gala high notes. The wine is bright and fresh, sweeter than Bordelet's Poiré and a bit more ponderous in the piehole, with a weighty Macoun streak that rides alongside the leaner, tarter vein of McIntoshness that weaves its way through the midpalate. Comes in at 4% alcohol, which makes it a friendly, gulpable glass of bubbly, although frankly I prefer the Poiré for its superb balance and density of flavor while maintaining a bright acidic core.

There is a commotion in the hallway, and Manuel 'Manhattan Mauler' Camblor, ably assisted by two seeing-eye cats, sweeps grandly into the room dressed in the retro Beatnik-Black style of Maynard G. Krebs in mourning. This is a man who knows how to make an entrance, and he is greeted with cheery halloos and even a walloo or two.

As Manuel is settling in we open a Nikolaihof Riesling Wachau Im Weingebirge Jungfernwein 1999, and a quick sniff is devastatingly enticing. This is a luscious wine to smell, aromatically bright and floral-fruity, with pretty lilikoi, limeskin, beanbag chair and peach hints flickering about jewellike in my glass. As open and expressive a Jungfernwein as any I've had from this vintage. A sip, and a light sweetness hits my tongue at the same time as a silky wave of polished minerally-floral fruit. The first thing that strikes me is the impeccable balancing act, juggling sweetness, acidity, open floral and fruit notes and minerally undertones into a seamless, velvety whole. Smooth, velvety and just a bit of a flashy show-off, this is a delightful young riesling, drinking wonderfully, and even the printed approval of the Demeter Society doesn't keep us from draining the bottle posthaste. Two lacquerwork Prongs with festive faux-primitive tribal designs in gold filigree snaking around their bases.

That one downed, we eagerly dig into another Demeter-approved bottle, a Nikolaihof Riesling Steiner Hund Spätlese 1999. If the Jungfernwein was a bit flashy, this one is a dense, steel-scaled dragon, powerfully focused and intense, smelling more stony-vinyl and less fruity-floral. No sugar here; tightly coiled and puckery-crisp, this starts out a bit quietly, then wells up with a rich vein of white flower edged minerally fruit in the midpalate, finishing with a tangy flourish. Racy and pure, a stern, breathtaking wine with its feet in the present but its eyes focused on the far future; almost overwhelming. One mountainous gleaming chromium-coated granite Prong hung with a light garland of jasmine and thrust deep into the heart of a cool rushing stream by an angry pagan god.

I could use a cigarette.

These two wines really ring the bells of many of the attendees. Kane shocks many of us by liking them, but a quick assurance that he likes the sweet one better lets us know that the Universe is still ticking over as it ought. We look to Dressner for permission to buy some, and he grimaces magnanimously: "It's all right my little cabbages, I don't import any riesling. Go ahead." Relieved, we send Andrew scurrying across the street to pick up several more bottles of each before the corner liquor store can close for the evening.

While he's gone we try an Allan Scott Clark Riesling Marlborough 2000, and it's a light tangy wine with some decent varietal character. There are light grassy and citric notes, it is certainly nicely balanced, crisply simple and drinkable, but is just so out-everythinged by the two previous wines that comparison hardly seems decent. Perhaps we should all just go home now.

A quick poll is taken: by a vote of 9 to 3 we decide to soldier bravely on.

Here is a Joly Savennièrres Becherelle 1997, but as it's being poured Lisa and Jennifer sing out "Whoa, hold on there, cowboy!" (in unison, like those Mothra chicks) and simultaneously throw their yellow flags. Corked, and corked. Long faces all around except for our fresh-faced newbies, who cluster around a glass to get a good whiff of a corked bottle, and emerge enlightened.

Dressner, sensing the new audience, has seized centerstage like a Rottweiler might a sedated squirrel, and now launches into a confusing and ultimately pointless story about David Bowie's sister's daughter coming to act as his live-in nurse or hairdresser or something. We try to listen as we tuck into a Alquier Roussane-Marsanne VdP de l'Herault 1999, but his tortuous ramblings don't entirely distract me from the exclamations that are following this wine around the table: "Oof!" "Smells like glue!" "Farrinaceous fungus(sp?)... you know, the mushroom that smells like glue...?" "Jockstrap!" "This smells like the shit I make at home!" and so on.

Our newbie friends are eyeing each other nervously.

The wine does have an odd and pungent gluey note over a light tropical-butterscotch body. Slightly oily-waxy in the cakehole, with good acidity. There is balance, but a balance of what, I ask? I answer my own rhetorical question with a quick "Now is not the time." The moderately wooded fruit in the midpalate is flattened out and has a fruit-cocktail-juice quality that makes me wonder if this bottle isn't damaged. Quite disappointing, one adjectival stripe shy of icky. Five and a half small misshappen prongs molded together from fruit rind compost and old tubs of "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter."

The hits just keep on coming with a Domaine Boillot Rully Grésigny 1997, which has an evocative nose of vanilla, sawdust, custard and toast. The pastoral image of a woodshop springs softly to mind when I smell this wine, lathes turning and saws buzzing merrily. Crisp, pleasantly balanced, but quite appallingly oaky and the tiny shy yellow fruit that's underneath the wood suffers a cruel death by suffocation.

We're already having to ask to have the dump buckets emptied. There is also problem with the air conditioning (there isn't any in evidence), something the staff promises to rectify right away.

Here's another entry in the altesse-a-thons that our Jeebuses seem to have become lately, a Franck Peillot Roussette du Bugey Montaignieu Vendages d'Antan 1998, prompting Lisa to wistfully sigh "Ou sont les vendages d'antan...?" several times, until we laugh. And laugh we do, oh yes, even the newbies, who know what's good for them. It's a sweet and fresh smelling young altesse, perfumed and pleasant, with light hints of fresh yellow apple and sweet gardenia. Lighly oily mouthfeel, an agreeable unctuousness, not very complex and just a shade off-dry. Quite pleasant, although its lack of edge leaves me a little cold. Kane keeps shouting "PEACH! PEACH!" for reasons that remain unclear. Perhaps he's thinking of dessert, but the newbies are becoming noticeably edgy.

There is a brief wrestling match over a plate of artichoke appetizers, then we move on to reds with a Domaine Vissoux Fleurie Poncié 1998: Smells light and silky, hints of strawberry, plum and earthiness. Medium-bodied, without the stuffing of the '99 Granits that we've been enjoying lately, it falls away a bit on the finish but is pleasant and decent and quite drinkable.

Thinking of my South African fan base, I sniff hopefully at a Clos Malverne Pinotage Stellenbosch Basket Pressed 1999. I am sorry, my South African friends, for what I must say next: This smells like diesel exhaust, and tastes as if it had been aged in old truck tires for fifteen months. Actively and surprisingly unpleasant, purple-smoky fruit, puckery-astringent and tongue-coatingly charred on the finish, there is something very wrong with this bottle. Is it cooked beyond recognition? It can't possibly be meant to taste like this, can it? Dressner opines that the winery must've had a fire during the vinification, as the grapes have clearly suffered fatal third-degree burns. Happily, this one was brought by Christian the Newbie, so, in the best New York tradition, we turn on him like a pack of starved giant super-rats, heaping abuse of the most vile and degrading nature on his bottle, stuff that's too grim to repeat here in a family forum. He is saved from a further wine-whuppin' only by the distraction of a waiter knocking over an ice bucket full of cold water right onto SFJoe's Goretex-shod feet, where it runs harmlessly off into little rivulets and pools on the floor. I suggest we drink that instead of the pinotage, but no one is in the mood, althought the sentiment is heartily endorsed.

With Ana the Newbie looking pensive after the previous cautionary example, we pass around her contribution, a Triacca Prestigio Veltellina 1996. The word 'Prestigio' is certainly very impressive, I must say, and as a result the wine is very nice, smelling lightly of tomato-cherry, leather and violets. Slightly feathered in the gob, this is a well balanced wine, lightly brambly and nimble, on the lean and racy side, with a good sustained hum of a finish. Very nice, a pretty nebbiolo without delusions of grandeur.

Just in time for my filet mignon, the Edmunds St. John Syrah Durell Vineyard Sonoma Valley 1996 is an inky-purply color and has a richly ripe nose, hints of blackberry, smoked meat and menthol. The menthol note is much commented on but I don't find it as intrusive as others seem to, as the wine is expressive and rich, flowing smoothly down the gullet with a meaty-chewy, slightly rough body that wraps up with a tarry thrum. Tasty California syrah, still too young and a bit chunky now but a nice ride nonetheless. Twin leather and fur-clad prongs, wrapped in burlap and set on a rocky hillside in the Southwest somewhere, maybe Arizona.

Here's a Gianfranco Allesandria Barolo San Giovanni 1996, and it's rather surprisingly aromatic, cherry-eucalyptus, tar and truffles, some toasty wood. Rich, bitingly acidic and puckery-tannic, I have to have a bite of steak for every sip I take so that my mouth is not stripped of flesh. With air a perfumed violet streak emerges. Aggressive and dense, a strong and joyful infant strangling snakes in his crib.

A Château La Vieille Cure Fronsac 1990 comes down the line, smelling of light cherry, stewed tomato, earth and sod. Tastes a bit soft and insubstantial, lightly limp, with earthy-cherry fruit right up front that segues into more of a forest-floor flavor in the midpalate, the red fruit turning towards a brick dust matte flavor, almost a pressed-flower quality, with a light herbal streak. Has some small interest, but seems like it's fading.

In my left ear I hear Dressner carrying on about some retailer whom he yelled at for repeatedly calling him "Lewis," and in my right ear I hear Manuel promising to attend the next Jeebus in drag. The newbies are looking as if they might bolt down the stairs and out the door at any second, so the wines are poured faster now, with a sense of urgency.

Domaine Pichard Madiran 1982: Light cherry-bricky nose with a strong tarry undercurrent. A taste, and it's still fairly hard, a little ungiving, with muted blackberry and tar flavors. Interesting and layered at first, it falls apart in the glass rather quickly, turning towards bitterness.

Kane has a bottle of Château Troplong-Mondot St. Emilion 1979 that he bought for five dollars at a flood sale (the label had been washed off). He passes it around blind for people to guess at, but the only guesses that come in are "Cornalin?" and "Lagrein?" Smells of faded cassis, earth and smoke. A lean, light wine that has interesting tart, muted fruit that has feathered out pleasantly at the edges. Bit of an herbal streak running alongside the red-brown fruit. Best at first, fades slowly into disjointedness in the glass, but pretty darn good for five bucks.

Dressner has prepared us for the next wine, a half bottle of Del Dotto Cabernet Sauvignon Napa 1998 by passing around color copies of promotional material from the winery, none of which mention the distinct pickle-barrel aroma emanating from my glass. Dill and oak and something like cinnamon toast as well, over a base of rich, slightly candied cassis. Tastes oaky-smoky, with lots of ripe cassis popping up in the midpalate, then fading fast into an astringent wood-tannic finish. Unpleasant. "The thing I like about this wine," says Dressner, "is that it physically makes me shudder." I overhear some vague talk that this wine is made by Teamsters, but I'm not sure what that means, so I ignore it. The half bottle is still one third full at evening's end.

Château de Saint Cosmé Gigondas 1998 is next up, and it smells rich and spicy, dark raspberry with a bit of barnyard and a splash of black pepper. In the facehole it's very ripe and fleshy, going in several directions at the same time, a little all over the place. Still, it's friendly and chewy, a big wine with flavors that meander in the direction of medicinal but don't quite cross the line. I am ambivalent, enjoying the spiciness and richness, but I also find the wine a little tiring.

Speaking of overripe, SFJoe has brought along a relic from deep inside the Stygian depths of his cellar, a Turley Cellars Zinfandel Contra Costa County Duarte Vineyard 1997, and the mere sight of the familiar fat-bottomed bottle is enough to elicit the biblical howls of anguish and gnashing of teeth that seem to inevitably follow this producer around at New York gatherings. The wine when poured is pruney, unbalanced and hot. No, I mean actually hot, somewhere around eighty-five degrees, the ambient temperature in the restaurant at the time. After a judicious plunge into an ice bucket for a few minutes it's showing more red berry fruit, but there's still that stewed quality that sometimes lurks beneath the surface of both the '96 and '97 Duarte but usually isn't nearly so predominant. Not a good showing at all, but Christian the Newbie has the temerity to suggest that the wine isn't nearly as bad as all the melodramatic wailing would indicate. Dressner, manfully resisting the urge to say 'Damn your eyes, Mister Christian, this is mutiny!' whirls on him with theatrical open-mouthed astonishment: "What in the world could you possibly like about this wine?!"

His voice quavers a little, but he sticks to his guns: "I'm just suggesting that it's not as bad as you're all saying it is..."

Dressner wipes his brow at this insubordination, says "Oh my god, I'm an old man, I have a heart condition, this wine, this could kill me, I could sue, I foresee a lawsuit if something happened to me, they'd be liable, I've had four major heart surgeries, I could go at any minute..."

Resistance nipped in the bud, we proceed.

Andrew, desperately curious about what he believes to be the nation's oldest winery's daring experiments with upstate New York zinfandel fruit, orders a Brotherhood Winery White Zinfandel NV off the wine list. When it arrives it is a lovely brown iced-tea color, but Andrew does not share it with anybody, taking a few sips for himself, then deciding he didn't really want it after all. He calls the waiter back and makes him take it away before we get to sample it, so if anyone is curious about the state of zinfandel making in upstate New York I suggest you email him directly.

Finally, we have one solo sweetie, a Château Coutet à Barsac Barsac 1978: Medium gold color. There is a bit of an odd funkiness that blows off quickly to reveal and/or offer up a yellowfruity nose, lemon and light vanilla with a nutty, almondy streak. Pleasantly middling-sweet, this is a nicely balanced middle-of-the-road wine with a medium-creamy mouthfeel and medium sweetness. Decent but fairly generic, although age seems to have added a certain amount of complexity to what essentially seems like a fairly simple but pleasant wine. The newbies like it a lot, and everyone goes home happy.

So that's it.

Oh, uh... we didn't quite end up back where we started, did we?

Well... mm.

That's what the edit function is for. Give me time, I'll come up with something wickedly clever. It'll be a knockout, you'll see.

Just keep checking back in...




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