[Author's Note: Normally at winegeek events I do my best to ignore any people near at hand, as they tend to distract me from my already glacially slow notetaking processes, but at this event they seemed to want to talk to me more than usual and the issue became a little more problematic. Due to this enforced social interaction the notes are shorter and sketchier, names and dates are incorrect or missing, Jay Miller is consistently referred to as "Brian," and the tilde is sometimes misplaced or entirely left off João Roseira's name.]
So here I am in the back garden of Sweet Melissa's Patisserie in the scenic Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn. I'm not sure why I'm here, but Lisa has lured me with promises of free wine and bottomless crullers. Sweet Melissa, our hostess, is an old war buddy of Lisa's from their model/waitress days--now she and her husband Angry Wade own a respectively eponymous patisserie (hers) and bar (his) here in Cobble Hill. Why Wade would be angry when he's married to Sweet Melissa I have no clue, but there you are.
At any rate, I soon suspect that there's going to be either a jeebus or a party of some kind happening soon. It's a strikingly beautiful early fall day, and as the sun goes down the mosquitoes sharpen their knives and descend, but as it gets dark they go elsewhere, perhaps to eat the unworthy.
As I sit and ponder what fate awaits me, I suck idly on a glass of Francois Pinon Vouvray Tradition (Demisec) 2000. An old security blanket, this bottle isn't terribly different than the last ten, perhaps a trace more honeyed. It's still unassumingly fresh and bright-tasting, supple chalky yellow-apple fruit edged with a soupćon of sweetness. As usual, harmony and balance are the salient features. Reassuring, festive and smile-inducing. Four and a half gingham Prongs with tinsel wrapped around their bases and lit sparklers affixed to their tips with twist-ties.
Suddenly here's Robert 'Lord of the Dance' Callahan coming down the walkway, dressed in a smashingly vibrant aloha shirt, shorts and hiking boots, along with a fetchingly shaggy new hairdo. "Today I went to a tasting at Le Cirque dressed like this" he announces proudly. "They gave me some funny looks!" Actually, he looks like he could be related to me, perhaps an eccentric cousin.
More people follow, swatting at the little bloodsuckers as they come. Here's the reclusive Andrew Munro Scott and his equally reclusive main squeeze Jennifer Munro Munro, neither of whom has a new hairdo. Lou Dressner and his wife Louise Denyse follow, both looking like they're letting theirs grow out a little. João Roseira of Quinta do Infantado has a new and very flattering close-cropped look, but I've never met Fredrik Filliatreau of Domaine Filliatreau before, so I can't tell if his crewcut is an old reliable or a new experiment. Either way though, it's simply faboo.
More and more people keep arriving, Jayson and Laura Cohen, Laura sporting something like a wedge, Manuel and Josie--he short and neat, she saucy and composed--Kay Bixler sporting a sort of nouveau shag look, Tony, Posie and Campbell Fletcher, there are too many hairstyles to keep track of! For the love of god, can somebody slow down the flow of heads?!
And what's worse, everyone seems to want to try and distract me from my notetaking duty. No, wait... not duty, what's the word I mean? Ah yes, compulsion. My notetaking compulsion. That's what I meant to say.
I tease Brian Miller for being even minutes late, his reputation for punctuality previously untarnished. He grimaces. "That's what I get for working in Jersey City." Too true, Bri, too true.
Here's Sweet Melissa's own SFJoe, also cheerily dressed in alohawear and with a saucy flipped back Clark Kent-nouveau kind of look, classic but sassy. I'm enjoying the trend towards island garb--let's open some bubbly and festivate!
First to fizz is a Laurent-Perrier Champagne Grand Siecle 'La Cuvée" Brut NV. Smells lightly flinty-toasty, with lemon and tart green apple hints, traces of coral chips in the mix as well. A sip, and it's a light, lean style of Champagne that flashes lemony-tart at first, then eases off and turns towards minerality. A pretty little gamine of a bubbly, flirty and cheerful.
The champendulum swings to the other extreme with a Jacques Selosse Champagne Blanc de Blancs 'Substance' NV. Boisterously ripe chardonnay smellies here, pear-apple fruit laced with toast and bakery aromas, roast cashews and vanilla. Big and weighty in the piehole, almost like a sparkling California chardonnay. Lustily fizzy, solid chewy-creamy yellow middle and long toasty finish. A husky, overpoweringly flavorful mouthful of bubbly that nevertheless somehow manages to seem balanced. Substantial indeed, an almost tiringly impressive wine that comes at you on its own terms and wins you over to its worldview by sheer force.
Last to sparkle is a Foreau/Clos Naudin Vouvray Petillant Brut Reserve 1995. After the elegant Laurent-Perrier and the brawny Selosse this is yet another variation on a theme--nervy, taut and whiplike bubbly. There's the requisite chalk and rocks, light flecks of lemon zest, hint of frothy yeastiness. Lots of depth, but it's very tight, rather hard, needs a lot of time.
Normally I'm not a big bubblehead, but these are three impressive wines. Someone (is it Tony Fletcher?) is trying to talk to me about them, but I disable him with a quick Glaswegian Kiss. No time to chat--must move on to whites before the inevitable tsunami of reds begins.
Here's something that's sort of white, a Tedeschi Vineyards Maui Blanc Pineapple Wine NV. Smells like pineapple in a marble cup. Tastes like pineapple, although in a pleasantly restrained fashion, not like fresh juice. Medium-light mouthfeel with easygoing acidity, silkily quiet and surprisingly dignified. Oddly, this has benefited from a couple of years in bottle and really isn't bad. Brought as a whimsical nod to my origins, it acquits itself better than expected, and the bottle empties quickly.
I hear a commotion at the other end of the garden and, upon investigation, find SFJoe waving a bottle in the air like a carnival barker, promising to show one show all a wine that will horrify universally. The visiting winemakers gather around wide-eyed, and he pours from a bottle of Flowers Chardonnay Sonoma County Porter Bass Vineyard 1998. We all take a good sniff. Then another. Unfortunately for SFJoe, it's not too bad. There's oak, yes, but it's rather restrained, a warm glow of charred vanilla suffusing the subtly tropical yellow fruit beneath an unusual light mintiness, a high-toned green streak. It does taste substantially woodier than it smells, with strong butterscotch flavors warring with what seems like some pleasingly ponderous yellow pineapple-pear fruit.
There are sufficient cries of "GAAACK" and "WHAAOOGGH" to keep SFJoe from feeling foolish, but I can see he's not pleased with the rather mundane level of unpleasantness here. After all, the 1997 version of this wine swept the 'Ghastly New World Wine' categories at the Loirenatics tasting two years ago, so there's a clear track record of beastliness. Still, this bottle is merely generic fat and woody California chardonnay, nothing stomach-turning. Wine will surprise us, won't it?
I turn away from the Flowers to find Manuel standing over a bottle of La Chablisienne Chablis Blanchots 1997 with a pained expression, asking himself "Where did I get this? Where did it come from? Why god, WHY?" I can't offer an answer, but here is certainly proof that the French can make an ugly overoaked mess out of chardonnay just as handily as Americans can. Rather fat for a Chablis, there seems to be some decent minerally fruit buried somewhere under the carpentry. Sawdust, vanilla and toast, that's all she wrote. Chablis that thinks it's Napa chardonnay?
The antidote comes along quickly, in the form of a Boyer-Martenot Meursault Les Tillets 2000. Crisp, stony nose, rocks and more rocks with traces of lemon and green apple. Tastes like it smells, tart, crisp and minerally, a bright, lean wine that finishes with a touch of lime amidst a flurry of chalk. Quite bracing, I like it very much. Meursault that thinks it's Chablis?
Callahan has for some reason either been appointed or taken upon himself the role of roving photographer. He is wrestling with a disposable camera, clicking away in the dark with no flash going off. Lisa is trying to show him the proper dial when I posit that "The spirit is willing, but the flash is weak." She looks at me, shocked horrified appalled pained. "I can't believe that you said that" she snaps accusingly. I apologize profusely, promise it won't happen again.
Momentarily cowed, I sneak a pour off a magnum of Jean-Maurice Raffault Chinon Les Picasses 1997. A warm and smoothly red wine without a great deal of character. Ripe, lightly tobacco-earthy and on the rounded side, the focus that marks Olga's wines isn't here but the looseness isn't offputting, just not compelling in any way. A good café quaffer. Four puffy-soft Prongs set on bases fashioned from colored glass ashtrays won at a carnival arcade, then sprayed down with an inexpensive men's cologne and left overnight under a heat lamp that hasn't heated up worth a damn since the summer before last.
Elaine Brier, the Queen of Cabaret, arrives unexpectedly. Turns out she had misread 'cabernet' as 'cabaret' on the invitation, but it's a happy mischance and she is relieved she won't be called upon to perform. Her 'do is covered by one of her trademark hats, so I can't comment at this time.
Against all odds, here's a Loire red that Callahan claims never to have tasted, a Domaine des Chesnaies Bourgueil Cuvée Prestige 1969. Medium ruby color, only browning slightly at the rim. Smells delightfully layered and complex, hints of mushroom and forest floor, bits of tree bark and gravel, all in a cherried brick-dust base of muted but vibrant red fruit. A sip, and it's medium-light-bodied, lean and racy but not faded. The subtle red-earthy fruit comes at you quietly, slowly spreads and feathers out in the middle, then refocuses as it heads into a sinuous finish with just a hint of light glassy tannins. Quite languid, one of the slowest wines I can remember tasting. Kay Bixler coos "It's totally alive, dude!" and pronounces it "a wine frozen in time." From another direction Jayson Cohen sidles up to me, a puzzled expression on his face, and says "It's neither old nor young... neither advancing nor declining." I mention Kay's diagnosis and he looks relieved. Brian says it's the first wine that he's tasted and simply smiled and smiled at.
Here's a younger sibling, a Domaine des Chesnaies Bourgueil Cuvée Prestige 1976. The ripeness of the vintage shows in this, which is more robust than the '69. The nose is richer but simpler, the combination of more dominant redfruit smells underlied by a dark streak of crushed lava (rough a'a rather than smooth pahoehoe) gives you almost purple-toned aromatics. Smells more sweetly fruited, less tree-barky and foresty. Tastes smooth and ripe and balanced, a wine with a nimble core of dark fruit in a mediumweight frame. Supple, young and strong: give it another ten years. No, really. Two and a half dark ebony Prongs without adorment except for small and intricate Celtic patterns carved around their tips.
A murmur passes through the crowd: Rudy Giuliani has finally abandoned his combover, and there is much rejoicing.
There's a discussion of terroir going on with Fredrick Filliatreau of Domaine Filliatreau in Saumur-Champigny, and a bottle of Pontchartrain Vineyards Norton/Cynthiana 'Rouge Militaire' Louisiana 2000 is brought out as an example of a uniquely American wine. It's a medium-dark garnet color and smells somewhat tutti-fruttied with a cinnamon-pepper streak, Juicy Fruit™ and Big Red™ chewing gums mixed with dark one-note red fruit and laced with a dark licorice streak. Tastes candied and simple but pleasantly peppery and decent enough if your tastes run towards candied and simple wine with a splash of cinnamon. Frederick seems impressed. "Thees terroir.." he asks, "Ees it perhaps... a... swamp?" Six Prongs carved from the compressed matter formed from putting three tons of unsold cotton candy into a garbage compactor, then rolled in breadcrumbs and microwaved on 'High' for forty seconds apiece.
Only Kane likes it.
The flood of wine keeps coming. Here's a Carruades de Château Lafite Pauillac 1999. Smells like Bordeaux. Tastes like Bordeaux. Easygoing, flavorful, surprisingly accessible, undistinguished, seems ready to go. Callahan calls it "industrial Bordeaux," Jayson responds "Yeah, but industrial Bordeaux that'll last and get better for twenty years." Three and a half small brown Prongs. (Pronged twice, with consistent Prongs.)
Château Cayrou Cahors 1988: Powdery blackberry and shoyu hints on the nose, smells light and quiet. A sip, and there's smooth dark fruit with that dark shoyu streak that turns towards licorice on the finish. Middleweight and focused, lean, balanced and decent. An unassuming wine that does its job without fanfare. Two sturdy fired red-clay Prongs that, if inverted, can be used as planters.
Château Haut-Serre Cahors 1997: Corked, begorrah. There had to be one, I suppose, and there could be a worse choice than this. I am elected to break the news to poor Cheryl, our nongeek singer friend who brought it. She looks like she's going to cry, but takes the news bravely.
Lou Dressner approaches me. "Who are the geeks?" he asks. "I thought I knew who was and wasn't a geek, then I saw someone who I thought wasn't a geek (was it Tony Fletcher?) taking notes! It's all very disorienting. Can you tell me who is who?" I do my best to point out the geeks and the nongeeks and the one lone semigeek. I then point out the wine professionals, most of whom he's never met, and Robert Callahan, who has has met but apparently forgotten because he says "Jeez, I always thought he was older!" Maybe it's the new hairdo.
Gouvyas Douro Bago de Touriga 1999. This is one of João's wines, and I get the last pour. Something is a little funky. I run it by Lisa for the TCA test and it passes with flying colors, but there's still something odd. "It's not clean" says Callahan. "Not clean" says Dressner. "Unclean" says Sweet Melissa. Strange. Not Pronged at this time.
Brian, who has brought a Williams-Selyem Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Allen Vineyard 1997, is making squinchy faces and saying it has fallen apart. Let's see... smells spicy, plum, pepper and toasty-dark wood. Frankly, it smells like shiraz. A sip, and it's got a nice rush of sweet matte purple fruit that blooms quickly and fades quickly, turning a little jarringly towards toasty spiced wood flavors on the finish. The fruit has a reduced quality but isn't terribly twisted out of shape, and I can enjoy this in a rough-hewn kind of way for at least two-thirds of the way through. Not as bad as the conventional wisdom would have it, if you don't mind a shirazzy style of pinot. Seven and a half small spicecake Prongs, dabbed lightly with an unspecified industrial solvent then placed on bases carved from monkeypod wood and thrown into the muddy water off the Tallahatchee bridge.
The Latin Lepidopterist is pouring what he promises us will be a sexy wine, a Château L'Angelus St. Emilion 1990. Smells at first of tomato sauce and red currants; with air, cedar, tobacco and oregano hints emerge above, a pleasant graphite earthiness below. Lovely and complex nosality here, a pleasure to smell. I take a slug, and the first pieholic impression is warm red-earthy fruit with a dark espresso-licorice seam, tight and focused at the core, spreading out languidly at the edges. It's a big, rich wine, but it's light on its feet and comes across as confident and supple. As it heads into the finish there's a flash of slightly bitter coffee grounds, then some fine glassy tannins kick in. This wine has a chameleonic aspect, surprising me with different facets every time I come back to it, sometimes coming across as herbal, sometimes minerally-graphitey, sometimes meatily redfruity, a Lon Chaney wine.
There is a commotion across the garden, and SFJoe races up to me bearing the bottle of Flowers chardonnay. "Look," he burbles, "it's fallen apart--try it now!" He's right, it has. The woodiness that was reticent on the nose has become dominant, the buttery-charred character has now beaten the tropical midpalate fruit into a misshapen lump, and a hot alcoholic burn that wasn't in evidence before has appeared on the scene. He waves the bottle-cadaver around gleefully, then spots Camblor across the way. "Ah, let me go prey on the guy with bad vision," he says, and races off to inflict the stuff on poor Manuel. I watch him go. "And we never even had time to thank him..." I mutter to myself.
Out of nowhere MartyL has arrived, bearing another sexy 1990, the Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello California 1990. This has neither the focus nor the fickleness of the Angelus, but it's just as satisfying in a more sedate, spread-out way. Smells dark and rich, hints of pencil shavings and dried herbs over plum-blackberry fruit, the red aromatics in retreat tonight. Tastes quite complete, medium-crisp, loosely knit after the more intense Angelus, but the lack of focus gives it a warmth and amiability that the kids go nuts over. A crowd pleaser.
Strangely, we drank this wine the last time I saw João. He looks nervous tonight, maybe he's not in top form. Maybe he's not fully at ease with the new haircut. Has everyone got a new haircut except me?
Marty explains that the reason he's just arriving is that he had to work late in the legal trenches, prompting Callahan to ask what kind of law he worked in. "Mergers and acquisitions" is the reply. Robert turns to the assembled geeks: "Pray for his soul," he pleads. We do so.
There is a shriek of pain and horror from the far corner of the garden, and I know SFJoe has found Manuel.
Here's a good old sport, a Château Grand Puy Lacoste Pauillac 1964. The first pour off this bottle is discouraging, a good whiff of funk and a streak of madeira, but a later pour reveals the suspect to be that old nemesis neck funk. Damn that neck funk. Underneath it there's a quiet, fading wine, turning light amber-orange at the rim and smelling quietly of bricky red fruit laced with stewed tomato/baked beans with a dark shoyu note underneath and a figgy-datey brown streak in the midpalate that is the last thing that fades on the finish. A soft and quiet wine without any structure left to speak of, there are still some warm flavors that hum quietly in the piehole. Pretty nice, but utterly resolved and on the downslope.
People are being extremely noisy, bringing out some kind of a candle-decorated cake and singing in unison. I do my best to ignore them, as the bottles are dwindling and I'm way behind, but Lisa pokes me in the small of the back until I am defeated: forced to blow out candles, then serve Melissa's ferociously light lilikoi cake to all comers. In the meantime the bottles keep flowing, and I am near to throwing in the towel in my race to keep up.
Here's one of Fredrik's wines, a Domaine Filliatreau Saumur-Champigny La Grande Vignolle 2001, and there's not much left by the time it comes around to me. It's easygoing and smooth, lightly cherried at first, opening into darker black cherry-cranberry fruit and earth in the middle, lingeringly tobaccoish on the finish. Undemanding and flavorful middleweight cab franc. He is waxing poetical about the beauty of the Loire, how it's the most beautiful place in the world. He's so convincing I don't even contradict him, even though he's wrong.
I race to catch the Breton Chinon Les Picasses 1999 before it goes by, but by the time I reach the bottle someone (is it Tony Fletcher?) is finishing off the last drop. This is the second time that this wine has eluded me at a jeebus, and I'm starting to think it's personal.
Descendientes de J. Palacios Bierzo 1999: Sweet-smelling dark purply-red fruit, smoky high-toast oak. Tastes fleshy and ripe, not bad but tiresomely generic. Four linoleum Prongs set on faux-brick bases and dipped in Velveeta™ pasteurized processed cheese food product.
I am touched to open a package that had come in the mail yesterday to find a purple wine-dyed "Wine Tasting Triathlon" T-shirt sent as a birthday peace offering by Dean 'Loire Schnauzer' Delahanty. Shnauz, it's very much appreciated--let's never let Nicolas Joly come between us again. Robert 'Doghead' Callahan snaps a picture while I mull over a few possible canine nicknames that I could adopt, they being all the rage with the smart set these days. Chris 'Inane Quip Shar Pei' Coad perhaps, or Chris 'Tasting Note Bouvier des Flandres' Coad. I'll work on it and get back to you.
SFJoe rushes up to me with a bottle. "How do you pronounce this?" he asks, pointing to the producer's name. As I'm struggling to read Celler Vall Llach Embruix Priorat 1999 he yells "VAyyyy YYYYAKCHHK!", which coming from him sounds much like a hairball-inspired noise my cat might make. The wine is dark garnet colored and smells a little wacky--plum-cocoa pudding, dark blackberry fruit and a good whiff of shoe polish volatility. The fruit is dense and dark, black and red fruit that isn't giving much in the piehole running alongside some firm but unconnected acidity. Weird and all over the place, this seems like a bit of a mess but it's an amiable mess along the lines of many of the recent so-called 'dumb American cuvées,' and me being a dumb American I don't hate it as much as others do.
To crown the festivities we have a cult Cal, a Scott-Clark Cellars Chenin Blanc California 'Acorn' 2001. Smells of sour green apple laced with white honey and lemon hints. A sip brings a hit of lean yellow-citrus fruit, but then some startling puckery-tart acidity clamps down on my tongue. Lean and racy, but the feeling in the piehole is deceptively sturdy. A little weird. The winery newsletter claims that there's some residual sugar in this, but you'd never know from tasting it. Stern, hard chenin, unlike any I've tasted from California. There's a lean, dominatrix side that reminds me of the youthful shrillness of some of Robert Denis's Azay-Le-Rideaus. Like them, this needs time. High-acid fans like Callahan and The Wine Buyer call this the best chenin ever to come out of California, but the sense of having my cheeks pierced with the steel-spring acidity makes me reserve judgment. This is half of my two-bottle allocation; the other one will sleep for a long long time. One sharpened iron Prong, the handle wrapped with duct tape, stashed under the sink in the bathroom of an Italian restaurant.
João was pouring some of his port, but it's all gone now. Once again, I have snost and lost.
I am horrified to hear that the recent David Lillie/Howard Stern dustup has led to a run on sweet whites and thin, sour reds at wine shops throughout the tri-state area. Is nothing safe from the glaring media spotlight?
Joe passes by, sees me, yells "VAyyyy YYYYAKCHHK!" I duck behind a garden gnome. Oh no wait, that's Campbell, Tony's kid.
At the end of the night Lisa and SFJoe hurl me bodily into the back of Sweet Melissa's pickup truck, she bellows "If you see a cop, LIE DOWN!" in her girlish contralto and we roar through the empty Brooklyn night to Angry Wade's Bar to abuse our bodies further. The last thing I remember clearly is Sweet Melissa, in the midst of a story about some overly potent substance she had ingested in an Amsterdam coffee house, yelping "My pussy has fallen asleep!" In a night of distractions this unusual sentiment captures what is left of my sodden attention. Lisa turns to me, raises an eyebrow and purrs "There's your title: 'Let Sleeping Cats Lie.'"
I protest that I can't possibly use that, since the mere use of the word "pussywhipped" in my last screed whipped up a boatload of contoversy about propriety and hyphens, resulting in scores of emails both pro and con clogging my inbox for days. People will think I have a fixation of some kind.
But then I'm not one to look a gift title in the mouth, am I?