It was four fifteen. We were innocently knocking on Jay Miller's door, having been told to arrive at four o'clock for a dinner jeebus on the theme of 'Wines that Would Be Overlooked in Other Company,' and we thought we were running slightly if ever so fashionably late.
We would soon find out how horribly wrong we were.
I'd been puzzling over Jay's chosen theme for days, not sure what to make of it. A weak vintage of a good producer? An oddball wine that nobody has heard of except Callahan, who has had it several times? Gris du Toul moëlleux? There were just so many ways this one could be bent that I was aflutter with indecision.
I would soon find out how horribly little it mattered.
Stage the First: Denial
Jay is alone.
We are welcomed with an obvious sense of relief, and told that our reward for arriving first is a glass of Chambertin. Jay assures us that everyone else will be here soon. "Make yourself at home, grab a glass, have some cheese." And so we do just exactly that.
As is our due, here's what we try first, a Joseph Drouhin Chambertin 1985. Mmmm, smells good: pleasantly developed cherry-beet suffused with truffle and a light plaster minerality on top. In the piehole it's a little more angular, the muted mushroomy fruit is on the lean side and seems closed, not giving up much besides a featherality at the edges. Rather tannic, there's a lot going on on a small, earthy scale, but the wine seems to be dominated by structure. Check back in a few hours.
Tony Fletcher arrives, but Jay is puzzled that it's going on five and we're still the only ones here. Various scenarios are floated: It's chilly out, perhaps everyone's winter clothing is slowing them down? Or maybe there's a water main break somewhere? Has anyone checked the news?
No one has.
That whole transit strike business isn't for a week or two, right? Right.
Jayson and Laura did mention that they'd probably be late...
Well, best to start drinking. There's a single lonely white, a Dönnhoff Riesling Schossböckelheimer Kupfergrube Spätlese 1999. Crystalline, rainwatery nose--ginger, yellow apple and white rocks. A sip, and there's a warm blunt wash of easygoing lemon-applefruit, hints of mango and honey, all very loose and smooth and backed by light sweetness and light acidity. Fills out in the middle, gaining weight and turning creamy while retaining a loose supple feel, then finishes with a lemon-citrus hum. Somewhat diffuse, could use a bit more mouthgrab, but it's very flavorful and easy to sip.
Hey, it's Jeff Grossman and Jim Sampson, looking startled not to find a big féte underway. Quick--glasses, men, glasses! Wine drink good.
Château de Fonsalette Côte du Rhône Réserve 1991: Muddy medium ruby color. Smells of leathery cran-raspberry fruit laced with crushed brick; with air a sweetly savory brown gravy hint sneaks into the mix. I take a slug, and it's got a pleasant earthy greeting, seems to be flattening out a bit in the middle but goes on to finish with a muted dirtberry thrum. Pleasingly crisp, balanced and layered, with a decent amount of complexity. No great shakes but a nice mouthful that would best be drunk soon.
Francois Legros Chambolle-Musigny Les Noirots 1999: Young and primary, lightly gobby and monolithic. Doesn't have the impressive focus of the '99 Clos Sorbé and is so uniform that it's rather hard to figure.
Where is everybody?
Stage the Second: Anger
Jay is crashing around in the kitchen, cooking with the ferocity of an Iron Chef on crystal meth. He races into the living room, says "Since it looks like it's just going to be us, we might as well start. Shell we begin with duck breasts or legs and thighs?"
Silence. I give it a shot, "Erm, legs and thighs?" I've guessed wrong, as the breasts appear en masse. Eat bird good. Drink more wine now.
Château Pape-Clément Graves 1981: Medium ruby color, bricking out to amber at the rim. Pleasantly decayed aromas, stewed tomato, muted red fruit, hot rocks, old cedar and earth. In the piehole it's a little thin and obviously well past its prime, but there's earthy-leafy red fruit still clinging to the crisp core of acidity. Not a gob in sight, it's a thoughtful little wine but there's pleasure to be had in its twilight days.
Jeff and Jim pass photos of their new house around. We look at them. They then pass their doorknobs around. We look at them as well. These are some serious knobs.
Chapoutier Hermitage La Sizeranne 1989: Medium-dark garnet color. Quiet nose, light smoked meat over pepperberry. Medium bodied. Medium flavored, recognizably syrah-ish in a fightin' varietal kind of way. Abbreviated finish, gritty-stern tannins. I can't think of much to say about this wine; it's decent but two-dimensional and in the end just rather nondescript.
Tardieu-Laurent Côte du Rhône 1997: Wood. Wood, wood, wood. Wood, wood wood wood fruit. Wood? Wood.
Stage the Third: Bargaining
Jay is on the phone. He's dialing furiously, trying to get ahold of anyone he can. First it's Greg dal Piaz: "Do you remember that email I sent around in October...? Mm-hm... right... yes, TODAY... mm-hm.... Oh. Yes, I see. No, that's fine, that's fine... Yes, I'm sure we'll see you another time."
Kane is next. Does anyone have Kane's number? It's in the book! "Braaaaad, do you remember that email I sent around in October...? Mmm-hm... that's right... yes, TODAY..." I yell, "Jump in a cab if you know what's good for you, Kane!" but he claims to have other, better dinner plans. Click.
Fine, says Jay, we might as well start on the coq au vin as well. He's back in the kitchen in a flash, but the phone rings again. It's Kane calling back--it turns out that either Jay's entreaties have won him over or his other plans fell through. He's on his way as fast as his little feet can carry him. This news brings a rousing cheer from the assembled geeks. At long last, good news!
J.L. Chave Hermitage 1986: Lightly but sweetly aromatic, baked yam, violets and sod, a touch of light eucalyptus. Quite rooty, a pretty little feathery-layered wine with soft darkly muted fruit. This is in a good place right now, quite developed and complex in a small-scaled way.
The buzzer goes off once more, and this time it's Jayson Glick-Cohen and Laura Cohen-Glick. Quick, what did you bring? Open it up!
Voerzio Barolo Brunate 1993: Tight, thin nose: sour cherry, rose petals and roast chestnut. Tastes tangy and hard--sharp cran-cherry fruit with gland-squeezing tartness, a tense, hostile wine that others enjoy far more than I. The emotion palpable in the air makes me confess a lack of sympathy for surly Barolo and in fact an antipathy for Barolo in general. Jayson hisses at me like an angry goose, but I refuse to recant my heresy.
Prado Enea Muga Rioja Gran Reserva 1989: Good funk here, leathery red fruit suffused with espresso hints, subtle but expressive aromatics. Tastes rather elegant and restrained, even-tempered plum-cherry-coffee fruit, a middleweight wine that wins me over with a quiet sense of self rather than an attempt to please. Then again, I'm a cat person, so take that for what it's worth.
Stage the Fourth: Depression
Jay is cradling his head in his arms, moaning softly. "I could've invited soooo many other people... good people, honest people, salt-of-the-earth types who know how to mark their calendars..."
Several of us attempt to reassure him, but he is disconsolate. Just in time, Kane arrives with the ultimate cheer-up wine, the Alain Renardat-Fâche Cerdon de Bugey NV. The single most annotated wine in the history of the internet needs little fanfare. Simply delicious, strawberries with a hint of earth underneath, bubbles, a trace of sweetness, what more could one ask for in a sparkling gamay-poulsard? The persistent rumor that there is one percent petit verdot in this wine arises again, as it tends to do at these gatherings, but no new light is shed on the matter.
Fontodi Syrah Case Via Colli della Toscana Centrale 1997: Dark, purply-garnet color. Smells like manure on toast, a good whiff of barnyard and plenty of high-toast wood, with plum-peppery purply-black fruit underneath. Tastes reduced, like it's been boiled down a little too far, tart smoky-meaty fruit, gritty tannins, quite unpleasant in many ways. Low acidity, overripe and fleshy (even Kane finds it lacking in structure, which ought to tell you something), a malevolent wine. Is someone in Italy convinced that Astralis ought to be the model for Tuscan syrah?
I stand, declare this unquestionably the worst wine of the evening. Jay, Jeff, Jim and Jayson rise quickly as well, to argue that the Tardieu-Laurent is far, far fouler. They certainly have a case, but the Fontodi has an unbeatable combination of fecality, overwooding and the texture of an overconcentrated fruit sauce, a real triple threat that beats out the relatively simple trick of racking C™te du Rh™ne grapes into a fresh set of new barrels every week for fifteen months. We agree to disagree, then immediately disagree about what exactly it was we agreed to.
Henry Pellé Menetou-Salon Morogues 1996: Ooh, lots of good dirt here, sod and cherry mingled with forest floor and dusted with clove and horehound. A lean, elegant pinot with whiplike strength at its leafy core, this is impressively focused and pretty, a wine with a 'no gobs need apply' sign in the window. Give me some more, please. Ahhh yeah, that scratches me in all the right places.
Newton Claret Napa Valley Naturally Fermented 1997: Medium-dark garnet color. Smells of dark blackberry/cassis, warm and ripe smelling--all fruit all the time. I take a taste, and there's an initial juicy rush of warm black and red fruit, so far so good, but the middle turns diffuse, the fruit just expanding out into nothingness, leaving a raspy-charred coaldusty finish. A strange three-stage wine whose parts don't add up. To recap: 1) initial fleshy easygoing ripe fruit; 2) diffuse midpalate; 3) finish that Simonizes the tongue.
Stage the Fifth: Drunkenness
We're all starting to slow down, eating for twice our number and drinking for twice that.
McGuigan's Chambourcin Old Sax Vineyard 2001: Mmmm, smells of yesterday's sliced cucumbers and cinnamon candy. Jeff, smelling it now, says "No, it was decent when it was first opened... really... you should've tried it an hour or two ago... no, really..." Perhaps I should have, and perhaps it was, but it ain't now. Simple candied red fruit runs alongside a dark tarry streak but doesn't bother to introduce itself, finally stopping dead and allowing the tar to be the last thing standing. Disjointed, weird wine.
Crash! go the tinkling bits of Riedel. Jay looks blearily sheepish as he gathers the pieces together. I inform him that as of now he's cut off, but it doesn't take. He says "Did you know that I have a hand-embroidered cashmere wrap for my microwave oven?" We admit to ignorance on this subject.
Another dry white seems to have appeared, a Goldwater Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough Dog Point Corkless 2002. Tritonally smelly: green chiles, white grapefruit and new-mown grass, in equal parts. I don't drink much Kiwi sauvignon these days, so the piercing aggressiveness of the aromatics is a little startling. Nothing subtle here, it's a boisterous racily tart mouthful of white citrus and green grass. It's a happy happy wine, but it's also a little exhausting. There isn't much of a finish, although I'm not sure if that's because having such extremely vibrant flavors makes the lack of them seem like an abbreviation.
Jay is wobbly. He announces that his wine of the night is the Chambourcin. Or at least that's what it sounds like, it turns out that he's saying "Chambertin." He continues to cling to the notion that the Tardieu-Laurent is fouler than the Italian syrah, a judgment that I ascribe to his overwrought condition.
Château du Suronde Quarts du Chaume 1988: Medium-dark yellow-gold color. Smells slightly pomanderish, scorched orange rind, hints of marzipan and mushroom, traces of lemon, vanilla bean. Flattened out and limpid in the middle, there's an offputting lifelessness here. Tastes more mo‘lleux than desserty, I'm not sure when the Age of Big Sugar began but I don't think this would pass muster as a Quarts de Chaume these days. Still, it's a pretty nice match with Laura's sinfully good cheesecake.
Robert Weil Riesling Kiedricher Gräfenberg Auslese 1995: Medium gold color, tinting towards amber at the rim. Light pineapple, vinyl and mango smells. Tastes big and sweet and powerful, a creamy-smooth mouthful with crisp lemony acidity. Wonderfully integrated, a seamless package of flavors, acidity, sugar, all on a large scale. Brawny Auslese, not for the faint of heart--this Gräfenberg really hits the spot.
Tony Fletcher confiscates Jay's keys, as he seems a little unsteady on his feet. We slip out, leaving him weeping softly over a glass of the Weil, another innocent victim of the modern crisis of scheduling.
Oh, the humanity.