VS EATS AT JOE'S



Monday morning. My eyes hurt. I check the hamper--thank goodness... at least I made it home wearing my own pants this time.

The recollections start to come, first fuzzy, then clear, then even fuzzier. Joe has done it to me again. A hospitality ambush: the kind of dinner that makes you want to call your old friends and relatives and tell them you love them.

There were nine of us, only nine. When the deeds were done and we sat amidst the wreckage we counted the dead and wounded bottles and there were twenty-four. Perhaps twenty-five, as no one could still count particularly well by then.

But I'm getting ahead of myself--let me begin at the beginning...

Lisa and I arrive fresh-faced and well-scrubbed at the stylish Manhattan digs of the WLDG's own SFJoe, for a dinner to welcome Victor de la Serna to our fair city. The irrepressible Brad Kane greets us at the door, informs us that the maestro of the kitchen is hard at work behind his culinary line of death, and brings us into the dining room, where we are delighted to meet Victor and his friend Eduardo and say hi to Helio, who we hadn't seen since the last Spanish offline. We all fall to chatting and soon enough we're joined by dear hungry .sasha, swathed from head to toe in Yankees paraphernalia and a new name to me, Mr. John Gilman, sommelier extraordinaire, toting an almost-full crate of bottles.

Our mysterious unseen host, from his kitchen sanctum sanctorum, sends out a couple of his ubiquitous gruner veltliners for our consideration. I beg leave to enter the holy of holies in order to have the cryptic Austrian label parsed, and, that being done, I scurry back to the dining room and leave the chef in peace to work his wonders.

I eye the gruners a bit nervously.

Gruner number one, Bründlmayer Langenlois Gruner Veltliner Alte Reben 1995 has a rich, open nose with some smoky mezcal notes that have Kane and I wondering about oak. We are wrong. No oak. Smooth, with good weight and a pleasant, slightly oily mouthfeel. Peachy-floral hints emerge with some swirling. This is a fairly full-bodied wine with lovely balance. I like it.

Gruner number two--yowf, this just leaps out of the glass at my nose, grabs hold and won't let go--Pichler Gruner Veltliner Dürnsteiner Kellerberg Smaragd 1997: much larger in scale than the last gruner, sweetly floral nose, rich and velvety honey-gardenia and limestone. John ventures 'banana candy,' and that fits nicely. Weighty and minerally in the mouth, honeydew and peach and other stuff too, rich and vivid and flavorful. A gruner veltwinner by me, easily the best I've had.

Victor breaks out a bottle of what sounds to my unschooled ear like 'malvasia riojana,' but I have no time to have the label explicated for me in the excruciating detail that I crave, and no time to practice rolling my 'r's, because the wines are starting to flow now, Joe's luscious tuna tartare is making the rounds, the pace is picking up, and snoozers are thus ever losers.

Mendoza Rioja Blanco 1998: Pale, almost colorless wine, with a nose that reminds me of a very light Alsace riesling--sprightly and stony. A soft and friendly light little wine, with flavors that echo the stony nose and spread nicely and finely over my mouth.

Well, we have once again brought an ugly American to shed all over the furniture and break the crockery: Sine Qua Non 'Twisted and Bent' 1997: Figgy-pear-apple hints are buried under a mountain of toasted-buttered-popcorn oakiness. It seems like there's a bit of fruit under there, somewhere, a crisp, slightly waxy-fruity wine crying out for help, but to no avail. The oak wins, in a crushing landslide. Nice label, though. Save the bottle, make a nice lamp, skip the wine. I think this is rousanne/marsanne/chardonnay.

Back to the euros:

Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Riesling Herrenweg de Turckheim 1994: Big rich smooth nose, with all kinds of interesting stuff going on--honey & kerosene, lychee & hints of peach. A sip, and it's not quite as interesting to taste as it is to smell. Slightly sweet, kinda fat, not enough acidity to please anyone but Kane--a bit limpid. On to another...

Trimbach Riesling Cuvée Frederic Emile 1995: Pale, pale wine; lighter and brighter and stonier nose than the ZH. Chalky-tasting and a bit shrill, a bit closed-up. This wine needs time. A squeaky-crisp wine that curiously turns limey and gin & tonic-y on the finish.

Domaine de Comtes Lafon Meursault-Charmes 1992: pale yellow; flinty-buttery nose, medium-bodied, bit limp in the mouth, some round, buttery apple-pear fruit turning earthy on the finish. This wine starts .sasha into a tailspin. He picks up his glass and paces back and forth disbelievingly, sniffing and swirling and saying "It's flat?!" to himself over and over again. I offer some lame quip about not knowing it was supposed to be sparkling, but his disillusionment runs deep and will not be assuaged.

"It's flat?!"

Pace, pace.

"It's flat?!"

Pace, pace.

Well, yes, it is in fact a bit flat. But we must transcend, for there are more bottles coming and we can't be living in the past now, can we?

We try to distract him with some red burgs. Here, .sasha, look! Arnoux! Drouhin! Wow, neat, huh?

It seems to work. The pacing stops.

Robert Arnoux Vosne-Romanée Les Suchots 1990: Nice rich translucent red color, turning slightly orangy at the rim. Another vivid nose--velvety muted cherryfruit, clovey-mushroom earthiness and a beguiling hint of burnt orange. Medium-light in body, but surprisingly richly flavored and intense. Lots of rich muted pinot fruit, my kind of brash rich Burg, a pleasure to drink.

J. Drouhin Vosne-Romanée Les Petits Monts 1988: a bit paler in color than the Arnoux, not as lush or as sweetly showy on the nose, which shows soft earthy cherry aromas with some carroty hints. Tastes tighter, you get a slight pucker from some strong acidity, some tartness, with faint dry tannins. There is talk that this one is on the upswing, but it seems to me like it's a bit shrill for the fruit that remains.

Oysters sauteed with hand-picked morels are being (slowly) passed around now. They taste nice. Life is good.

A hush falls over the room as Victor uncorks an extremely exclusive cult wine, a deep red blend of 60% monastrell (mourvedre), 20% cab sauv and 20% tempranillo...

Bodega Balcona Bullas 'Partal' 1998: Typical culty dark, saturated purply-red color; rich tarry, berryfruity cult nose, leathery-earthy, upfront and slightly funky aromas. Nice berry-syrup hints, with a backbone of dark tarriness. A rich mouthful of cultiness that finishes a bit short and gritty, but has a lot to give in the meantime. Not terribly complex, but very rich and friendly. We all vow to get on the mailing list before the world finds out about this, except for .sasha, who opines that if we thought this was good, we should try the '27, which was "killer," and besides, he's already on the mailing list and it's closed now, anyway. Or something.

Celler de Cantonella Costers del Segre Cerroles 1997: I believe this is mostly grenache. Tangy cranberry/raspberry/smoky fruit--tart and upfront fruity. Again, not complex, but some nice smoky tart berry-style fruit makes for a decent drop.

By now the entrée is emerging, and Lisa is trying to explain proper usage of the term 'entrée.' It's an amazingly rich coq au vin (apparently coq au Chinon & Bourgueil), with roasted tiny potatoes, that, immediately upon tasting, causes Lisa to cast aspersions on MY coq au vin. Hmph. I take the high road and let these unfair comparisons slide. I'm trying to pace myself, but, confused by my misunderstanding of the term 'entrée' into thinking this was it for the serious chow, I take several pieces. That is okay, though. Wait, there are more wines, still coming hard and fast...

La Rioja Alta S.A. Rioja Gran Reserva 890 1981: Slightly faded orange-red. Leathery faded redfruit on the nose, light hints of stewed tomato, quiet but rich. A crisp, fairly light-bodied, somewhat thin wine, with fruit and wood that have faded to a warm pleasing earthy brick-red hum.

Château Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon Napa 1985: Nice tangy blackfruity nose, hints of brick and cedar and smoke. Not bad by me, but John calls it a "three-note wine," to which I respond yes, but 'Wild Thing' did well with only three chords. Kane says it has some nice black fruit, whereupon John seems to become possessed by the cantankerous 3,000 year-old spirit of Joe Dressner, haranguing us that "sure, if you call a batch of prunes left hanging in the desert for thirty years 'fruit,' it does have some fruit," insisting that California hasn't made a decent cab since 1980 and so on, until we have to wrestle him to the floor and pour a Saint-Emilion down his throat, which seems to have a calming effect.

John being subdued, the rest of us try the Saint-Emilion too.

Château Canon St. Emilion 1983: Faded brick color; interesting menthol note on the nose, hints of cooked tomato and tobacco swirl about. A soft and earthy wine, pleasant and complex, but on a fairly small scale. Some faded tangy cherryfruit, bit of a leafy pondwater quality, not too bad. Someone wonders if it's over the hill, at which point Victor declares in a voice of thunder that he's had it up to here with people (ESPECIALLY Americans) who sit around with stopwatches waiting for the precise 18-second interval in the life of a wine in which it is neither 'too young' nor 'over the hill.' Just enjoy the wine for what it is when you drink it, he booms. We salute, and do so. And we like it. And on we go...

The main course arrives, two piles of marvelously rare melt-in-your-mouth grilled steak au poivre, one pile aged, one pile not aged. Just in time, we grab some big brawny Americans to deal with all this beef. Someone is passing the ghastly mummified remains of the Jamaican meat wine around. Much appalled commentary ensues, except from Kane, who wants some.

Ridge Geyserville 1991 (50% zin, 30% carignane, 20% ps): A deep dark purple color, inky-deep; dark velvety nose of blackberry vanilla, earthy hints & maybe a touch of mint. Dark & rich & dense, with a gentle touch of pruniness in the dark fruit, and some firm & present tannins. I never had this one young, so I wonder at the blackness of the fruit, whether this is a function of only having 50% zin in the blend, or if the usual zin red berry fruit has just faded with some age.

Hedges Red Mountain Reserve Columbia Valley 1995: A cab/merlot blend. Aromatically kind of quiet--slight yeasty/breadiness over the plum and cassis base, with some oak evident, but some nice fruit to back it up. The mouthfeel is velvety and meaty, rich and dark but a bit soft, and the flavors spread out into the finish and become a bit dissolute, a little vague, needs more grip. Still, I don't find the oak as distracting as others do, and I think this a decent young wine, if not much more.

There is a Cal syrah of some kind, but I can't reach it, and so it passes into obscurity.

And now begins the march of the sweeties.

Domaine Weinbach Gewürztraminer Clos des Capucins VT 1990: Spry clementine-mineral-lychee accented nose. The body of the wine is a bit shy, not offering up much. Just not much going on. What's the story? A lightly sweet wine, not quite desserty-sweet. I find this curiously neutral for a VT gewčrz.

Castaño Monastrell Dulce 1998: A soft muddy-sweet monastrell, low acid and fleshy, the brick-red raspberry fruit falls over the tongue like soft ash. A bit syrupy, a bit of a curiosity. Lisa likes it more than I do, finding some kinship here with her favorite Tintilla de Rota. Actually, it does kind of grow on you, and not like a fungus, but it's soon supplanted in my glass when Joes feels the urge to compare it to one of my all-time favorite sweet reds...

Dashe Late Harvest Zinfandel Russian River Valley 1997: I've been lucky enough to have this one twice in the past month or two, and it's a delight once more. Rich and vividly zinfruity, showing no raisinyness, sweet and yet still perfectly balanced, with flavors that just burst zin essence into your mouth. A king among LH zins.

More sweeties, more sweeties...

Château Pierre-Bise Coteaux du Layon Beaulieu L'Anclaie 1997: Young, lush and vivid and monolithically fruity, this is a big, rich, vividly tropical wine with a lot of sweetness, a lot of fruit, a lot of everything. More lushly fruity than the '96, I think this one is my favorite of the 97 P-B CdLs, having better balance than the 97 Rouannieres, which is a bit more over-the-top (but which I like very much as well). Tonight I'm getting more apricot on the nose than the pineapple notes that usually strike me with this one, but whaddaya gonna do? Very tasty.

Salvador Poveda Gran Reserva de Fondillón 1975: Amber color; wooha, just a real lush raisin/vanilla/caramel milkshake of a nose. I taste it, and though it's sweet, it's surprisingly tart and caramelly--some bright acidity keeps it from turning at all goopy. Vanilla and caramel flavors wash over the midpalate, then the vanilla recedes, leaving the dark caramel lingering on the finish. Delish.

Beringer Late Harvest Johannisberg Riesling California 1993: Deep brown-orange color spritzy apricot-honey nose. Sweet as all hell, viscous and goopy, but, unlike the last time I had this, this bottle seems to have some small amount of acidity. Still not enough, mind, you, but last time I had this I thought it was like drinking pancake syrup. Victor, tasting some of this and having to listen to everyone bitch about it, scolds the assembled geeks for being too picky and is met only with plaintive 'would you scold a fish for being too wet?' looks.

As we wallow in the detritus of the evening, I notice a neglected bottle of Coto De Imaz Rioja Reserva 1994 and gamely attempt to sample some, but I'm afraid the parade of sweeties has made my going back to dry reds not a viable option.

At this point we are all gasping like carp on a dock, so quiet conversation is called for.

We sit and sample what remains of our various favorites for awhile, enjoying the fat fuzzy glow of great food, wine and company, Lisa scams half of Joe's Wodehouse collection, kisses, hugs and handshakes all around, then we scatter to the four winds that are whipping the streets of Manhattan with extra vigor on this blustery night.

When we get home, an hour later, I call my relatives and tell them I love them.




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