NINE CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF A THEME



A small crowd of rainsoaked winos gathered at Tony Fletcher's outer borough abode on a stormy late fall Saturday night for an impromptu dinner and a good dose of thematic confusion.

Joining Tony and Posie were Manuel and Josie and me and Lisa, who has after extended negotiations agreed to be called 'Rosie' for the duration of the evening. Also in attendance were Joe Moryl and his girlfriend, whose name may or may not have been Bosie. And, of course, Jay "Bucko" Miller. As a safety measure, we are all patted down for firearms beforehand, a jeebal policy shift now referred to colloquially as 'The vandergrift Rule.'

Next we are all given tagged sets of glasses with numbers on them for quick and easy identification. I'm not entirely clear what the theme is, but I know it's going to be good. I'm the eternal optimist, you see.

Here's a little something to break the nonliteral ice, a Domaine du Closel Savennières Les Coulées 1995: Reliable honey-quince aromatics, flecks of lemon zest and pollen up high, light Savennières waxy-earthiness below. Tastes light, chalky and evanescent above the stave, a mediumweight wine that has fine flavor and balance. The '95 Closels have always struck me as being the shyest of the '95-'97 run and this is not going to be the bottle that breaks my ironclad predispositions. The acidity is sufficient but yielding, the core of fruit is warm and earthy but rather loosely-wrapped and delicate. Smoothly harmonious middle-of-the-road Savennières, lovely in the center, trailing off in the highs and lows.

Up next we've got a Mas Carlot Marsanne-Roussane Cuvée Tradition 2001: Hmm. Fragrant and perfumed-yellow honeysuckle, pineapple-pear hints. Quite hefty pieholefeel, waxy-creaminess buoyed by crisp acidity, bit of a burn on the finish. Bright, floral and big, there's a touch of complexity, but it's basically a big slobbery puppydog of a wine, juicy and cheerful.

CRASH goes the glass. Manuel's ass is the culprit, my number three glass is on the floor in shards. Now what? Can I get another number three or do I swipe one of Lisa's number twelves?

Swipe.

Ah, here we go. Tonight's theme must be RIESLING.

Krebs-Grode Riesling Odensomething Somethinggottensomething Auslese Trocken 1998: Yup, it's an Auslese Trocken. Fragrant smellies, honeyed guava-peach, yellow apple and a whiff of botrytis, along with a streak of kerosene. Not as interesting in the piehole as it is up the nose, tastes somewhat diffuse, good weight and flavor but lacking focus. The fruit spreads out and has no center and the medium acidity doesn't add much zip; the wine seems chunky and somewhat inert. Quite nice to smell, but too broad in the beam for home use. Does not give the lie to the old 'Beware of wines in heavy, overdesigned bottles' theorem.

I've just started on my third white when I notice that Jay Miller has run through them all already and is starting on the reds. What's the story, morning glory? He makes a squinchy face, points to the Mas Carlot. "Best of the whites," he says in a pained voice. I stare blankly.

For a theme within a theme here's a couple of wee Willis, first the Willi Schaefer Riesling Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett 2001: Pale, almost colorless. Rainwatery lemon nose with a bit of a sulfurous hint. Lightly sweet, lightly fizzy, crisp but not stern acidity, lemon-limey yellow apple fruit, rather light bodied. A decent, undemanding glass of riesling that is well made but not particularly compelling. Shrug.

Free Willi, the Return: Willi Schaefer Riesling Graacher Himmelreich Kabinett 2001: Quite similar to the WS, on a slightly larger scale--a skosh weightier, a jot sweeter, a drab deeper, an iota more lemony. The schnozz has lemon and minerals, the taste follows, throwing a yellow apple streak in for good measure. Pleasant, tangy, balanced, straighforward. Shrug+

The Krautgeeks are grousing that the Kabinetts are too damned ripe, more like declassified Spätlederhosen or Auslederhosen, that they're blowsy and underwhelming. I'm no monkey-toucher, but it's hard to disagree and not just because I'm stuffing veggie pizza down my gullet. Only Kane has good things to say about them (I think it's the sugar).

Here's the token Austie, a Nikolaihof Riesling Vom Stein Wachau 2000: The smallest and most delicate of the 2000 Nikolaihofs, tonight this is smelling rather more vinyled than I remember, white beanbag chair, white flowers and wet quartz sprinkled with lemon drop dust. Quiet in the piehole, shy and crisp and cleanly crystalline, seems reticent and tight after the blowsier Germans. Good wine, small package.

Here's a Domaine Sainte-Anne Côtes du Rhône Blanc 2000: Hey, this isn't riesling at all! Smells rather like yellow dish soap or Lemon Pledge, quite slickly and concentratedly floral. A sip, and there's a quick burst of weighty yellow fruit that quickly implodes, turning strangely coarse in the midpalate and then vanishing entirely, leaving a fierce alcoholic burn. A three-stage descent into wretchedness, almost fascinatingly awkward and disjointed. "Paint thinner," says Camblor, but as usual he's being too kind. Godawful.

Another nonriesling, a Domaine de Piaugier Sablet Côtes du Rhône Villages Blanc 1999: Something is not right here, it's an oddly dark medium-gold color... hmmm... whiff of sherry... yup, cooked. Still, I'd rather drink this than the Sainte-Anne. Hey, maybe tonight's theme is 'Fucked-Up White Rhônes'?

No, no, it's now quickly becoming obvious that the theme is CABERNET FRANC. Here they come, stand back!

First the obligatory Monterey cab franc, a Hahn Estates Cabernet Franc Monterey Santa Lucia Highlands 1998: Medium-light dead center red color. Some weird matchsticky funkiness blows off, leaving behind candied cherry cough-drop aromas laced with green pepper. Plump and soft in the piehole, there's flabby ripe red fruit, almost no acidity and that odd stemmy green streak. Weird and limpid, this somehow manages the considerable feat of seeming both over- and underripe at the same time. Odd. Just odd. Are the fierce hopes we all had for Monterey cab franc just wishful thinking?

Standing Stone Vineyards Cabernet Franc Finger Latkes 1998: Lightly aromatic, small red cherry-berry fruit laced with tobacco leaf and a dusting of toastiness. Tastes small and light-bodied and low-key, but straightforward and honestly cab franky. There's medium-light acidity to go with the medium-lightweight fruit, a feathery medium-length finish. Pretty good, a decent medium wine with nothing up its sleeve.

I'd always been under the impression that the Finger Latkes were some kind of fried potato snack, but tonight Joe Moryl is here to straighten things out and set me right. All that confusion over a simple typo!

Joël Taluau St. Nicolas-de-Bourgeuil Vieilles Vignes 1996: Corked. Jay "Bucko" Miller brought this bottle, but by an amazing coincidence Manuel also has a bottle of the same wine stashed away in his seemingly bottomless bag of tricks. Unfortunately this means that there's very little decanter time for it. This wine has been the poster child for bottle variation, but tonight's showing is the usual tightness and impenetrability for the first few hours (with a whiff of barnyard), then progressive softening, the hard cran-cherry feathering out to brick-dustiness at the edges, hints of brown tobacco emerging. I don't have another three hours to wait for the gravelly-stony streak to come out of hiding, but I know it's in there, biding its time.

Tomasello Winery Cabernet Franc Atlantic County 1999: Corked, corked, corked. Why would god be so cruel as to deprive us of the joys of New Jersey cabernet franc? In the face of this show of divine perversity I renounce my faith: from here on out it's paganism all the way for me.

Sourdais Chinon Les Cornuelles Vieilles Vignes 2000: Medium-dark garnet color. Textbook Chinon smellies, dark cranberry and black cherry laced with tobacco and pine needles, judiciously wooded. Tastes dark and fresh, surprisingly dense but with good footwork, a well-muscled young middleweight Chinon, dark and flavorful and exuberant. An early favorite for me, from a producer with whom I'm relatively unfamiliar, this compares favorably with the 2000 Baudry Croix Boissé:e, which I'm sipping from a straw stuck into a leathern pouch in my breast pocket. Has anyone else noticed how good many of the 2000 Chinons are? I have. Has anyone else? I have. Did I say that already? Maybe I should start spitting more...

Manuel is holding forth on the trials of life as a Gentleman of Leisure. "I'm in the Reserves," he claims. "I work one week a month, so I'm in the Reserves of Work. But that one week is HELL." He offers Lisa a job working for his mother, she hastily declines.

Hey, there's bottles covered with foil! Two of them! Is this some kind of sick joke?

Mysterious Foil-Wrapped Cabernet Franc Number One: Light beany note that Joe M. calls 'baby diaper,' as well as some burnt-match sulfurous notes over nondescript earthy-bricky red fruit. Tastes leafy-cherried at first, thin and rather dilute in the middle, hollow and underfruited, then turns raspily tannic and pissy. Based on the general underripeness, I venture a guess that this is none other than Finger Lakes cab franc. (Hosmer Cabernet Franc Finger Lakes 1999)

Mysterious Foil-Wrapped Cabernet Franc Number Two: Ripe and slightly candied cran-cherry nose, smells like those dried cranberries that my mother-in-law eats. Noticeably smoky-toasty, with a hint of something animalish in there and a touch of pine. Tastes tight and glossily redfruited, tart and almost harshly concentrated, with a smoky hint on the finish. Based on the hard shiny fruit and marked oakiness, I posit that this is Long Island cab franc. (Olga Raffault Chinon Les Picasses 1997)

I'm nonplussed when this is revealed as the '97 Olga, and it takes me a good ten minutes to repluss myself. I would say that my warning from a few months back that this is closing down hard goes double after tasting this bottle. Leave 'em be, kiddies, leave 'em be.

Millbrook Cabernet Franc New York State 2000: Easygoing red smells, light hints of red berries, licorice and that beany-earthy streak again. Tastes red and smooth, supple and balanced and rather generic. Some aggressive tannins at the end don't really detract from what is a decent little red wine.

Manuel is talking about his recent misadventures in the art world. After not being shown the Chagall drawings he was interested in, his dealer attempted to appease him with a bunch of other stuff, the only interesting piece being what he calls 'The Tit-Pinching Pervert,' which unfortunately was a little too pricey. I offer to pinch his tit for a far more reasonable fee, but he isn't biting.

Shame Dressner's not here, as next up is his favorite objet de tirade, the Schneider Cabernet Franc North Fork of Long Island 1998: Dark and glossy, smells of toasted wood and plum-cherry touch of pine. Rather dense, it's got good acidity and fine balance, as well as cheerful, slightly medicinal dark chewy fruit. Happily and straightforwardly bland, it's slickly generic but is rich and well constructed and undemanding. This has the air being groomed to garner "points" ("points" being something that several wine publications seem to find in wines they like), a show pony of a wine, but in that mold it's decent enough, and I'd probably like it more on its own, away from the more interesting stuff.

Macari Cabernet Franc North Fork of Long Island 1997: Hey, this smells like a pickle barrel. Quite startlingly volatile, vinegar over some dark cranberry-sauce aromas. There may be more, but I can't get past the vinegar and the bottles are coming too quickly to allow for leisurely nosing.

Clos Roche Blanche Cabernet Touraine 2001: This is my first tasting of the 2001, and it seems a little more wan than the last few releases, slightly pallid. Maybe it's just the company, or maybe it's FOB or something. I don't know, and I figure I'll be drinking cases of it anyway and can figure it out later, so I just let it go past.

Pierre Breton Bourgueil Les Galichets 1996: Reticent nose, shy cran-cherry hints. Tastes shut down and hard, puckery-crisp and tart at first, easing up a little with air. A strange showing of a wine that is usually a delight. Maybe Pierre-Jacques Druet is right--you can't taste Bourgueil properly during a rainstorm.

Finally, Tony remembers that CôteS DU Rhône VILLAGES is supposed to be the theme, so we have to start the tasting over from the beginning. We do a few deep knee bends, grab some coffee if needed, whatever it takes. Bucko is starting to look a little peaked.

We begin the tasting with an Alain Voge Côtes du Rhône 2000: Smells of ripe raspberry and leather, with air a low-level note of licorice emerges. Tastes ripe and loosely rounded, simply red and smooth. Nothing much going on, just a punchy red concoction. Inoffensive, gulpable.

Next up is a Domaine Les Aphillanthes Côtes du Rhône Villages Cuvée des Galets: More formidable aromatics here, darker and redder, smells slightly medicinal, concentrated. Tastes fat and happy, fleshy raspberry-leather reduction sauce, a wine that seems to be straining to be larger than it is. Low acidity, flash of heat on the finish, not bad but trying too hard to impress.

Eric Texier Côtes du Rhône Villages Chusclan 2000: Quiet smellies, dark red blackberry and raspberry fruit laced with smoke and tar. More acidity here, better focus and balance, quite young and coiled, seems on the lean side after the fatter first pair. Some gritty tannins make for a slightly bumpy finish; a compact, impressive wine that probably just needs a little time to smooth out. Reliable sources tell me that this is mostly syrah, but it doesn't scream SYRAH the way the BrézŹme does--were I a thinking guy I'd have thought it grenache. Happily, I'm a drinking guy, not a thinking guy.

Château Saint Maurice Côtes du Rhône Villages Laudan Cuvée Vicomte Guillaume de Joyeuse et Son Fils Alfonse de Villiers-Joyeuse Le Vicomte du Bon Temps 2000: By the time I finish writing down this wine's extremely long name the bottle has slid past, never to return.

Another subtheme! Domaine de la Mordorée Lirac 1999: Smells warmly of raspberry compote and saddle leather. Velvety-ripe and flavorful, dark pure red fruit spreads out subtly and smoothly, medium-low acidity gives a slight fleshy feel. Rather straightforward and two-tone for a Mordoré:e Lirac, but also rather more densely fruited and plush than usual. Quite nice, really.

Domaine de la Mordorée Lirac 1998: Not quite as warmly berrymatic as the '99, dark fruit and rocks along with a nice whiff of horsiness (although, as Manuel is quick to qualify, "A horse without an ass"). Tastes darker and earthier than the '99, with middling acidity. Seems to have darker undercurrents not present in the younger wine, lacks the plushness. Very nice.

Lisa, who is standing chatting by the fridge, is asked to move to one side to allow the local felines egress to the cathouse which adjoins the kitchen. She does so, migrational order is restored: one doesn't want to offend the local fauna. Speaking of which, Bixby the Wonder Cat has grown into a fine young domestic shorthair. We all reminisce about the good old days of his kittenhood. Life goes by so fast, doesn't it?

Eric Texier Côtes du Rhône Villages Séguret 2000: Aromatically shy, dark black cherry-leatherberry notes, hints of smoke and earth. Slightly more giving than the Chusclan, with a hint of looseness at the edges of the firm structure and a chewy-meaty mouthfeel. With air the nose turns towards a dark raspberry-compote character. Very nice stuff, if rather monolithic and borderline chunky now.

Bucko, who has been looking as if he's been burning the candle at both ends, suddenly come out with a startling late-night drunken confession. "I still..." he begins, taking a deep breath and sitting up very straight, "I still... have... all of my Wine Advocates from the nineteen-eighties. There, I said it!" and with that he dissolves into hot tears of shame. There are expressions of unqualified support from all around, the jeebus stops momentarily as we tend to our fallen until he can muster the strength to go on. Then we all get back to drinking.

Good heavens, it's a Domaine Viret Saint-Maurice Maréotis 1999: The Vinsurrection bottling, although someone seems to have gotten their hands on a bottle through other sources (grey market?). It seems rather quiet and thoughtful at first sippage, but satiny red fruit sashays out from the calm center. Sweetly fruited and feathery at the edges, there's a firm core but the rich redness gives this a titillatingly fleshy quality. Awfully good and utterly honest, my favorite of the Rhônes so far.

Olivier Cuilleras Côtes du Rhône Villages Visan Vieilles Vignes 2000: Seems off at first, soon the specter of TCA rises from the glass. We're not doing too well tonight. I blame Bucko.

At this point about half the crowd suddenly leaps up and races upstairs, where Posie is apparently spinning. Since it's been many years since I've been able to convince Lisa to spin, I follow eagerly. But it's strangely dark, too noisy and confusing for my addled senses to endure and my poor ears begin to ring. Plus they're playing "music," a form of expression that perplexes me completely, so I beat a hasty retreat back downstairs to the light and settle in with the remaining bottles.

Here's yet another Texier, a Eric Texier Côtes du Rhône Villages Vaison-la-Romaine 2000: Smoky nose, smells of roast meat and dark berry-plum fruit. Good rich core of red fruit that feathers out to smokiness at the edges yet retains a hardness in the middle. It's young and rather two-toned now, but there's good stuffing here.

Sweet fancy Moses, yet another Texier Côte du Rhône! Does this guy make a wine from every wide spot in the road? This time it's an Eric Texier Côtes du Rhône Villages St. Gervais Vieilles Vignes 2000: Smells sweetly warm and redfruity, with a shoepolishy dark streak. A big, meaty wine with a firm spine of acidity, this nevertheless seems a little more unfocused than the other Texiers, with some watery diffusion in the center.

Dehlinger Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Goldridge Vineyard 1999: This wine arrived mysteriously on my doorstep packed in a box marked "Manuel Camblor Education Fund c/o Chris Coad." Enclosed was a note from mysterious philanthropist Walt Carpenter, who suggested that each bottle contained six full teaspoons of actual "Asian Spice." Wow! At any rate it's a medium center red color, smells darkly spicy, lots of clove and cola (are clove and cola the basis of Asian Spice?) couched in a medium-tart base of loose cherry fruit. Soft at the edges and loosely-knit, there's still enough acidity to get by and the wine's slightly flashy spiciness and plainspoken fruit give it a friendly quality.

I was expecting something monstrous, this is just very decent California pinot, large and ripe but not in the recent freaky-chic 'zinot noir' style. After all the depressing Flowernelli pinots that have done their best to bludgeon my palate into jammy-oaky submission, it's nice to find that balance and harmony still exist in the benighted world of California pinot noir.

What's this? Ah, a sweetie, a Renaissance Sauvignon Blanc North Yuba Late Harvest 1995: Medium gold color, smells of honeyed orange-lemon and Saran Wrap, with light hints of hay, pleasantly spicy. Tastes quite sweet and rather thick, with almost enough structure to get by. Simple, spicy and sweet; inoffensive and sippable. There isn't a lot of typicity here, but as always the crowd divides along traditional lines: partisans of the leaner North Yuba style, who favor balance, and South Yubaphiles, who love the ripeness and exuberance you get from the warmer climate.

Have we really run out of wine? I thought we were just getting started.

Man.

We're out of here. Maybe there's still a bar open somewhere.




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