So Lisa and I swore we'd never return to Minetta after the horrific Cold Potato Salad Incident, but Walt Carpenter was hitting the big town and that's where the action was, love it or lump it. Thus I resignedly don my traditional floral jeebus garb, Lisa packs a couple of sandwiches (just in case), and we head out into the warm May evening toting our geeksacks full of geek goodies for all the good little geeks to enjoy.
For an alarming moment it looks as if we're the first to arrive, but there's a happily waving Jay Miller, relieved that he no longer faces the prospect of sitting alone at a table for twelve. "Thank god you're here," he says, "now we can open something..." and he pops a Larmandier-Bernier Champagne Blanc de Blanc Brut NV. It's quite a frothy mouthful, with effusively foamy bubbles moussing up all over the inside of my mouth. Smells yeasty-bready, with yellow apple-lemon hints. I sip at it, and it's quite refreshing after the walk, rounded and effusively fizzy. It's somewhat blunt, and there's not a great deal of complexity, but it's a decently refreshing drop. Perhaps a few hours' decanter time would help calm the frothiness down.
Other wandering geeks begin to stagger in: Elyse Fradkin, the irrepressible Mr. Kane, the Bassman and Basswoman, he in standard Greenwich Village-approved black mufti. Momentum begins to build.
Here's a Pierre Sparr Gewürztraaghh, it's dreadfully corked. Lisa practically has a seizure. I rise, invoke the spirits of the cork oak and beseech them that this be our one representative tainted bottle for the evening. My plea made, I sit. There is a moment of awkward silence as the restaurant has gone suddenly silent and we're being eyed by the other patrons, but we press on.
Walt and Ashley C. finally make their entrance, exhausted from a long day of chasing the real estate dragon through the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Several of us grunt noncommitally at them, acknowledging their presence in time-honored New York fashion.
A Frankie Peillot Altesse de Bugey Montaignieu Cuvée Buster 1999 is next, a prettily aromatic wine, soft white honeysuckle and anise hints over a stream of rocky minerality: the proverbial good altesse fruit. Tastes mouthcoatingly full but quite bright, with a hint of sweetness and snappy acidity in fine balance. With some air the light florality fades and the minerals come to the forefront. Young and primary, but this is happy stuff, a crowd-pleaser that pleases the crowd.
Walt hesitantly asks if the 'Cuvée Buster' designation really means that a dog has been sent to urinate in the vineyard, as he was told at Garnet. We assure him that it's all exactly as they say it is, and, equally truthfully, that there's no better place for customer service than Garnet.
Why not have a go at yet one more variation on the theme of Huet Vouvray Le Haut-Lieu Demisec 1971? This bottle is quite aromatic and more robust than many of its fallen compatriots, but is also more oxidized than most, with a light hint of sherried nuttiness more evident amidst all the usual goings-on in the heavenly nose. Kane has scored all of the high fill bottles for himself and this is one of those, but oddly the fill level on these wines seems to bear no relation whatsoever to the freshness--the lightest and youngest specimen I've had also had the lowest fill. Go figure, as the kids say. Anyway, it's another beauty, and it wins the Thunderbird Prize by the evening's end, edging out the altesse by a nose.
The salads and appetizers arrive, and for reasons that are not immediately apparent to me Jay Miller leaps up and begins offering fresh ground pepper all around. I'm not sure what to make of this until I realize that it's all clearly a setup for Lisa to make a terrible pun on "pepper Miller." We laugh, as we must. Especially Kane.
We break the red ice with a Domaine Alain Burguet Gevrey-Chambertin Vielles Vignes 1997, and it's a surprisingly ripe noseful of ripe cherry-plumskin-clove hints mixed with two scoops of generously toasted oak. The flavors are velvety and rich but also rather ripely generic, and there's just too much unintegrated oakiness. The finish is short, tight and tannic. I'm not sure about this one--I dislike it quickly for its bumptiousness, but with air some beguiling gravelly notes emerge underneath the overt fruit that make me reconsider a quick writeoff. It's got some stuff going on and could be interesting down the road if the oakiness calms down and some secondary flavors develop, but it seems mostly overfruited, overwooded and out of balance at the moment.
An Olga Raffault Chinon Les Picasses 1978 is up next, and the recent string of luck with these bottles continues, as the wine is pleasantly developed but cheerful and far from tired. I smell the usual light hint of pine, but this one is more redfruity, with a lithe core of cran-cherry fruit and less earthiness than you sometimes get in this wine, although there is a pretty tobacco-leafy streak that hums nicely along into a silky thrumming finish. A wine of finesse and character, light in body but thoroughly flavorful and layered, with fine structure and a pleasant warmth to the feathered-at-the-edges fruit. Perhaps it's not the greatest of vintages, but the '78 in a very good place for drinking right now.
Walt, who has been doing his utmost to pretend he's having a good time, now finally confesses the dark secret that has been troubling him all night: "I thought... I thought... you were... a woman" he says to me.
Gentle readers, I am secure in my gender identity, so I was more than willing to pass this off as an amusing misunderstanding. Unfortunately, others were not so easily mollified and the situation threatened to deteriorate until I, in a flash of inspiration, point down the table and hiss "Watch out! A HYBRID!"
Everyone gasps as the Henry of Pelham Baco Noir Ontario 1998 makes its way down the table. There is rapt silence as it is swirled and sniffed, sniffed and swirled. Hmmm... it's got a darkly fruity nose, hints of plum and raspberry rapidly undermined by a vivid streak of compost heap. Tastes better than it smells, a crisp, tart wine with simple, slightly anemic berry-cassis flavors and the persistence of a cabbage moth. Still, it serves amply as a distraction and the moment of crisis passes.
My ostensibly rare steak arrives in an advanced state of medium-well-doneness. I pause a moment before sending it back, recalling the time Kane sent back a dish and waited all night in vain to ever see a replacement (as I recall, when he inquired as to the whereabouts of his dinner, he was cheerfully told "In the trash, sir!"). But I can't abide overly blackened animal flesh, so back it goes, happily returning larger and bloodier than before. I love a happy ending.
Here's a Domaine Font de Michel Ch‰teauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Etienne Gonnet 1995, smelling pleasantly of smoky raspberry, leather and earth. A sip, and it's a soft and gentle wine, rich and smoothly meaty-textured, with velvety warm red fruit flowing into a smoky-tarry finish. A good wine that needs more spine. I keep trying to work around Kane's aversion to the word "soft" by coming up with kinder euphemisms, 'fleshy,' 'meaty-textured,' and so on, but let's face it, it's a soft wine, albeit a warm and layered one with some good stuff going on. Kane attempts to explain that the bottle had been sitting in the sun, so some of the acidity may have been baked out of it, but this makes sense to no one except him.
A Castello di Ama Chianti Classico 1995 appears, smelling pleasantly stony and cherried, a charming nose. A sip, and there's not a lot of depth or density--after a nice upfront cherry-smoky-tar rush the fruit just goes belly-up and fades into ghostliness.
I attempt to surreptitiously slide a bottle of Turley Cellars Zinfandel California Old Vines 1999 down the line, but Jay Miller spots it and gives a chilling Invasion of the Body Snatchers wail, pointing and pointing as the poor pariah fat-bottomed bottle makes the rounds. It smells ripe and candied, raspberry syrup and black cherry juice with smoky tarry hints underneath that emerge a bit more with air. This '99 is the most over-the-top Old Vines since they started doing this bottling, usually one of the more restrained of the stable. The '98 was a bit wan right off the boat (although it picked up with some rest and time), this one is candyfruity, simple and overpowering. "Not the worst I've had," says Jay encouragingly, "No, that would have to be that other horror you brought when Robin was in town." Ah yes, the fizzy Moore-Earthquake, another fond memory. Even Ashley, caught up in the mob fervor, hurls abuse and ridicule at me (although I suspect she may be the victim of some domestic brainwashing). Perhaps I'll just drink these at home from now on.
Here's a Ridge Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon California Jimsomare 1991, smells warmly of cassis and bricks, hints of black olive and licorice. Tastes soft and fleshy, fairly low acid but meaty and flavorful, with some nicely integrated cedar-smoky oak, another Kane wine all the way, but one that is flavorful, easy and amiable. Drink 'em if you got 'em.
With a flourish, Walt produces a Château Pichon-Longueville-Baron Pauillac 1988: Very shy nose, oregano, tobacco, cassis and tobacco, you have to really swirl to get something out of this one. A nice initial impression of good Pauillac fruit fades quickly into a dilute midpalate and a rather pallid finish. Disappointing. Furrowed brows abound. I run the notion up the flagpole that the bottle is corked just under the radar screen, but I am hooted down.
Walt leans in towards me. "Please," he says, "when you speak of this wine... and you will speak of it... be kind."
I blink at him blearily. "Did you make this?" I ask, momentarily addled. He doesn't respond, seemingly too despondent by the unforeseen failure of his bottle. I point out that the time to mourn is past, that all we can do from here is go on, because that's what the Baron would have wanted.
We look to a Hardy's Eileen Hardy Shiraz Padthaway-Mclaren Vale-Clare Valley 1993 to heal our wounded spirits. It's big and smelly, redolent of raspberry-plum, pepper and eucalyptus. Tastes richly fruity and primary, smoky-tarry-oaky and ripe. A big boisterous woody shiraz, simple and robust, that Miller pegs as "a decent barbeque wine."
Another in the same vein is the Murphy-Goode Zinfandel Sonoma County 'Liar's Dice' 1999, which slips my nose some plain black cherry and raspberry aromas. Seems to be a trace of RS here, decently balanced, simple, lightly tannic. Decent, characterless, but would be fine with a burger.
Yet another visitor from the Antipodes appears, a Rosemount Cabernet Sauvignon Coonawarra Show Reserve 1992. Deep garnet color. Smells nice, cassis, gravel and a hint of dark chocolate. Tastes rich at first, with a nice rush of warm fruit, but the midpalate goes limp as the fruit falls away and dissolves into tarry woodiness. Some spiky acidity takes a swipe at my tongue as the flavors attempt but fail to segue into a finish--it falls down well short of the finish line. I keep waiting for the wine to show some reserve, but it never does. Perhaps a labelling error?
Various desserts and sweet things being wheeled around the floor, we move into some sweeties. Here's a Pellegrini Vineyards North Fork of Long Island Finale White Table Wine 1999, apparently a blend of sauvignon and gewürztraminer, but it's the gewürz that dominates as I take a sniff and get a noseful of lychee with a white-flowery frosting. Bright, crisp and desserty-sweet, a two-dimensional wine with a lot of flavor that is cheerful and surprisingly tasty.
On the other end of the sweetie spectrum is the Domaine du Mas Blanc Banyuls 1976, with an initial whiff of sherried brown sugar setting off some alarm bells. But the wine rallies, filling my nostrils with dark bricky-berry fruit laced with figs and cocoa. Nimble of body, the weathered fruit spreads out comfortably on my tongue, settling loosely in soft earthy-sweet waves. A pretty, complex wine even when it's not showing its best. This is the one I settle down with.
The rest of the evening passes in a blur of boxing bells from the bout on TV in the bar and whines from the greedy NY regulars about only having seventeen bottles to pillage instead of the usual thirty or so.
It was a terrible example to set for a visitor, but Walt seemed willing to let it slide.