Once again, a ragtag assortment of hopeful New York geeks and geekettes gathered into a small reverent band to welcome a bemused Mike Conner to town, await the hopeful second coming of His Goatiness himself, and to while away the intervening hours by sampling some of Italy's best.
Our hostess for the evening was the cerebral Queen of the Harpies, Lisa Allen, who went out of her way to make sure that the passionate hopeful few would dine in comfort, going so far as to present each wino with his or her own handlettered placecard ("Always Wrong" "Atomic Science Boy" "Mr. Bigshot Wine Guy" "The Scribe") to ensure that we were aware of our roles.
We entered the confines of La Rochetta, former site of Lisa's varied assaults on nontippers and other idlers, struggling under the loss of several last minute casualties--the regretful manager raced over to inform us of the unfortunate illness of Joe D. (Mr. Bigshot), and we huddled quietly and hoped tiny hopes that attrition would take no further toll on our numbers.
Jayson Cohen, returned safely from the hands of the alien probers, and somewhat exciteable;
Andrew Scott and Jennifer Clark, fairly flushed with a beaming newlywed glow;
Brad Kane... well, you know;
Oleg and Inna O., cheerful and implacable both;
Mike Conner, who seems to take the continuing mayhem with good grace;
Jeff Connell, the man with the highest place on the evolutionary scale;
Bernd Eschgfaller, a bit late to the scene but quite game;
Lisa Allen, trying to run the festivities with an iron fist in a velvet glove; and
Me, formally dressed in black evening aloha shirt.
Of course, the question on everyone's lips is "Where is he?" "Is he coming?" Mike is hauling a suitcaseful of goodies, offerings for the man with the goat's brow, and Jayson, having never been in the presence, seems particularly hopeful to bask in RC's nurturing warmth. It all seems oddly familiar.
In order to distract ourselves and calm the rising sense of panic that isn't helped by the fact that no one can understand a word the waiter is saying, we set about some whites.
Connell, with a cryptic smile, opens up a Rojer e Sandri Traminer Trentino 1997 and I have a sniff: sweetly floral--light honey and lychee, hey, it smells like a mini-gewürz!
Well yes, says Jeff, trying to keep his right eyebrow from spontaneously rising, it's related... you know "...traminer"?
Anyway, it's a soft wine, light in the mouth and a bit round, slightly oily-textured and low acid. Nice, at least to this gewürzhound's palate. I approve of this traminer, and pour myself a little more.
Andrew, sensing the mood turning benevolent, pours out some Piere Sauvignon Isonzo 1996 and sits back to wait for the reaction.
Things get ugly.
"Cat piss!" is the first sign of objection. I smell it, and boyoboy is it ever... um... "boxwoody." Sharp, piercing kitty smells jump out of the glass, then turn a bit odd-- "Gaack! Cheese curds!" shouts Kane, and he's not far off--there is a strangely cheesy-milky undertone beneath all the... boxwood. Howls of horror and astonishment ripple down the table. Underneath the odd aromas is a tangy, vivid, grassy sauvignon blanc that is nicely crisp in the mouth and turns toward limeyness on the finish, but the nose is just too distracting, and there is much appalled comparison to various spoiled and/or rotten food products that have been soaked overnight in feline urine.
Andrew, calm in the face of the storm, merely smiles, turns to Jennifer and says 'Well, that went well, don't you think?'
I sense Mike is beginning to wonder what's up with these New Yorkers.
We agree to set the sauvignon aside to see if whatever is infecting it will blow off, and move on to a Bruno Giacosa Roero Arneis 1997: a pale wine, minerally and tighter than the earlier two, not giving much at first. I swirl a bit, and quiet stony aromas and a hint of odd greenness emerge ("Ahhh, pickle juice!" offers Oleg). Nice and full-bodied, with good weight and a bit of roundness--Andrew gives it a malo yellow card. Still, it's not giving a whole lot, and I find it a bit puzzling. I'd give it some time, but it seems to have some good stuffing.
Well, things are rolling now--we manage to decipher the friendly young waiter's thickly-accented recitation of the specials, order up some tasty chow, and sit down to assault some reds.
Tenuta Oliveto Rosso di Montalcino Il Roccolo 1997: Very unusual raw-meat/zinberry nose, with some hints of leather. Andrew, seated across from me, is hypnotized, peering into his glass and saying "blood... blood" over and over again. There is indeed a coppery-bloody aroma, and this is quickly dubbed The Blood Wine at our end of the table. In the mouth, it's very fleshy and meaty, soft and velvety-fruity-rich with a finish like a side-impact collision. Another strange wine.
Podere Poggio Scalette Il Carbonaione 1995: This wine has some nice cran-cherry aromas, but it's encased in a layer or two of buttery, smoky oakiness. Not bad, there's some good dark tart fruit flavor, nice body and good crispness, but unexceptional to my tastes.
Giacomo Borgogno Barolo Riserva 1990: Not giving too much on the nose, light hints of earthy brown muted cherryfruit--tastes crisp, but a bit thin. Scads of acidity and tart leathery fruit, finish choked off by some dry tannins. Not my favorite.
At this point Oleg stands, declares a 60-second mystery round, produces a bagged and blindfolded bottle, and we proceed rapidly with the earnestness of detectives.
Oleg's Mystery Wine: Hmmm... another lightly aromatic wine--dusty, earthy, again mostly cran-cherry aromas, seems fairly typical so far, if light... a sip, and it's equally light on the palate, dusty-tasting, with some light fruit and hints of a tarry background note. There's some crispness, but the overall feel is a bit neutral, although pleasant enough. Nothing to write home about, but no blood or pickles or anything weird, at least. I haven't a clue as to its identity. It is revealed as Bencivenga Senza Vite 1998, a wine made locally by a friend of Oleg's. Frankly, if I had made this I would be a pretty happy lad.
We all take a deep breath, dig into our appetizers, look over our shoulders one last time for any possible caprine visitations, and plunge back in to the deep end. Bernd and Lisa are having some kind of heated debate over the U.S.'s Amerocentric coverage of the Olympics, of all things, and I wave gamely at Inna, way down at the other end of the table.
Silvio Grasso Barbera d'Alba 1997: A dark, rich red; slightly funky hints on the nose, hint of old-leathery funkiness over the rich redfruit. This is a rich, concentrated wine, denser than any we've had yet, and I like it very much, although there are some startling tannins that leap at my tongue and don't let go. Lots of good, tart licorice-tinged blackberry & cherry fruit, lots of oomph, and very young. My favorite so far.
Castello Banfi Summus Montalcino 1993: Another deep, dark wine, this one has a rich but simple nose of redfruit, plum and hints of pruniness. Dense and big, but monolithically fruity, a bit short on complexity and less interesting to me than most of the other wines. Maybe needs time? Dunno.
Castello dei Rampolla Sammarco 1995: Okay, backing away a bit from the big bruisers, back to a more interesting profile--a well-balanced wine, smaller in scale but with some pretty dark red fruit, hints of earth and smoke, nothing outrageous, not trying too hard, just a pleasant, well-made wine that goes down smoothly and works well with my mozzarella-draped chicken.
Badia a Coltibuono Sangioveto Toscana 1990: This wine seems more open than when I had it last (and it took about two hours of air to show its colors); still young and a bit tight, but not as sharp as I remembered. Rich translucent red, sour cherry and charcoal, lots of backbone. Promising, but a long way from ready to drink.
Quintarelli Rosso Ca del Merlo 1991: Here's a nice open nose--dark fresh cherry with hints of sweet ripe strawberry, richly aromatic and friendly. Tastes good, too, really nicely balanced and vividly flavored, tangy fruit, but sweet not sour. Delicious, and in a good place to meet its destiny. Another favorite.
Enrico Villania Rosso Colli Bolognese Cabernet Sauvignon 1990: Smoky, graphitey nose, with herby hints over a quiet soft redfruity base. A soft wine, muted and mellow and fleshy, with fairly low acidity, round and soft and quietly flavorful. Pleasant.
Mike yanks a special treat out of his bulging magic suitcase, a Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia Rioja Gran Reserva 1978: Pale & translucent, but only slightly browning at the rim; earthy, complex, leafy aromas--a sip, and it settles quietly and softly on the palate. Some good acidity, but light in body, with the feel of new-turned earth, very muted soft red fruit and a slight but beguiling lemon-zest hint. Pale and faded, but there's some real life here, and I enjoy this very much.
I had brought the Joseph Mclaren Vale-Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 'Moda Amarone' 1997 with the hope of horrifying Robert, but I had to settle for horrifying Kane, who acted as if someone had sprinkled crushed ants on his tongue when he tasted this, doing one of his patented 'spit-takes.' Despite all the carryings-on, I found it interesting, a deep rich red color, some toasty wood notes float on the nose, but underneath is a dense core of rich ripe dark cassis and raspberry fruit--a bit dense and one-notey now, but I like the signs. No real sense of it being any kind of Amarone, though, just an especially dense, rich cab. Jayson and Kane brought curiousity-seekers in from other parts of the restaurant when they almost came to fisticuffs over whether the fruit in this was boysenberry or raspberry-tinged.
Jayson: ...mmm, boysenberry, lots of boysenberry...
Kane: Are you crazy? It's raspberry all the way!
Jayson: Boysenberry! If there's one berry I know like no other, it's boysenberry!
Kane: You wouldn't know a boysenberry if it bit you on the...
Jayson: Boysenberry, dammit! I used to eat Dannon boysenberry yogurt every day! Don't you tell me--
and so on. Jayson is exciteable.
By now, Mike is nervously checking for emergency exits, and before he can bolt we quickly order up some dessert, some major caffeinated beverages, and one solo sweetie, Coppo Moncalvina Moscato D'Asti 1998: Yipes! Vividly fruity apricot-pineapple-peach nose, lush and tropical. Tastes just the same, tropical-fruity, sweet and exuberant. Simple, but fun. We drink a toast to absent friends.
Having outlasted everyone else in the restaurant, and it passing the witching hour when all hard-working folks should be abed, we stagger slowly out onto Amsterdam Avenue and mingle for a few minutes on the sidewalk, unwilling to let the evening be over just yet. But eventually we shake hands with old friends and new and hop in cabs or trains for the trip to wherever home is, or at least to wherever our beds and aspirins are located.