The rumors we've all heard are true: Greg del Piaz truly knows how to fête hardy. Bernard Roth and better half Sam were in town, and Greg had a few of us over and proceeded to open bottle after bottle until the night dissolved into fits of shrieking, ferret-taunting and incipient delirium tremens. In short, a triumph of hospitality.
So here's what little I remember of what went down that night...
I've come racing uptown, convinced that I'm going to be horribly late. It has been my mission to scurry home from Shea Stadium to pick up bottles (they're not big on letting you carry them in in these security-conscious times) while Lisa leisurely watches the rest of the game and takes the slow boat to the Upper West Side.
But no! the guest of honor is not in attendance yet and I breathe a sigh and greet the assembled geeks: Greg and Michelle, the ever-punctual Jay Miller, the irrepressible Bradley VIII. I look around for Lisa, spy her hunkered down with Jayson Cohen, locked in some fiendish calculus exercise. She looks up and scowls at me by way of greeting. "Be with you soon, we're working the Taylor Expansion" she says. I fake comprehension and nod gravely, giving her the palms-out 'take your time' gesture. Then I search urgently for a glass and something to pour into it.
Which turns out to be a Bruno Giacosa Roero Arneis 2000: Airy, minerally nose, rainwater and a light streak of fresh green peapods. Crisp and zippy upfront in the piehole, a rounded, lightly creamy texture emerges in the midpalate to clothe the bright acidity. Finishes with a gingery white coral buzz. Nice cohesiveness, nothing out of balance, a bright friendly young white.
Asher and Marni Rubenstein arrive, and just like that the hour of the dog is upon us. Thomas-Labaille Sancerre Chavignol Les Monts Damnés Cuvée Buster 2000: This year's release of the ultra-culty canine Sancerre is very quiet to smell--something is going on but I have to listen for it carefully. Quiet chalky hints, flecks of white grapefruit and green melon. A sip, and here's a tightly-knit young wine with a lean, stony midpalate, racy and prettily balanced but closed and rather inexpressive at first. Towards the end of the evening Jay takes a sniff, says MY GOD, and hands me his glass. Ah, here we are--more exuberant, slipping effortlessly into the chameleon mode that distinguished the '98 and '99 Busters, a different facet of its character with every sniff. There is a light peachy-gardenia floral streak that wasn't present earlier mingling with the chalky-lime-honeydew aromatics, hints of dried herbs amidst the lighter green. With four or five hours of air the midpalate has unclenched and filled out and the minerality that was its salient feature has submerged, only to reappear and dominate the finish. Fetal, kaleidoscopic.
Ah, here are the guests of honor, Bernard and Sam Roth. I don't know if this is a two-geek family, so I attempt to keep the introductory chat fairly general. I've seen the stricken faces of significant others when words like "rootstock" and "élevage" insinuate themselves into the conversation before they've had a chance to acclimate to the rarified atmosphere at high geek elevation. But no, if Sam is not a geek herself she speaks enough geekspeak to get by pretty well. I mention that I've had some recent correspondence with the daughter of the late wine writer Creighton Churchill, and she points out that a relative of hers (cousin?) is also a wine writer, author of something she recalls as A First Course In Wine Tasting. We toast to the wine writers of yesteryear, when giants strode the earth whose like we shall not see again.
Well, except Jancis of course.
The parade of individuality from bottles of '71 Huet continues with a Huet Vouvray Demisec Le Haut-Lieu 1971. The clear trend with this recent rerelease has paradoxically been towards the low-fill bottles showing fresher and brighter, the high-fill bottles seeming more tired and oxidized, but this high-fill bucks the trend and strikes out on its own. The first hint of oddness is the light cheesy-firecrackery funkiness that emerges right off the bat. Eventually it mostly blows off, but its spectral presence remains hovering above the usual lemon-honey-tea-quince-leather aromatics. Tastes bright and young, but has a streak of light sourness that I've never experienced with this wine, taking the usual pleasant tartness of the yellow fruit a step farther than you'd want it to go. Puzzling. Still a fresh, complex package, but an unusual showing for this perennial.
Suddenly it turns out that unbeknownst to us all Greg has a master plan: he's putting on a vertical of Percarlo, the all-sangioveto supertuscan from San Giusto a Rentennano. I always feel a duty to pay closer than usual attention to Italian wines since they're an unfortunate rarity at NYC jeebi, and it is this good intention that begins to pave the way to my own personal road to hell.
Ceding Greg host's discretion in the eternal oldest-to-youngest squabble, we begin with a San Giusto a Rentennano Percarlo 1986. Medium ruby color. Light and layered aromatics--smoky leather, dried cherry and iron filings, smooth and friendly to smell. A sip, and it's a fairly light-bodied, loosely-knit wine, fleshy and red at first, bit faded in the middle where hints of tea and bay leaf surface, easy light finish. Nice balance, good layering, crisp and complex. It's pleasantly developed but it's a lovely lightweight and it's time to drink up.
Next is a San Giusto a Rentennano Percarlo 1989, which isn't as aromatically open as the last, quieter red fruit laced with a light stoniness. First sippage gives me some warm cherry-plum fruit, but the midpalate turns watery, leaving the hard spine somewhat naked, and the finish dissolves in sandy tannins. There is some interesting character, but the wine is hard and prickly, not very friendly.
Somewhere in here Greg actually broaches the topic of Middle East politics and invites civil discussion thereon. Within ten minutes he's banging his fist on the table yelling "Shut up! SHUT UP!! SHUT UUUUP!!!" at who? Asher? Kane? Sam? No matter, because no one shuts up. Later on I see that this is the beginning of the evening's downward spiral.
San Giusto a Rentennano Percarlo 1997: Ye gods, is this the same wine as the first two? Low acid, monolithically ripe and richly berryfruited, generously suffused with toasty-vanilla new oak aromas and flavors. Were I tasting blind I might very well mistake this for a California zinfandel. The ripe black cherry-raspberry fruit is not quite jammy, but the combination of low acidity and plenty of new wood washes out any potential character. Jay stands, clears his throat, says "It tastes just like a thousand other wines," bows deeply, then sits. Silky, rich, simple, oaky, generic.
There is the usual clear split on the merits of these wines, with one end of the table (we'll call it the GOBLOVER faction) preferring the ripe gobby style of the '97 and deriding the more structured, complex wines. I look up from my glass to hear Bradley carrying on in a broad fashion about how the '86 and '89 are dead and undrinkable and simply must ask "You probably really liked that nummy '97, right?" "You bet I did!" is the immediate response--my end of the table (we'll call it the SODSUCKER faction) rolls its eyes in astonishment; the lines in the sand are redrawn for the umpteenth time.
San Giusto a Rentennano Percarlo 1998. Subtle dark aromatics--violets, plumskin, smoke and licorice. Back on track here; has more mouthgrab and character than the 1997. Young and slightly awkward, there's a good core of plum-cherry fruit suffused with some smoky oak, not too much to integrate nicely in time. Finishes with tannins akimbo, but most of the parts seem to be in good working order and I'd bet on it coming together down the road a piece.
There is food coming around, large platters of sundry meats and other goodies. Meats is good.
San Giusto a Rentennano Percarlo 1990: This wine seems to have many of the good qualities of the others and few of the problems--ripe and dark, it's in a very good place right now although still a young pup. Rich yet restrained smellies, dark cherry-berry, leather, smoke and gravel. Impressive concentration through the midpalate, a wine with real sustain and all the rough edges either smoothed out or wrinkled into beguiling complexity and clothed with velvety fruit that turns towards tarriness on the finish. The most complete package of the bunch--a winner, and the only Percarlo that everyone pretty much agrees on. There's enough fruit for the goblovers and enough grab and complexity for the sodsuckers. Thus a perfect middle ground is struck, the two sides are reconciled and everyone lives happily ever after. (At least until the next wine.)
Tuarita Giusto di Nervi 1995: Smells of flinty cassis, earth and saddle leather. A sip, and warm soft red fruit flows onto my tongue and sets up camp. Flavorful, but deficient in spine and rather generically redfruity-cocoaed to taste--the complexity promised by the aromatics is not forthcoming.
Fontodi Vigna del Sorbo Chianti Classico Riserva 1990: Friendly, charmingly layered nose, dark leathery red-black fruit dusted with clove, meaty and matte nosality. Rich and velvety in the piehole, the texture is chewy but there is no ponderousness. Perhaps on the soft side, but densely flavored and thrilled to be free of its glass prison. Very nice indeed, a wine that is happy to see me, and vice versa.
Greg is carrying on with surprising intensity about how white the cork from the Fontodi is. He brandishes it for all to see: "Have you ever seen a cork this white on a ten year old wine? EVER?!" he demands. No one responds beyond "Errrr..." so he adds "I certainly haven't! This damn cork is TEN YEARS OLD." There is immediate and general agreement that the cork is quite uncharacteristically white. He seems satisfied, although he continues to eye it suspiciously and mutter under his breath.
Castella di Fonterutoli Ser Lapo Chianti Classico Riserva 1990: I smell leathery hints over a base of medium dark cassis-berry fruit. Nice fruity tang on first sippage, the midpalate spreads out loosely, then spreads some more, turning diffuse. Rallies somewhat on the finish with a nice black cherry flourish, but there's nothing in the middle to hang my hat on. Perhaps my expectations are too high because of the quality of the first two '90s, but this is a little tired.
The mideast politics argument flares up again; soon many different notions of the best way to deal with Sharon, Arafat, Hussein, et al. (I think even Nasser's name comes up briefly), are whistling through the air like crossbow bolts. Jay, seated to my right, turns to me with a slightly dazed expression and asks: "Unusual weather we've been having lately, isn't it?" I agree wholeheartedly, and we share a glass of Castello di Ama Vigneto La Casuccia Chianti Classico 1993, a vague wine with vague aromatics. I sniff at it quizzically, getting some light traces of red clay, preserved cherries and dried flowers. A little more promising upon first sippage, some dark red fruit with a spicy mulled-wine character, but fades into wateriness in the midpalate and limps into a feebly herby finish. Where have you gone, Chianti Classico?
What's this? A Speri Recioto di Valpolicella Amarone 1985? Sweet? Dry? Dry, by cracky. Nice hit of funky earthiness is the first thing to hit my nose, followed by cinammon-laced red fruit, raspberries and cherries, traces of cocoa and toast. Matte mouthfeel, easygoing and fleshy. There is a sense of fraying at the edges, it seems curiously mature for such a young Amarone, but it's quite tasty. If this is a representative bottle, drink up.
Now is the very sweeting time of night. I think there must have been a cheese course, as I remember a great deal of tipsy snickering at a cheese that went by the name 'bra' (brah? bragh?). As I mentioned, we'd started our descent hours ago and this kind of humor is just a symptom of the downward slide.
Fattoria Viticcio Dolce Arianna Vin Santo 1995: Medium amber color, smells of toasted orange rind drizzled with honey and cloves. With air a light figgy-nutty streak emerges. Medium sweet. Richly flavored. Plenty of acidity. Bit of a burn on the finish. Rather weighty texture. Sentence fragments. Pretty good stuff.
Domaine du Closel Savennières Moëlleux Cuvée Isa 1989: I know I sound like a broken record, but I'm smitten with this wine. It's such an individual expression of chenin, so clearly of its place and yet such a different animal than a dry Savennières, that it never fails to sweep me off my feet. Less sweet than I remember, just the other side of a demisec. Kane starts yelling "Wine of the night! Wine of the night!" which is a little worrisome, but what can be done? Twelve hours of air has given it more expansiveness and partially allayed the youthful awkwardness of the last bottle, although it's still a lithe, nimble young wine, Leslie Browne in The Turning Point. Don't mind me, I'll just sit here awhile with my glass. We have a lot to say to each other and some of it is rather private.
The answer to the musical question "Who the hell declared in 1988?" materializes in the form of a Quinta della Rosa Porto 1988. It smells of cocoa powder and muted red berry fruit. Tastes quiet and skinny, in the middle the cocoa turns towards baking chocolate but the fruit fades out, leaving an impression of dilution. Light bodied, lightly sweet and cocoaberried, it's an unchallenging mouthful of smoothly inconsequential entertainment, but it goes down easily.
Jayson emerges from Greg's bedroom clutching what looks like a tiny bandicoot in his arms, startling the few guests who are still lucid enough to be startled. Turns out to be the indigenous ferret; the time-honored ritual in these parts is apparently to let it have a go at the dessert wines. The ferret goes leaps at the Isa with enthusiasm, lapping greedily as a hush descends on the room. In the silence Asher mentions that he used to babysit a friend's ferret; after a thoughtful pause Jayson says "'Asher the Ferret-Sitter'... isn't that a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer?" This amuses me, and I make a mental note to try and remember it, although in my bleary state there's precious little chance of that happening.
Companhia Velha Colheita 1947: Amber-brown, the color of maple syrup. Smells like nuts and acorns, then more nuts with a lightly shrill tang of VA. Tastes chestnutty with burnt caramel notes, a medium to light-bodied brown wine with hints of old wood, molasses and a zippy streak of lemon zest. Crisp and medium sweet, friendly little burn on the finish, rather fun.
After the Roths split we discuss the usual internet expectation factor. All agree that Bernard is much younger and less square than expected. Kane: " I expected someone more lawyerly---he's just a nice Jewish boy like the rest of us..." At this point I slide under the table. The rest of the night is a blur of Armagnac Jell-O shots and hits off the grappa bong. I know I had different pants on when I woke up the next afternoon, but I'm not sure who else my size was in attendance, so I've given up hope of seeing that particular pair of tan chinos again. I'm checking into rehab tomorrow.
As I may have said, a triumph of hospitality.