The five stages of realizing you've just been trounced on Jeopardy!:

1. Numbness: Everything seems to be going in slow motion. Does he really have that many points? Is that my hand down there flailing away in vain on that buzzer? Why am I so warm? Is it warm in here, or is it me? It's not just me, right? It's warm, isn't it?

2. Denial: I can't believe it... I can't believe it's over... just like that... all that memorization... they never even asked about a stupid world capital... no... I can't believe it... I can't believe it... he beat me by HOW MUCH? Oh... oh no... I know these... Where is Ouagadougou...? Who is George Spelvin...? What are the Islands of Langerhans...? I know this... I know it...

3. Anger: That f______ buzzer, that goddam f______ buzzer, what the f___ was I supposed to do with that f______ thing that just f______ wouldn't work, the goddam piece of s___ trash junk goddam goddam goddam WHY DIDN'T THEY LET ME PRACTICE LONGER f___ f___ stupid damn stupid Tad lawyer stupid idiot stupid stupid stupid stupid.

4. Despair: I'm going to just fall to my knees for awhile right here in the parking garage, don't mind me... I'll just curl right up here in this pool of nice soft oil and grease, just lie here for a few days. No, no, go on back home, you'll have a much happier life without me, forever branded the Jeopardy! loser.

5. Drunkenness: Lisa and I shamble into the imaginatively named 2117 Sawtelle Restaurant at 2117 Sawtelle Street in the fabled City of Angels, me with the explicit intention of walking out with one-third fewer brain cells (by weight, not volume), her supporting my shattered frame as best she could, brave girl. We are met by some of the west coast's finest and geekiest, presided over by the urbane Bruce L., the man with the golden wow. We park ourselves down by Jack Weissberg and his scientifically-inclined wife Wendy and wave gamely down the table at Fred Corbalis, Blake Shane and Steve Anderson.

Everyone glances nervously at my red-rimmed eyes and rent clothing; I fight the urge to scream out obscenities in the form of a question and manage to get my trembling fingers wrapped around of a glass of Rochioli Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley 1999, all the while trying to keep the pale, slightly tan wine from sloshing out of the glass. It smells quite bright and extravagant, good dose of litterbox, grapefruit, with a slatey undertow. There is some creaminess here, a bit of a buttery quality to the mouthfeel, but it turns tangy and leaner through the midpalate with the structure asserting itself as a hint of green grass emerges on the finish. Pleasant enough, but I find it a bit creamier than I like my sauvignons to be.

Next in line is a Clos St. Michel Châteauneuf-du-Pape 1996. It's pale gold and smells quite interesting, with perfumey gardenia notes mixing with earthier dried apple and dried apricot hints over a limestoney background. A sip, and it's not giving much, a bit tight, with a waxy-honey impression at first, moving into a fairly round and limpid midpalate and fading into a bitter tang on the finish. To recap for those who just tuned in: Smells great, less impressive to taste, then turns bitter. Odd, but it will kill the brain cells as well as anything else on the table, so I suck it down with extreme prejudice.

Here's a Domaine René Monnier Meursault-Charmes 1997, and it smells rather like a local chardonnay, quite vanilla-buttery, with pear juice tones and a flickering flintiness underneath it all. Tastes less overtly woody, lightly creamy, lemony hints, nice balance but fairly neutral, a bit wan but quite correct. It's nice enough but it really leaves me a bit cold.

I don't remember much about the conversation at this point, except that there were a number of questions about many of the New York regulars and I spent a lot of time saying "No, no, he's really very nice in person, no I mean it, stop laughing..."

I see a Trimbach Cuvée Freddy-E 1995 coming down the line, and of course it hasn't budged an inch since I had it a few months ago. Light kerosene, honey and yellow appleskin on the nose, I take a mouthful, turn to Jack and say "Now THAT'S wine." I'm not sure why I say that but I do nonetheless, with feeling. Big and tight, a bit hard and unyielding, it's not terribly friendly now, but there's great density and richness and concentration. Give me a straw. It's hard and shiny around the lemon-mineral edges, and the finish turns back again with a limey gin & tonic flourish. If you don't mind a rough ride it'll take you along with a scowl, but you'll have fun.

I do believe we have run the gamut of whites. I think I'm alone with Lisa in liking the Fred best. Perhaps early signs of an East/West schism?

Perhaps not, as the next wine elicits very diverse reactions that have no geographical basis: Kistler Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Kistler Vineyard 1997 is a fairly deep medium garnet color and smells quite pungently of candied cough syrup and plum, with tarry-smoky hints. Frankly, it's like wine concentrate candy. The taste of the wine follows the nose, odd and candied, densely and peculiarly fruity, well balanced in terms of a firm acidic structure and turning smoky-oaky on the blunt finish, but just not my cup of tea at all. This wine elicits strong feelings, as the table divides about fifty-fifty into "wine of the night so far" and "weirdass freak." I think it's clear on which side of the fence I stand (for those of you scoring at home, it was not my wine of the night...).

Scratching my head over that last one, I assay a Martinelli Pinot Noir Reserve Russian River Valley 1997, and there's much more pinot character evident here--clovey plum-cherry hints, smoky and healthily oaked as well but the very ripe fruit is at least not inflated beyond recognition. Fairly quiet nose, some astringent wood tannins on the finish, a bit simple but not bad, not bad at all.

Crikey, it's a Monte Bello mini-vertical, beginning with the Ridge Monte Bello California 1997 and descending in reverse-chronological order to the Ridge Monte Bello California 1995.

RMBC 1997: Plenty of stuff going on here, I swirl a bit and my glass happily gives up tobacco, cedar and black olive hints in a medium-dark cassis base. I'm a bit surprised at how readily this youngster yields up its nosal delights, but I'll take it for $500, Alex. Tastes smooth, silky, medium-weight and, although a bit tight, still friendly and full of flavor, at least until some fine tannins swoop in and strangle the finish. Quite delicious, peculiarly friendly, roundly acclaimed, and the quick winner of the Thunderbird Prize.

RMBC 1995: This wine smells darker than its younger sibling, deeper and quieter, not as effusive, smoke and dark pipe tobacco. I taste, and it's a bit rough, the crisp acidity pacing the tart red and black fruit and giving the midpalate a hard feel. Seems denser than the '97, more compact, and the tannins are not so fine and give the finish a bit of grit. Nice balance, more focused than its younger sibling, racier. It's tight at first, so I put a glass aside and throughout the night it seems to deepen and relax, although just perceptibly, showing touches of green olive and cedar. This needs much time, but I think it may prove the more interesting fluid down the road a ways.

I am very fond of both of these wines and would happily sip them all night, but other victims are approaching, and I sigh and move on, leaving the last of the '95 for the chef, who has appeared, glass in hand, to receive his compliments.

Here's the inky-dark D'Arenberg Shiraz Mclaren Vale 'The Dead Arm' 1996, and a quick sniff puts the balance and finesse of the Monte Bellos right out of mind, as this is an unreconstructed bigass hootie of a wine, redolent of spicy creamy-coconut and vanilla-laced plum and blackberry. Some people claim to detect gobs, but nothing is confirmed. Oddly enough, we had just had the 95 a few days before, and this is bigger and denser but also more monolithic and unyielding. Tastes slightly candied at first, plenty of generously-oaked dense red and black fruit with plummy-toasty overtones, tangy and crisp without any spiky acidity, actually balanced rather well for all of its boisterousness. After an hour in the glass the candied aspect is gone, the wine has turned matte and spread, a rough beast slouching towards earthiness. It's a big, silly wine that goes happily over the top, and I like it. Consensus score: Seven and a half sand-covered wax candle prongs in rainbow hues, hung up with macramé prongholders and slightly soft from the warm western air.

Another shiraz, the Mount Horrocks Shiraz Clare Valley 1996. It's not as big or as dark as the Dead Arm, which is fine. Hints of eucalyptus in the plum-cassis nose, hints of earthiness running darkly under the fruit, mingling with dark toast. Decent balance, not terribly giving but not unpleasant, finishes a bit rough, turning towards a licorice quality. After some time in the glass the fruit seems to be moving towards more redness than blackness, turning towards a cranberry-tinged plumminess. Seems like a pretty decent, but somewhat generic shiraz. Three and a half prongs fashioned entirely from scraps of gray and green felt, bundled and bound with twine.

Hey, here's a zin to tickle this zinfan's fancy, the Vigil Zinfandel Beatty Ranch Howell Mountain Napa Valley 1997. What say you, zin? Zin smells velvety and lush, lots of good ol' black cherry-raspberry fruit creeps up my noseholes and mingles there with dark choco-smoky notes. Tastes lush and smooth, a bit on the soft, creamy side and without a great many layers of flavor, but fun and friendly, a very decent comfort zin with no rough edges at all.

The conversation around the table is ascending the spiral staircase of topics into the rarefied air of deep thoughts. It is 11:20 when the phrase "liberal theology" makes its first appearance. I haven't much of a clue, but Lisa and Steve were suddenly mano-a-mano, attempting to hammer out several of the big issues at once:

Can science solve moral issues?

Is the notion of "God" inconsistent with evolutionary biology?

At the mention of biology, Wendy steps in and holds forth about science and its place in society, and from there the talk careens wildly across the cratered landscape of science vs. art and biology vs. religion, losing a hubcap here and there but always just avoiding ending up crumpled in a ditch. I keep thinking that Lisa is going to do something quite savage to poor unknowing Steve, but happily there is no blood spilled. Yet.

Heavens, we're in Los Angeles, can't we talk about breast implants or Leo DiCaprio or something?

Anyone know any details about Heidi Fleiss's new line of lingerie?


I reach for a passing sweetie, a Tamburlaine Hunter Valley Old Muscat Liqueur NV, just as someone declares loudly "Soul is a metaphor that makes you feel better about your impending death," and I immediately take a big slug of that sweet, sweet elixir of life. Actually, it's quite good, amber-brown color, very complex happy nose with layers of caramel, raisin, orange rind, brown sugar--I like these sweet muscats and this is a very nice specimen, more layered and beguiling than most, especially commendable for its balance, avoiding any hint of cloying or goopiness, a crisp, medium-rich sweetie with a lot of character.

They're still going at it across the table, so I snatch a pour of Elderton Golden Semillon South Eastern Australia 1997. It's a medium amber-orange color, sweet-smelling and flecked with apricot and orangey notes. Crisp and tangy apricot-based flavors and an interesting nutmeggy spiciness swirl around in a very glossy mouthfeel--this wine tastes shiny, almost laminated. Clean, tangy, straightforward and decent, but I go back to the Tamburlaine and sit to watch the fireworks, as the subject has progressed, as I suppose it was bound to, to the ethical ramifications of the death penalty and the morality of state-sanctioned killing. Lisa has climbed unsteadily up onto her chair and is announcing "The same people who say government is a failure also say that the government should decide to kill people!" and we have to wrestle her down and make her and Steve kiss and make up before we stagger off into the night, the two combatants bloodied but unbowed.

Fortunately we don't stagger too far down the dark streets before we realize that the nearest subway station is in fact over two thousand miles away and someone perforce must engage in a display of that quaint local custom, driving. Fortunately, Wendy is a responsible DD, and we use our patented Eastern Wino Mind Control Methods to compel her and Jack to motor us up into the hills above Bel Air, where we listen to the coyotes, raid the refrigerator and polish off the few remaining survivors of the evening's festivizations, the memory of the quiz show horror mercifully beginning to fade.

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