The night almost veers off into catastrophe at the very beginning.
We're here at the Fairway Café ("Steaks Above the Supermarket!") to trip the jeeb fantastic with visiting dignitaries Eric 'Tech Beagle' Stauffer and beloved wife Ginny, along with a frowsy crowd of New York regulars. As we're settling in, Lisa tries to ask the waitress to bring us some kind of a dump bucket, but in her haste to make herself understood accidentally blurts out: "You know, something to spit into."
That does it.
The waitress turns pale, takes three steps backwards and flees in the general direction of the kitchen. "Oh, now you've done it," I moan. "You've broken the winegeek prime directive. Dump. Dump. You have to say DUMP, never, EVER 'spit.'" Lisa is uncertain, "She knows what we want, maybe she just went to get something for us..."
But no, here she is back again, wide-eyed, trailing two steps behind the charging manager, who bolts up to Lisa and demands "WHAT do you need?! WHAT are you asking for?!"
She tries to go demure. "Oh, you know, just something to dump our excess wine into... an empty ice bucket, a pitcher...." Perhaps even an eyelash-bat or two occurs at this point, my view is slightly obstructed.
"To 'dump'?" he asks, eyes narrowing, "Or... or... to sssSPIT?" He hisses the last word for emphasis.
"Dump. Dump. Just dump. Dump. That's all, just dump," I insist, stonewalling fiercely with a fixed and dilated grin. And before he can dig further he is stymied by the arrival of Eric and Ginny with an unheralded friend, for suddenly we are nine instead of eight and won't fit at our allotted table anymore. He scowls ferociously and moves off to rearrange another table for us, leaving us in peace for the moment.
As the great table migration begins, I plead "Who's got something open? I'm jonesing bad. I need alcoholic sensations!" Happily, Dale Williams is feeling a similar need, so here's a Château La Nerthe Châteauneuf-du-Pape White 1998. Mmm, very quiet smellies, a base of light chalky minerality, traces of lemon-ginger and a soupćon of vanilla. With air it warms up aromatically, light flecks of apricot and orange rind hang on the mineral tree like tinsel, but it's quite whispery in my nose. Tastes rather limpid; nice composure but just not very expressive, with middling crispness and a soft-edged corona of achromatic fruit. Mysterious: the neutrality of this wine keeps me coming back to it. I want to hear what it's saying, but eventually I decide that it's just saying "Eh. Ooh, I've got an itch. Oh no, false alarm. Eh."
Lately I've been channelling a childhood-throwback craving for roast beast and Yorkshire pudding (something I've probably not had in twenty years), and I'm thrilled to find just that listed as one of the specials. After receiving assurances from the waitron that it was the real deal, I order just that and settle back to get a good buzz on.
Finally giving up on the Nerthe, I take a slug of Willi Schaefer Riesling Graacher Domprobst Spätlese 1997. Yes, here's the stuff. Beanbag chair hints over yellow apple, rich and robust in my nose. With air the vinyl turns towards kerosene, what our friends from the U.K. might, in their quaint English way, call "petrol." A sip, and there's a zippy-tart wave of yellow, almost startlingly crisp. Plenty of brawny fruit, hearty dose of sweetness, a large-scale riesling that comes on strong, then softens over the course of an hour. Nicely cohesive, a raffishly solid youngster that's easy to like.
Next up is a Weingut Karlsmühle Riesling Kaseler Nies'chen Spätlese 1999. Hey, nothing but matchsticky sulfurousness at first. Quickly blows off, leaves behind light vinyl and pine hints over lemon-laced yellow apple fruit. Softer and squishier than the Willi, a bit too sweet for the acidity it's carrying. Decent enough, unremarkable.
And with that, we're strangely out of whites.
So the march of the reds begins, first a Marquis d'Angerville Volnay Champans 1990. What a contrast to the '87 that we had last week with Florida Jim, Jersey Bob and Midtown Jay. Where that cooed EARTH DIRT LEATHER, this yodels CHERRIES CHERRIES CHERRIES. Black cherries, specifically, although with about an hour of air some interesting tree-barky notes start to assert themselves. Tastes ripe, young and silky, finishing tarry and tannic. Rather monolithically fruity now, needs time. We discuss the limitations of 1990 red Burgundy and wonder if these wines will ever come around. Will the earthiness outlast the offputting ripeness, or are these doomed to remain shiny happyfruity wines?
The waitress is bringing plates heaped with side dishes. I'm waiting, waiting for my Yorkshire pudding. The potatoes come, some french fries that nobody ordered that we're told are "extra" fries, various and sundry rice dishes, still no Yorkshire pudding. And none of the waiters will make eye contact with me. I start to smell a nonliteral rat. Jay distracts me momentarily with a foil-wrapped bottle that Joe, based on bottle-rim color, immediately declares Italian.
Mystery Wine: Dark garnet, purpling lightly at the rim. I swirl a few good swirls and take a sniff. Not much going on, and I say "This smells like... nothing." With continued swirling, I get a bit of a smoky-meaty hint with a trace of black olive amidst tight minerally red berry fruit. Tastes generically cherry-berried, smoky and rather limpid in the middle. It's not saying much of anything, but since I am obliged by the rules to make a guess I posit that it's mute syrah. It's not syrah, it's a Castello di Ama Pinot Nero Rosso di Toscana La Chiuso 1995. If this is Italian pinot noir I'm not entirely devastated that it's a genre that I've heretofore ignored.
With nothing further coming from the kitchen, I finally manage to flag down the waitress and demand satisfaction, only to be told rather chirpily that "No, we're all out of Yorkshire pudding."
Stunned, I briefly consider sending the whole thing back and just getting a steak, which is what I'd have ordered normally, but as everyone else is already well into their main course and I'd end up wolfing it down alone during dessert, I instead vow to tell the whole sordid story to the world and let them see the vile corruption and ineptitude at the heart of this cesspit.
Fresh off the wine truck, it's a Ridge Vineyards California Monte Bello 2000. Rich and concentrated, well oaked but not clumsily so. Not as brawny as the '99, more balance, chewy in the middle with a silky veneer. A fine followup to the robust 1999 and the sucky 1998. It was the late Creighton Churchill who first called Monte Bello the "Latour of California," and the past couple of years have driven that point well home in my mind. Rich, powerfully structured and built to last, a foursquare cabernet of great grace and puissance (yes, I finally bought that thesaurus).
Our Maitre'd is fascinated with the Monte Bello, fingering the bottle and pronouncing it 'a wahnnerful wine,' yet refusing repeated offers of a glassful. He is finally persuaded to take hold of my proffered stem. He swirls and sniffs lovingly, smiles, and hands it back untasted. We've been fascinated with the large board of rules that is posted over the kitchen doorway, declaring that multiple parties are always welcome, but that "Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson are NOT welcome at any time." Remembering the blood libels after the events of September the eleventh, 2001, we cheer this noble sentiment. New York is a town that has its priorities in order, something that's occasionally surprising but always a joy to have reinforced.
Saintsbury Pinot Noir Carneros Reserve 1998. Plum-cherry fruit, toasty oak, light underlying mineral streak. With air a light overhanging clovey spiciness emerges (research has determined that clove= "Asian spice"). Has a pleasant lightness to the candied fruit, actually pretty drinkable if you're in the mood for a California pinot noir--it benefits from following the Monte Bello and not the Volnay-- although some aggressive tannins beat down the finish.
Dale, sequestered in the corner, has been watching the marquis of the Beacon Theater across the street, and brings it to our attention. We gaze in wonder as the flashing lights announce the upcoming featured acts: Norah Jones, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, the Dalai Lama, Pat Benetar. It's a moment, and we respect it in silence for a good twenty seconds, then proceed with the drinking.
Why not try a The Village of Elgin Winery (Arizona) 'Tombstone Red' NV? A blend of unspecified French-American hybrid grapes. Smells like cotton candy drizzled with raspberry sauce. Tastes the same as it smells, lightly sweet and with a laminated, glossy mouthfeel. Actively unpleasant. Joe says "You know, in this company this isn't so good, but I could see enjoying this sitting on my porch." I believe he is alone in this sentiment, but he's trying hard: "It's... different." Different from drinkable wine, at any rate. Reminds me of Bully Hill wines--enjoy the label, skip what's inside the bottle. At the end of the night every bottle is empty except this one, which is three-quarters full. Dale suggests putting a warning sign on it to ward off the waitstaff, but I think it's exactly what they deserve.
Lailey Vineyard Cabernet Franc Niagara Peninsula 2000. Lots of black olive, tobacco leaf and smoky cherry at first; with air a robust bloom of ass emerges, what Joe calls 'baby diaper.' Tastes tart and tight, on the thin side but crisp and nervy, with good focus but a brief, gritty finish. Some hits, some misses, all in all not too bad.
Reds done, we move on to sweeties, beginning with a Domaine du Clos Naudin/Foreau Vouvray Moëlleux 1997. Medium-gold color, ambering slightly at the rim. Oddly funky at first, with an almost Savennièresish earthiness under the quince/apricot/orange rind aromatics. With air a woolly note emerges, the earthiness fades gracefully and leaves the stage. Medium-sweet, the light botrytis mostly masked by the citric-apricot notes, this bottle is just a bit cooked. It's actually pleasant enough, but just a bit off-kilter, the upfront fruit more advanced and orange-rindy than I'd expect and the midpalate flattened out and somewhat lifeless. Still, the raw material transcends the minimal damage, and the bottle is drained quickly.
I'm peeved, because I can see the ghost of the wine it should be inside the one that's present. It was the late Creighton Churchill who first called Foreau "The Yquem of the Loire," but this specimen has been mistreated somewhere 'twixt the cup and the lip.
Bedell Cellars Riesling North Fork of Long Island Late Harvest 2000. Quite fragrant, baked apple pie spice, golden raisin and a touch of lemon zest. A sip, and it's weighty and sweet, almost goopy. The acidity is there, but after the first couple of sips it's just too thick for me, albeit quite flavorful and expressive. Others like it more, but others aren't writing this, are they?
Eric turns to me and asks "It would be bad of me to say my wife's a sticky-whore, wouldn't it?"
I pause a moment, consider several possible responses, finally settle on "Yes."
Henry of Pelham Vidal Ontario Special Select Late Harvest 1999. Spicy muscat-apple and yellowflower aromatics, apple brown betty garnished with daisies. Soft, simple, straightforwardly spicy and unassuming. Better balance than the riesling, less sugar and lighter on its feet. Pretty decent, I guess. It was the late Creighton Churchill who first called vidal "The Mosel riesling of the Great White North," but I believe that just this once he was overstating the case entirely.
Now we've run out of everything but the Arizona wine, so we roust the crowd out, leap on the subway and head off downtown to our favorite New York City smokeeasy* for tobaccco and mint juleps. Neither Lisa nor I used to indulge in the tobacco, but now that it's banned in NYC the whole underground culture is so alluring that we couldn't resist the urge to start. A quick knock on the door and a declaration that "SFJoe sent us" gets us in, but the air inside is too smoky for Eric, who has contact lens trouble or some other pussyfoot excuse, so we foist them off on Joe Moryl and settle in for some newly illicit fun.
* For obvious reasons, I can't put the name of the establishment up on the internet where the Bloomberg smoke enforcement myrmidons might see it. If you want to know, email me.