Rookie of the Year Rahsaan Maxwell strode boldly into the big town a fortnight or so ago, bringing his patented brand of no-nonsense freeform wine improvisations to a reading public hungry for barley kasha wood and salty lemon shells. On hand to greet him at Greenwich Village's fabled Inside were master impresario Jay 'Bucko' Miller, the Travelling Bassmen (Mike & Kim), Manuel and Josie Camblodad, the irrepressible Bradley Kane, Lisa 'Thank God I Passed Gastro' Allen and Rahsaan's friend whose name I haven't the courage to try and spell but sounded something like 'Hibby.'
Quick! Oysters! Sit! Eat!
Yes, Jay has arranged for the special group oyster rate; to match with the briny little obscenities we have a Domaine de la Pépière Muscadet Sevre etc. 1991. Elegant, taut and racy, slightly musty-funky in the high register, bracingly snappy in the piehole. Very spare, all lean structure and unadorned stoniness. Very nice, with an ascetic's purity and a hint of self-flagellation.
Phew. A severe wine.
Okay, easing back a bit, here's a Domaine de la Pépière Muscadet Clos des Briords Vieilles Vignes 1997. Much gentler than the nervy '91--still has a racy core, but it's clothed in a velvety carambola-honeydew skin, dusted with a shy whiteflorality that's absent in the older wine. I know this isn't exactly echt-Muscadet, but I'm really digging it tonight--the kinder, gentler thing hits me the right way, at least until the oysters come around, when the '91 matches better. '97 for sipping, '91 for washing down the brinebags.
"I've got Sicilian Muscadet!" Camblor crows, and pours me a hit of Gulfi Sicilia Bianco 'Carjcenti' 2003. This winery seems to have bought Js by the gross and sprinkled them indiscriminately hither and yon. The grape is something called caricante, and it smells outdoorsy, yellow apple and hay, a touch of cinnamon-almond spiciness, just a gente suggestion of lilikoi tropicality. It's broadbeamed, nothing whatsoever like Muscadet (at least not in this vintage), but there's an honesty and a gentleness that I find quite appealing despite the outsized character. Finishes with a quiet hum of hay and ginger creaminess. Quite pleasant really, if a little slatternly after the Muscadets.
Kane is performing his Papa Brad Don't Like This Wine interpretive dance, complete with sighs, frowns, rolled eyes and squinchy faces. "Ugh, too big, too alcoholic," he grimaces theatrically, waving his arms around as though being menaced by fruitbats. We admire the show, offer some polite applause, move on.
On to a Roberto Cohen Bourgogne Aligoté 2002, that is. Medium-lean and bright, pure and lemonstony, but also rather neutral. Not nearly as structured as either Muscadet, there's a wan quality to the middle, but it's quite pleasant to drink. Very decent, if not exactly a wine that makes me want to get up and boogie.
The name 'Roberto Cohen' brings to mind some cheerily cross-cultural monikers. I remember my hometown pal's mother's boyfriend Giovanni Chang, he of the white caddy with the 'GIO' vanity plates. Good times, good times.
My reverie is short lived. A Bodegas Muga Rioja Reserva 'Torre Muga' 1994 brings me thudding back to the here and now. Bleh. Wood soaked cassis-cranberry jam juice. Did I say bleh? Smells like the stuff you scrape off burnt toast, except this time you scraped it off onto a pile of two-by-fours that was in the act of being processed into toothpicks using saws that are made entirely of scorched barrel staves. There's middling structure, and there may be some kind of blackfruit underneath the heaps of carpentry, but what finish exists dies aborning under a blizzard of astringency and wood tannins. When they need a poster child for 'New Wave Winemaking Fiasco,' I'll gladly nominate this one.
I'm distracted from my contemplation of the motivations behind this wine by hearing Kane use a phrase I didn't want to hear Kane, or for that matter anyone, use. Here is that phrase, the phrase I didn't need to hear:
Yes, that's right. You see why I didn't want to hear it? Kane and Camblor are enthusiastically hashing out the pros and cons of just such a procedure when I insert myself into the discussion to loudly object, claiming they're making the whole thing up. Kane swears he's had many acquaintances avail themselves of this amazing technology, even Josie chimes in to support his thesis. Still, I'll have none of it, insisting that such talk can only frighten the newbies. "Will nobody think of the newbies?" I wail plaintively, gesturing in Rahsaan's general direction. Rahsaan looks over, but I don't think he's following the thread of the conversation, lucky bastard. He goes back to whatever he's drinking, blissfully innocent of the new depths the conversation is plumbing.
What Rahsaan is drinking turns out to be a Bruno Giacosa Barbera d'Alba 2003. Damn, this is a Kane wine all the way; I know that he brought it well before he volunteers the information. A pool of warm strawberry-raspberry compote, with tannins. Structure? We don' need no steenkin' structure! Would do well spread on toast, but as a beverage it's a little, um, bloppy. And yes Brad, we know, at least it has "fruit."
But if you're looking for fruit instead of "fruit," you might want to try a Michel Ogier Côte-Rôtie 1997. This may have been the last year before the huge price increases or wait, maybe one more (this was about $30, the '98 about $35, then WOOOEEEEE! $$$$$$!!!! CHA-CHINNGGG!!! and suddenly it's $70). Classic, elegant Côte-Rôtie, smells of baconberry and violets. There's an amiable looseness to the midsection and a gentle smoky-earthy buzz on the finish. Light frame, layered texture, smallish and utterly charming, a wine that makes me lean back and think dreamy thoughts.
They're still talking about... about that phrase, you know, the one nobody needed to hear the first time around. I feel the urge to scream rising up in me, and can only appease it with the liberal application of Joseph Phelps Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Joseph Phelps Vineyards 1973. Oh. Oh, that's nice. Smells layered and fascinating, a blend of black olive, cedar, oregano and bricky muted cassis, with just a touch of mintiness way up in the noseheights. Gentle tasting, faded but quite expressive, small-scaled and pretty, it hasn't the focus or tensile strength of the late 70s Eiseles, but it's subtly seductive at thirty-odd years of age. Great balance, nice sense of restraint, looks like they used to make wines to last in California, back in the pre-gobfest era.
Manuel has ordered the chicken with forty garlic cloves; I suggest he count them to ensure he's not being played for a sucker, I don't think he does so. He's busy digging the Phelps cabernet. "What are the odds of my liking a California wine?" he asks. My sense that we're being set up grows exponentially when he pauses for emphasis... "About the same as monkeys flying out of my butt..."
Wait for it...
"...Bleached albino monkeys, of course!" and we're off again.
I sublimate my sense of horror into a Luddite Vineyards Cabernet Franc Sonoma County Thalia Vineyard 2003. I like these guys; anyone in the Golden State who bottles a varietal abouriou is okay with this wino. At any rate, their take on cabernet franc comes off something like an '03 Bourgueil, medium-dark garnet color, deeply colored, smelling smoothly ripe, dark cran-cherry fruit suffused with pineconey earthiness and a gentle cedary streak. Seems plainspoken: ripe cabernet franc served up unmolested. I'm thinking this might be a cabernet franc that Kane could get into, but he comes up with some silly reason not to like it, I forget what exactly ("Too bitumenous"? "Undersugared"?). The acidity is on the low side, or perhaps on the medium side but seems low because the fruit has a midpalate pillowiness to it. At any rate, the overall effect is of a slightly squishy wine, juicy and matte-textured, with a surprisingly long cran-barky finish. I'd buy more of this if it was fifteen bucks cheaper, but as it is I can buy just about any Bourgueil or Chinon for less money, so I probably won't. Still, good on them.
Flushed with decent California cabernet franc, I opine that ordering chicken in restaurants isn't something I ever do, it not being a festive enough fowl. Jay agrees, but allows that breast chicken is the rare exception. I point out that I have chicken breast at home all the time, and we go 'round and 'round like that for a few minutes before it emerges that he's talking about Brest chicken, chicken from Brest, not just chicken breast. (I confess I drew out the confusion just a bit longer than necessary simply because I was enjoying saying 'breast' over and over again. It's a word that improves greatly with repetition, try it at home if you don't believe me!)
Into the home stretch, with a Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia 1994. Vividly aromatic, sage and leather and tar mixed with earthy sour cherry. Tastes surprisingly friendly and layered, loose and easy, seems just about ready to go even at this tender age. A somewhat puzzlingly advanced Barolo, but I can live with it, as it's got some pretty small-scale character and a gentle sense of composure.
Domaine du Cros Marcillac Lo Sang del Pais 2004. Lo sang for Del who now? Smells gently piney and pineconey, a scrub evergreen sprouting from a cranberry field. Tastes plush and loose, quite insubstantial and rustic, something you'd want to drink outdoors. A strange, funky little runt of a wine, as appealing as the puppy that nobody wants. It's got so much character that the vagueness and oddballosity are easy to overlook.
Belle Pente Wine Cellars Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Murto Vineyard 2002. (They seem to have dropped the 'reserve'.) Medium-light garnet color. Smells gently earthy-spicy, cola, clove and sod and a hint of cinnamon, maybe cardamon up high, at any rate a piquant spiciness. Tastes smooth and velvety, well composed, relatively light and lithe, with a gentle red plum-cherry core of fruit. Nicely balanced, with some unintegrated toastiness and slightly rough tannins. Still, it's a pretty wine, friendlier and less angular than the '01, gently plush in a light frame, probably needs a few more years but showing very well tonight, changing gently with air, plumping quietly, then getting shy, and so on.
De Forville Barbaresco 2001. Hard cherry-tarry fruit, crisp, lean and tannic. Ungiving, in need of time. Ouch. Hold.
While I'm mulling over the taut Barbaresco, I catch a creeping hand out of the corner of my eye. My god, it's Bassman, trolling for his cooking cuvˇe! I manage to snatch the Luddite cab franc and the Belle Pente before his rapacious fingers can close on them, others are not so lucky.
Here's a Château Raymond-Lafon Sauternes 1986. I've always liked this wine, it's got a bit of everthing and too much of nothing. There's some gentle botrytical smells, apricot-pineapple fruit laced with vanilla-butterscotchiness. Quite sweet but crisp enough, good balance. The texture is what aces it, there's a lovely silkiness, it just glides down the gullet. Quite the foursquare Sauternes, really, I'm liking it very much tonight.
I'm jerked from my Sauternes reverie by Camblor yelling at Brad. "Don't go blaming your ass bleaching on me, nooooo!" he's insisting. I put my head down on the table.
What the...? Jeez, it's Bassman again, reaching under my arm for the Luddite in a last desperate bid to top off his cooking cuvˇe. Noooo! I shriek and swat at the questing hand, hissing NO! NO! BAD! as loudly as propriety will allow. He retreats unsatisfied, but I take the bottles off the table and clench them tightly between my knees, just in case.
Another sweetie, a Château Pierre-Bise Coteaux du Layon Beaulieu les Rouannieres 1996. Medium gold-amber color, oranging lightly at the rim. Smells buoyantly orange-quincey, gone are the yellowfruity pineapple notes, but there's a good dose of sugar and a firm spine and lots of shiny-viscous flavorosity to coat the tongue. I think Kane is continuing to unload these wines on us before they turn brown, but this is showing pretty well tonight, still quite vivid and impressive, albeit with a different flavor palette.
Before he disappears into the night, Rahsaaan buttonholes me and confesses that all his precocious accomplishments on the internet have been because of me. Slightly embarrassed by this show of doubtless well-deserved devotion, I can only stammer a blessing on his young head and offer up a gentle 'Go forth and notate,' words that seem inadequate given the crackling emotion in the air. Still, words are all we have, no?
Last drop, a Francois Chidaine Montlouis Brut NV sends us off in a festive mood, charming and waxy-chalky, happily frothy, frosty-cold and bracingly crisp despite a certain spreading white honey note in the midsection. Fine, friendly stuff, as always.
But it's Kane who has the final word. "Do yourself a favor tonight," he shouts at me as we're heading out the door. "Go to Google and look up 'ass bleaching'!"
"Brad," I call back, "I think you need a new hobby."