Having heard strange and fragmented reports of the unusual customs of several tribes of non-New York jeebusers, I resolved to attempt to live as the other half lives. Yes, I would briefly adopt these foreign customs as my own by tasting through an array of wines before a jeebus, selecting the best and only the best, and acting throughout the evening as their partisan, attempting to win the crowd over to my positive view of my choices. It sounds unusual, but I was determined to see if such a thing was possible, or merely the ravings of a few deranged internet cranks. Other ones, I mean.
I was determined to be an advocate for my wines, damnit. People would come out of this jeebus impressed with my perspicacity in knowing what was good, and, by default, what was not. Thus my status in the ingrown New York winegeek community would rise and I would finally garner the respect that is due to one of my girth and florality.
That's right: I was resolved to become a Wine Advocater.
Yet somehow I felt that even this considerable challenge was not quite enough. The imp of the perverse was in my pantaloons and I itched to raise the bar yet another notch, to spend what was probably the only time that I was going to stretch my Wine Advocater wings working on a real toughie, a true challenge.
And then it hit me...
So Lisa and I clank into Andrew Lloyd Munro's cherry-red '67 Mustang and sling our bottles into the backseat for the brief run from the train station to the Metuchen compound where he lives with his consort Jennifer Munro Clark. The flower of New York geekhood is here in bloom: Denyse Louis and her trophy husband the lovely Joseph Dressner are all smiles, as they've somehow beaten us to the front door, and even nathan "Stop Making Up Shit About Me" vandergrift manages a wan smile before reflexively showing his driver's license around once again in a vain attempt to prove that he's a real person. Five of the Olegs are here, rather uncomfortably jammed into only two bodies. By way of a signal Andrew places a heavily Photoshopped, somewhat spectral three-fifths life size contact proof of Mr. Jeff Connell onto a chair of its own at the head of the table; one by one we make our obeisance, and now we're ready to begin.
There have been a flurry of last minute cancellations by a half dozen people who are ticked off at Dressner for costing them jobs, but Kane at least has promised to telejeebus via his home computer. We start with a glass of Eric Bordelet Poiré 1998, which is as fresh and quaffable as ever and which I'm tired of writing about, then move on to a Hermann Weimer Riesling Finger Lakes Semi-dry 1999, which smells of soft lime, cut grass and vinyl, with a touch of white honey. Lightly sweet, appealing at first, but the upfront grassy note turns into a streak of bitter greens (endive?) tagging along on the finish. Still, quite decent in an uncomplex sort of way.
Suddenly and without warning I shift gears into full Wine Advocater mode, enthusiastically flourishing a bottle of Bodega de Santo Tomas Chenin Blanc Baja California 1999 for all to try, singing its praises all the while. It's a pale lemon-gold color, smells quite sulfury at first, burnt matchstick over a base of lightly stewed pineapple and yellow appleskin tones. Tastes tart and quite dry, rather ponderous in the piehole, with an oily consistency, but with plenty of acidity and good integration. It's no gem, but it's quite drinkable in a pinch. I try to sell its virtues to others, pointing out the difficulties inherent in making even a drinkable chenin in Mexico, but the response to my heartfelt advocacy is composed mostly of wry grimaces and rolled eyes. I am disconsolate, and retire to the gazebo to brood.
Perhaps my innocently upfront approach may have been somewhat idealistic. I begin to formulate another angle.
But in the meantime here's a Bründlmayer Langenlois Gruner Veltliner Alte Reben 1995: Medium gold color, light smells of baked apples and pineapple, with a smoky note that threads through the stewed fruit. With air and swirling some ghostly floral notes emerge. Seems a bit oxidized. Weighty mouthfeel, fairly tight and muscular, quite rich with tightly wrapped viscosity. Has shown better, perhaps a bit shut down (or maybe a touch cooked).
Having searched the entire continental U.S. and parts of Canada to find it, we now make the ceremonial presentation of Andrew's allotment of the irresistible Nikolaihof Riesling Steiner Hund Spätlese 1999. He impulsively rips the cork out of a capsuleless bottle and pours it all around. It shows much like it did last month, coiled and muscular, deep and impressive, with a spine like Nelson's Column. The light sweetness stands out more than it did when I had this wine immediately after the sweeter virginwine, but it's still quite overshadowed by deeply tense whiteflower fruit and minerally structure. vandergrift, weeping openly, declares it "Magical wine." Pure, deep, striking.
Here's a Domaine Barmès Buecher Riesling Leimenthal 1998, and it's a slobbery puppy after the lean, lethal hound that preceded it. Medium to medium-dark straw color, light honeysuckle-sweet smells, white honey and traces of beanbag chair. Bit of an oiliness to the mouthfeel, it's rather round and ponderous but nevertheless quite amiable and eager to please. Kind of fun, kind of happy, kind of inconsequential.
Next up is a Joly Savennières Clos de la Coulée de Serrant 1983: Pale straw-gold color. Lovely to smell, many layers of noseability--waxy-lanolin, lemon and pollen, honey, Earl Grey tea. A sip, and it's much less giving in the mouth, shrilly acidic and tart, all minerals, with little in the way of living fruit (what yellow fruit is there is rather flat and has a baked-out quality). Rather deceptively stern, a ruler-bearing nun wearing Chanel No. 5.
Kane is chiming in now, trying to get someone to talk to him. There is a deafening silence as we wait tensely for a volunteer, but no one steps forward. He begins to harangue Dressner not to forget to find him some wine or other, so we quickly fake a storm-related power outage and disconnect him entirely.
To round out the whites we open a Domaine des Chazelles Mâcon-Viré 1998: Light aromas of pear and yellow apple, with a tart Granny Smith streak. Tastes tart as well, without a lot of distinction, and a slight bitterness. Good balance, but not a whole lot going on in terms of flavor. Dressner stands, says "Underripe." Sits. Scattered applause.
When the crowd is distracted by the inevitable circumcision conversation (Oleg is earnestly discussing the possibility of a group discount), the second phase of my devilish plan of advocacy begins to fall into place. I surreptitiously decant three wines into three of Andrew's famous Erlenmeyer flasks and stash the telltales bottles away in my purse. I mark the flasks X, Y and Z and slip them stealthily into the mix at the table.
Of course geeks being geeks it isn't long before the flasks are noticed and made much of. When someone asks "Are these also from Baja California?" I say quite truthfully "Well, not all of them, but most of them are..."
Flask X goes around the room: there is much quiet swilling and sniffing. Nobody says much at first. It's a wan wine, pale and earthy, with decent if unremarkable fruit and good acidity, Dressner says it's like "An industrial Overnoy," and the reaction is grudgingly positive. Even Denyse, ever the hardest to please, manages a "Yeah... it's, ahmmm... it's okay..."
My unblind note: Light ruby color. A touch of volatility, just a touch, over light black cherry and earthy brown sugar notes. Light in the gob, clean and earthy, with wan, almost ethereal berry-black cherry notes. Good crispness and balance. Easy and pale, smooth and earthy.
Flask Y makes its trip, and it's met with general derision. Medicinal, candied, odd and unpleasant. Icky. Generally disliked.
My unblind note: Smells like raspberry cotton candy. Tastes weird, jammy, glossy cherry-raspberry flavors. A puckery-tart streak pokes at my tongue from inside a flabby-fat candyfruity midpalate. Very unpleasant, not unlike cherry cough syrup spiked with Vitamin C tablets.
Flask Z comes around, and it too is not at all popular. "Heavy." "The worst of the lot." "Smells like stewed tomatoes" and "smoked sausage." Dressner says "Cabernet, but very weird and manipulated." Everyone agrees: way too oaky.
My unblind note: Deep garnet-purple color. A pool of primary cassis with overtones of toasted coconut-vanilla, anise and smokiness (the anise and smoke do indeed give a bit of a smoked sausage impression), with a spicy-nutmeg hint emerging with air. Big-smelling and somewhat startling, the wine tastes big and dense and cassis-soupy, well oaked and very primary, purple and young.
After the flasks have been sent around twice we vote: X is unanimously the winner with twelve first-place votes (60 points), Z is almost unanimously the loser (vandergrift has to be difficult and vote for Y) with fourteen points.
It is then that I dramatically unveil the bottles.
Wine X is Domecq Zinfandel X-A Valle de Calafia Baja California 1995.
Wine Y is Bodegas de Santo Tomas Tempranillo-Cabernet Sauvignon Baja California 1997.
Wine Z is Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello California 1998.
The faces around me when I bring out the final bottle are momentarily those of poleaxed steers. Dressner stammers "Are you fucking with us?" I aver that I am doing no such thing, at least not in the sense that he means, and there is a moment of stunned silence before the flasks are regrabbed, resniffed and repoured, and the process of rationalization and deconstruction begins.
Advocater's Note: Frankly, I have some pet theories as to how two Mexican wines could handily beat a Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello California proprietary wine in a blind tasting. In the first place, the first wine had a wan, easygoing character, was light and inoffensive, which I believe threw off people who were expecting something freaky. The second wine, to my mind by far the worst of the three, was handily and roundly disliked, which seemed to set a fulfill a set of obligations that the poor Monte Bello just walked in on. Lastly, the Monte Bello was indeed quite offbeat, showing little of the character that I've come to see in these wines even in their infancy. It seemed rather monolithic and with its pronounced anise-oaky streak came off as rather odd and uncharacteristic. I'm still not really sure what I think of it; the past few years have shown much more interesting right out of the gate, but there is still a great deal of character in there. An odd showing, with judgment reserved. Forced to give a rating, I'd have to give it somewhere between two and a half and six sheet-covered Prongs bound with twine and surrounded at a distance of eight feet by a museum-style red velvet rope.
The Triumph of Mexico and thus the zenith of my career as Wine Advocater all done, I retire undefeated and we proceed with some more reds.
Woodward Canyon Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley Old Vines 1995: There's a light herby streak in the nose that puts herb-haters off (Kane makes a face via his PC), but I don't mind. A little candied, a little hot on the finish, but overall pretty good cabernet, crisp and racy, full-flavored and rich but with a nice lean, grabby mouthfeel. Goes very well with Andrew's prime rib, which is not, despite his concerns, overcooked (my piece, anyway).
Did I say 'purse'? I meant bag. My leather bag, quite butch, really.
Faustino I Rioja Gran Reserva 1985: The bottle is spray-painted with white flecks, which gives it an aura of class. Muted red cherry-berry fruit mingles with leather, smoke and tomato sauce notes. The wine comes at you quietly, with a brick-dusty swelling of quiet fruitiness mingling with dark smoky tones underneath, then blooming crisply into a small-scale flower, layered and balanced, with seamlessness and integration its most striking feature. A pretty earthy-smoky hum hangs around and resonates lightly after the wine is gone. Quite delightful, soft around the edges but with firm acidic structure at its heart. Almost immediately put into nomination as the wine of the evening, although the white spray paint may certainly be behind much of its appeal.
Now I have a sentence in my notebook that I don't understand.
That sentence is: "Andrew's cab driver's uncle is a zombie."
Your guess is as good as mine.
Domaine Philippe Batacchi Morey-Saint-Denis 1990: Muddy medium ruby. Smells nice, clove high notes over a soft cherry-raspberry base. Tastes sour, though--tartness and too much acidity put the wine out of balance and overwhelm the fruit, making my face all puckery, not its most flattering expression. Not very pleasurable, although probably more pleasurable than the current table chat, which has inexplicably wandered onto Caesarean sections.
Olga Raffault Chinon Les Picasses 1978: This bottle is showing better than any at least since the Occult Wine event of a year ago, once again giving me light pine-resin hints at first, then blooming with air into dark tobacco and leathery cran-cherry aromaticals. Feathered and loose at the slightly browning edges, there is a dark core of taut, lean and dark red fruit, medium-light in body and smoothly layered. Drinking beautifully.
Domaine des Pensées Sauvages Corbières 1998: Having gotten this far, I was just starting to hope that we might finally have a second jeebus without a corked wine. No dice.
At some point Dressner has moved over to the couch and fallen fast asleep, snoring joyously. Our host, ever resourceful, moves his trusty digital video camera into place with the intention of saving the scene as a screen saver, but is foiled by his more discreet significant other, who finds the notion, as she puts it succinctly, "weird."
Andrew just won't let his Weimer fixation rest for even a minute, so here's a Hermann Weimer Johannisburg Riesling Finger Lakes Late Harvest 1999. Pale. Crisp green apple and beanbag chair hints upon first smellage. A taste, and you get more of the same, medium sweetness over a minerally streak that surfaces in the midpalate and carries through nicely into the finish and beyond. A little short on concentration, but pretty nice all in all. Really, though, can't this guy just leave the Weimer alone for a little while?
Why not finish with an old favorite, a Francois 'Frankie' Pinon Vouvray Reserve Botrytisée 1989, and it's a noseful of fun, primary and young, peach and pineapple and light apricot nasomatics. Sweet and big in the pharyngeo-gulletal region, pineapple comes to the fore in the midpalate, moving towards honey and hay on the finish, with a light apricot-mandarin orange zip above it all. Somewhat monolithic, not layered, but possessed of a good spine, desserty-sweet and boisterously rich, a fine young sweetie.
At the end of the evening Oleg is voted "Mister Winegeek Congeniality," Inna is voted "Ms. Winegeek Fecundity," and they are awarded with a short but touching ceremony naming one of Andrew's grapevines after each of their upcoming triplets. Nobody deserves it more.
And as for me, you ask?
Well, having climbed the Everest of Wine Advocacy, I have hung up my spurs. Any new challenges that arise must be met by the next generation of hardy souls who dare to advocate extremely unusual wines. From now on it's back to the old, traditional jeebus ways of my childhood, whose simple ceremonies I find more comforting as I slip into my long gray twilight.