It's a beautiful sunny day as Lisa and I motor down the New Jersey Turnpike towards our Memorial Day weekend in historic Cape May, a wonderful little shore town at the tip of Southern New Jersey that blithely melds classic Victorian architecture with Jersey shore skee-ball emporiums and seaside kitsch. Unfortunately, it seems half the tri-state area had the same notion of a shore getaway and has hit the road at the same time, rendering our progress glacial at best. By the time we arrive the sun has set and dark clouds have begun to gather.
We are slated to attend the biennial convocation of the New Jersey Fishing, Birding & Imbibing Society, and are relieved to see some familiar faces in the crowd when we finally do arrive, as the floppy hat and Sancerre-filled glasses of Andrew Munro Scott and Jennifer Clark were unmistakable. They inform us that Oleg, Inna and small but potent Rachael O. are attending as well, arriving late tonight, and we decide rather raffishly to skip the opening ceremonies and orientation in order to have dinner at Louisa's, a favorite little 20-seat bistro in the heart of the historic district.
News flash: Someone somewhere in marketing has apparently decided that Jersey weakfish shouldn't be called weakfish anymore and should only be referred to rather peculiarly as "sea trout." I order the Jersey weakfish, and we sit down to some lovely BYO fun, first drinking a solemn toast in honor of the Joe "Nouveaux Valves" Dressner offline occurring concurrently in the reception area outside of NYU Hospital's Vascular Surgery ICU unit.
After first requesting a nonexistent icebucket, then watching the waitress's eyes widen in horror as she explained that she was prevented by law from even touching our bottle to put it in the fridge, we kick things off with a Frederic & Valerie Alquier Roussane-Marsanne VDP de l'Hérault 1998, a creamy lemon-honey-gingery smelling wine, with plenty of waxy pear-lemon fruit, but it seems a bit more marked by toasty-vanillin oak than the last time I had it. It could be because it's unfortunately a bit warm (due to draconian wine-handling statutes), but there are some furrowed brows among the assembled truants. Still, it's a nice drop, and hard to beat it for QPR.
When the statutorily-obsessed waitress whisks the empty bottle away we wonder at her willingness to risk fine or imprisonment, but she merely says "it's okay now, it's empty," and really, what can you say to that?
Following that is a Strub Niersteiner Paterberg Riesling Spatlese 1994. Medium-pale gold color, light gasoline & honey aromas along with a hint of tropicality. This has an interestingly creamy mouthfeel, with pleasant yellow apple and honey flavors, seems quite ready to drink, a fairly mellow style of riesling, lightly sweet and a bit round. There is also a hint of vanilla in the nose that keeps making its presence known, and we ponder its origins.
Here's a Michel Ogier Côte-Rôtie 1994, and it's got some fine nosechops working--menthol is the first impression, menthol and old worn funky leather over a base of peppery dark raspberry fruit. In the piehole it's silky, smooth and lightly flavorful, an elegant wine. It's a bit soft and structurally small compared to the past few vintages, but it's quite tasty and has a lot of hot C-R action going on within a small amplitude. Some fine glassy tannins emerge as it strolls towards a finish, but I think this wine is ready to go.
And we too are ready to go, back through the increasing rain to our hotel, to sit on the terrace and await the late-night arrival of the Os.
What better to sip on a terrace than a Thomas-Labaille Sancerre Chavignol Les Monts Damnés Cuvée Buster 1998? I've finally had some time to figure out this wine, and I cock a cold eye on it as it tries to deceive me once again with its chameleon act, veering from a grapefruit-chalky first nosepression towards a light peachy-florality, then back again. It's got that beguiling hint of sweetness that serves to accent the floral quality, but it's not fooling me this time; I'm onto its trickery, but as I pat myself on the back for being so astute we see a figure approaching from across the courtyard, a figure soon to pass into local legend...
It's an attractive young woman, and she is trying to get our attention, saying "excuse me... excuse me..." Being chivalrous types, Andrew and I stand, and she somewhat absentmindedly explains that she and her three friends are having some kind of difficulty. It's the lights, you see, they've turned the lights on and now are getting ready for bed and can't seem to turn them out. Could we possibly render assistance in this matter?
Not being a slouch in the damsels-in-distress department, Andrew leaps the railing in a smooth-as-silk move that loses its desired effect when he goes sprawling on the pavement. I follow close behind, thinking if he gets hit on the head and robbed I can sprint back to the protective safety of our wives. When we reach the room in question we are quickly introduced to "Rachel" and her three girlfriends, who are in various states of semi-dress. Andrew craftily sizes up the lighting problem, then masterfully flips the switch on the wall from "On" to "Off" with one smooth move, solving the crisis, then we run like frightened rabbits with their thank-yous ringing in our ears.
When we relate this peculiar odyssey to Lisa and Jennifer they mull over the therapeutic benefits of a good chippy-beating, but just in time the Os arrive and instead we settle down to some more drinking, opening a Chateau Montelena Riesling Potter Valley 1997, which is pale straw-tan with a nose that is soft and airy, with hints of lemon-limestone, vinyl and honey. Pretty darn good for a Cal riesling, almost entirely dry, enough acidity to get by, a smooth, slightly soft and quiet wine with very pleasant lemon-stony fruit that slips down our gullets easily and soothes our jangled nerves.
There is also no truth to the rumor that at this point Jennifer deliberately smashed one of Andrew's prized glasses as some kind of warning. I will deny it, as will all present.
We are up till two a.m., which is apparently late for some, although it is pointed out that we were up until four at the Occult Tasting. Unfortunately I wasn't drinking that night, so I don't remember it all that well.
Rain, rain, rain. It just keeps raining. Andrew is up early impressing the locals with his striped bass-catching techniques, but Jennifer is keeping an eye on the occasional choruses of "Hiiii Andrewwwww" coming across the courtyard.
We rather puckishly blow off the day's seminars, decide the best thing to do is drink more, and hit a local BYO joint called Fresco's to do so.
Turns out it's baby hour at Fresco's, and we sit amidst otherworldly howls and wails from all sides, while wee Rachael looks puzzled at all the fuss and brushes up on her greenbean-tossing skills.
Here's a Louis Sipp Riesling Kirchberg de Ribeauville 1995. It's pale straw-gold, with a very light nose, honey, some vinyly proto-gasoline hints. In the gob it's all yellow apple and rainwatery minerals, quite flavorful, but it's a bit diffuse and unfocused, not quite enough of the spine that I like. It's dry and quite pleasant and easy-drinking, but it doesn't make a strong impression.
On the other hand, a Muré Clos St. Landelin Riesling Vorbourg 1997 is nicely focused. It's got a similar profile, yellow apple, light honey & minerals on the nose along with a hint of snap-pea greenness, but it's got a hint of sweetness and plenty of saucy acidity to wake up our tired taste buds. Good, strong, crisp stuff with a lot of flavor; young, but quite approachable and bright. The group agrees on a score of fifty-three standard poodles, but given some cellar time it might hit fifty-six, with two of the last three being toys, although not clipped for show purposes.
Time for reds, and we begin with a Kendall-Jackson Cardinale California 1988: Medium-dark ruby, browning a bit at the rim. Dark cedary cassis notes emerge from the glass with very little coaxing, soon turning mushroomy-earthy with a dark hint of shoyu in the bass, with a hint of mint as the treble. Actually smells pretty interesting, defying expectations. A sip, and it's ripe and darkly earthy, with a fairly round mouthfeel and turning towards espresso on the finish. K-J is not supposed to be a geek drink, but this is a tasty, complex, earthy wine. I wouldn't let any more sit around too long, but it did the trick tonight.
Joseph Phelps Insignia Napa Valley 1997 is up next, fresh from falling off a truck into Oleg's waiting arms: Dark garnet-purple, almost black. In the snout there's plenty of rich, dark smoky cherry-blueberry fruit, but there's not a lot of complexity; it smells rich, but simple and vanilla-smoky-oaky. Tastes rich and rough and ripe as well, but still fairly one-notish, and the wine veers towards chunkiness in the midpalate, with plenty of dark oak banging into the red fruit that turns slightly plummy, then colliding head-on with some rough tannins. I enjoyed the 94 & 95 young, skipped the 96 and find this one a bit problematic. It's a big young wine, rough and a bit obvious, but it's got plenty of stuffing, and we put most of the bottle away for continued experimentation over the next few days and head back through the increasing downpour to see what this night would bring.
Rachael is released to roam as a free-range baby, and we get down to work.
The label on the next wine has us passing the bottle back and forth, trying to decipher its tangle of fraktured names. Eventually we manage to piece out most of it, and it is decided by a simple majority vote to simply write down every name on the bottle. Here they all are: Stephanus Freiherr von Schorlemer-Liefer Riesling Brannebergerjuffer Sonnenuhr Auslese 1976 (...of Ulm).
At any rate, the wine is a medium-gold color, with a good whiff of gasoline on the nose ("It's linseed oil" cries Andrew happily), but underneath there's some dark brown honey and yellow apple/apricot fruity notes. Fragrant, and well-developed, a nice snootful of Teutonic complexity. Tastes a bit faded, but still interesting, only lightly sweet and feathering into yellow-brownness at the edges. Good stuff, but drink 'em if you got 'em. If you don't got 'em, hold 'em.
We peer across the courtyard to see if there are any potential electrical problems, and Jennifer takes a big bite out of one of Andrew's prized glasses. We all agree, and maintain to this day, that the two are absolutely unrelated. Jennifer has cut her lip but maintains a cool demeanor, the trooper. We shift over to Oleg's stemware for the time being.
Frey Cabernet Sauvignon Redwood Valley 1998: Another one of Mr. Scott's biodynamic trophy wines, this wine is a medium garnet with a dark shadowy cast in the center of the glass. Hmmm. It has a very light nose. Smells odd, tinny, like a Quonset Hut, along with some violet & pizza herbs and trace amounts of earthy muted redfruit. Tastes strange as well, sharp, smoky and light at first, then turning a bit watery in the midpalate, finally finishing on a bitter, slightly astringent note. Kind of freaky. We wonder where we can get some sulfites at midnight in Cape May to dose this thing, but the Wa-Wa is fresh out. More's the pity.
Huet Vouvray Le Haut Lieu Demisec 1971: Medium gold color. Ah, I love the way this wine smells; honey, yellow crayon, lemon-minerals, Earl Grey tea. This bottle is not as youthful and exuberant a specimen as the one we had a few months ago, but it's no slouch, either, filling the glasso-nasal cavity with layered, honeyed, earthy aromas. There's a core of tight chenin fruit, but it's not quite as tightly wrapped as the earlier example, which was positively adolescent. Still, comparisons are odious, and this is a beauty of a wine, with just a trace of sweetness and a well-stacked column of fine acidic vertebrae to keep you coming back for more. Inna gives her seal of approval as well. The consensus score: Three hundred and six immaculately-groomed poodles dancing on their hind legs to a driving salsa beat.
More rain all night long, more rain in the morning. The birders are dismayed, the fisherman are dismayed, the imbibers are dismayed and everyone rather impishly skips out on the awards and closing ceremonies. What's to do but have a rainy barbeque and try to learn the Russian word for 'ass'? And so we do, opening a few bottles as we go.
Frey Chardonnay Mendocino 1998: Pale straw-lemon color; smells lemon-Pledgey, with flinty and pear juice notes, a bit odd but not unpleasant, turning floral and almost viognierish, with an old-lettuce green note creeping in as well. It's actually a fairly rich wine, with a glyceriney mouthfeel and more lettuce in the midpalate, turning slightly flinty-smoky on the finish. Andrew says it sees no oak, but it tastes smoky-oaky to me. Go figure. Anyway, it's a significant improvement over the cabernet, although the consensus is that it's amiable but a bit nerdy, with bandaged glasses and a pocket protector.
Château Le Devoy Martine Lirac Blanc 1997: Pale tan-gold. Not too much going on in the nasal regions... light gingery-minerally hints, seems a touch oxidized, tastes tangy and crisp but rather neutral, with light cream soda, chalk and lemon rind flavors. Decent, drinkable, unremarkable.
Clos Roche Blanche Sauvigon Blanc Touraine 1999: Pale straw. Smells ginger-chalky. Tastes lime-chalky, with a lime rind finish. With air some honeydew-green hints emerge. Seems like a larger-scale wine than the past couple of vintages. Fine crisp summery stuff, great for sipping. One llama-sized poodle with bows in his hair and a dainty show cut.
We go back to the Insignia for another round, and at first it seems like it hasn't budged much, but with another dose of swirling it seems a bit more aromatic, a bit earthier, a touch less cherry-plum-vanilla simple.
A Derain St. Aubin Le Banc 1997 wanders into our waiting glasses, and it's a medium to medium-light shade of purply-red, and it smells a bit like blue decorative bath soap, almost violetty, with a clovey-earthy-cherry background. I find the nose on this wine somewhat threatening to my masculinity, though, so I don't spend too much time with it.
Next up is a Guerrieri-Rizzardi Amarone della Valpolicella 1993: Medium-dark garnet. Smells of sweet black raspberry and brown sugar, with a hint of raisin. In the puss there's a bit of petillance at first that quickly dissipates and reveals a rich, flavorful wine with nice balance, much riper and richer than the '91, the only other vintage I've had of this one. Plenty of acidity to hang the ripe red-brown fruit on, and a nice undercurrent of dark earth and light tarriness. Very good.
With our charred great big chicken breasts we have a Ridge Geyserville California 1996, and I'm a bit muddled by this one. This was one of my favorite young Geyservilles out of the gate, but this bottle is showing some rich but slightly tired dark berry fruit and a lot of creamy toasted-coconut oak. The rich red-black berryganza seems to have receded a bit and left Uncle Sam the American Oak Barrel to come to the forefront and take up the slack. Not a good showing. Well, I guess if Huet can be a bit off, so can Ridge. I'll have to check back on this one to see if this was a representative bottle.
At this point things are beginning to degenerate, as they are wont to do. Oleg is frustrated because we can't seem to master the Russian word for 'ass' and tries to teach us the Ukrainian word for 'ass' instead, pointing out that the languages are exactly the same except for these two pivotal words (it's something like "zhopa" in Russian and "srata'' in Ukrainian, but we're too interested in throwing handfuls of corks into the whirring ceiling fan to get the pronounciation just right).
Amidst a shower of richocheting corks, we try what is aggressively marketed to us as "The Best Beaujolais in the Whole Wide World": It's a medium garnet clolor, darkening towards purple at the core. Slightly funky-earthy nose with a rich base of gravelly berry-plum underneath, it's not giving up a whole lot, but what it's giving is rich and beguiling. A sip, and it's crisp, rich and glassily tannic, a tightly wound medium-bodied wine with dark plum-berry flavors flowing around a dark gravelly core, at least until the fine, fine tannins ease in and slow things down a bit. There's great balance and reserved, coiled strength here. This wine needs a lot of time, but there's a world of stuff going on in the glass. Oh, it's a Desvignes Javernieres Morgon 1997.
There may have been more wines, it's all a bit unclear. Oh, yeah, there was a Quinta do Noval Porto 1987 which we had airing out in a trusty erlenmeyer flask. It's a cloudy medium ruby color with some browning, and the nose is soft and velvety, very perfumey and girlish, mutedly redfruity and earthy-smelling. Tastes soft and brickish, brown sugar and cocoa hints with a red berry fruit core, feathery around the edges. This is a wine with good crispness, but no high or low notes, no dark brambly bass. It's very nice, but in a very limited, silky middle range. As we drink it we high-five each other for having spent an entire weekend drinking with not one corked bottle to spoil the fun.
After that we fill the poor inadequate hotel recycle bin to overflowing and head off to bed for another night of listening to the rain pelt down.
In the morning we head north early in the a.m. to beat any possible traffic, and as we leave the city limits the clouds dissolve and it turns into a strikingly beautiful sunny day.