We had thought it was going to be a birthday party for Dressner and me. It had been in the works for a month, and after Tuesday's catastrophe we faced a stark choice: cancel because the idea of getting together and drinking wine in the shadow of horror seemed inconceivable, or proceed because getting together and drinking wine in the shadow of horror seemed necessary. Yet "go about your business, go back to your lives" was what Mr. Guiliani implored us to do, and sometimes pretending to have courage will get you through until you really do have courage, or, in this case, pretending life is normal might just suffice until life is once again normal.
So it was that thirty or so winegeeks, semi-winegeeks and non-winegeeks gathered at Manhattan's historic La Rocchetta for a night of human contact. Wine and friends and family sitting and laughing together, talking about Tuesday, talking about anything but Tuesday, trying to somehow digest Tuesday. Together.
When Lisa and I arrived early for perhaps the first time in our history we found Dressner already there, fretting about the propriety of the evening, about whether people would be able to get here, or would want to, or whether we should just all go home right now. We told him to shut up and get some ice buckets. This being his 60th birthday he has lined up a number of bottles from the 1941 vintage, many of them in surprisingly good condition, but the labels do indeed clearly say "1941," albeit on a small sticker with the same typeface on every bottle. Those were difficult times, Dressner explains quietly, and most French producers had to share the same font for their vintage stickers. And nothing frilly either, only something as basic as Stempel Garamond or perhaps Cochin for the wealthier Châteaux.
Dressner's parents arrive, and I begin to understand a few things; the ever-punctual Jay Miller follows, and the ball begins to roll. We draw our corkscrews and get down to business with a Pierre Overnoy Arbois Pupullin Vin Jaune 1990, and it smells much as I remember it, lemons, walnuts and dirty sweat socks, maybe some old brewer's yeast thrown into the mix. Tastes thin, sour and angry. "An acquired taste" is once again the kindest remark I can think of for this.
After four serious rinses I'm ready to start over, this time with a Domaine De L'Aubepine Muscadet 1995. Ah, that's better, lemon hints over crushed white coral is the first impression, a bright *poof* in my mouth, but then the wine relaxes and spreads a little in the midpalate, coming over with a trace of honeydew but losing none of the initial focus as it flows into a long rocky finish. Very nice, plenty of the structure you'd expect but enough easiness to keep from chafing.
Here's a Clos Roche Blanche Touraine Sauvignon Cuvée Buster 1998, and it hasn't changed much in the year since I had it last, still freshly gingery and lime-chalky, hints of green melon. More robust than the regular 1998 sauvignon, longer and deeper. There is a silky, easygoing quality to the wine--it isn't a bruiser--and I find it very seductive.
More geeks are arriving--Christian the Newbie is here, as are the rest of the Dressner clan--Denyse, Malmo‘lleux and the Chipster. I see Squire Connell chatting with Manuel Camblor and Josie, and there's Alice Feiring, the irrepressible Bradley Kane, Jayson and Laura Cohen, more luminaries from the soft white underbelly of the wine trade--Kevin McKenna, Sue Ng, David Lillie, Lovevibe, Mona Moore, other people whose names I am too addled to recall at the moment, the place just keeps filling up. One thing I notice is that many (including me) have the air of being relieved to be doing something small and ordinary, and doing it in good company.
Jay beckons me over and we have a little horizontal, starting with a Huet Vouvray Le Haut-Lieu Demisec 1959. Medium gold. There is a trace of funk at first that blows off fairly soon, leaving a quiet, somewhat reticent nose with all the usual goodies: baked lemons, honey, pollen, wax and a chalky core. A sip, and here's a warm, gentle upfront wash of layered flavors couched with light sweetness, so gentle that the acidity kicking in on the midpalate is a bit of a shock, but an invigorating one. The wine is very pretty and the goods are there, but it seems tentative and not quite cohesive at the moment. Perhaps it needs more air to come around.
Jay shows us his World Trade Center bathroom key. "I worked there until this past February," he says. Heads are shaken slowly back and forth, but nothing is said.
Next is the Domaine des Douveliers (Claude Pinon) Vouvray 1959. The same medium gold color as the Huet, perhaps a trace more amber. The aromatics have more of an orange-rind quality, tea, honey and a rich vein of chalkiness. Tastes more robust than the Huet, larger and more weighty in the piehole. There is a touch more sweetness (although there is no sweetness designation on the bottle--is this a mo‘lleux?), and the general impression is of a brawnier, more expressive wine that might not be as balanced or delicate but has its act together better on this night.
I am knocked out of the way by Kane's dive for the Vouvray, but out of the corner of my eye I see the Doghead himself, Robert Callahan, arriving with wife Carolyn. I turn to Christian the Newbie just in time to catch him frowning as he mouths the obligatory words: "I thought he was older..."
We know, we know.
Callahan takes a gander at the blizzard of bottles that is beginning to appear from every corner of the room and announces to no one in particular "I feel hung over just looking at all this wine."
A Trimbach Pinot Gris Alsace Reserve Personelle 1996 floats by, and I grab it and take a hit. Whoa, a party in my nose. Sweetly and playfully aromatic, there's a whole nursery of white flowers in here, honeysuckle, plumeria, gardenia, over a rockpile core. Tastes tight and big and concentrated, stony, stony and long. Impressively boisterous, a bigass hootie of a wine that's wrapped very tight right now.
A Denis Touraine-Azay-Le-Rideau 1995 seems a bit oxidized. There's the usual musky grapefruit and lemon citrus hints and stern acidity, but the wine is rather flat and lifeless.
Something funny is also going on with a Knoll Loibner Gruner Veltliner Federspiel 1999. There are some pleasant smellies, yellow appleskin, grilled, pineapple and white pepper, but the wine tastes awkward, flashing acidity, fruit and alcohol at you in that order, then clapping shut like a giant clam. Strange.
There's a Closel Clos Papillon Cuvée Speciale 1996 going by in the distance, but I've said enough about that one to not feel like leaping up and hunting it down.
We've all been milling about for at least an hour and a half now, and the wait staff is beginning to get edgy. Joe takes things in hand, yelling "Sit down, sit down! Stand clear of the closing doors! Sit down!"
So we do. I am left in a little elevated cul-de-sac behind Callahan and out of the main flow of the action, so I make an attempt to goad my notoriously slow palate into greater speed. Easily a half-dozen have flowed past and off into the thirsty crowd to return no more, so I grab the few whites that are in reach and carry on.
Pierre Frick Gewürztraminer Rot-Murlé Première Cuvée 1941: Bright and crisp in the nostrils, white flowers and white peach, stones and lychee. Tastes merrily crisp, a leaner style of gewürz that has a strong spine of acidity and little oiliness. Not exuberant, a racy and coiled wine that has held up marvellously well. In fact, if tasted blind I would have guessed this was a 1999.
Manuel approaches with one last white, an Albert Pic Chablis Valmur 1989. There's an odd cabbagey funk at first that blows off soon enough, after which a flinty nose with flecks of butteriness emerges. Cool and somewhat neutral at first, the flavors take their time in blooming, only coming out really strongly on the finish, which carries on tangily for two minutes, twenty-one and six-tenths seconds (02:21.60).
From out of the corner of my ear I start to hear a low rumbling chant beginning. It is the geeks, calling for what they want the most. "Corrrrr-naaaaa-lahhhhn, Corrrrr-naaaaa-lahhhhn, Corrrrr-naaaaa-lahhhhn" they cry, and the cry does not go unanswered.
La Chaille Cornalin Valais "Fully" 1998: Smells of candied strawberry-raspberry fruit with some dark shoe-polish undercurrents. Tastes light, decent and slightly jammy, not much concentration or complexity, just bright fruitiness and a light tarriness on the finish. Cornalin Nouveau?
A Franz-Joseph Mathier Cornalin de Salquenen Valais Mareotis 1999 is next, and it's got more guts. Deeper strawberry-raspberry aromas underlaid with dark earth, crisp in the cakehole, nice balance, more heft and weight. Drops off entirely on the finish but is quite pleasant nonetheless.
"THIS" announces Dressner, "Is the GOOD ONE." He ceremoniously plops the final bottle of cornalin in front of me. I peer at the label, dump the remains of my glass and pour a rinse from the GOOD ONE, but by the time I'm ready for an actual pour Dressner has re-lifted the bottle and moved on to his next victim. No GOOD ONE for me.
Cornalinless, I settle for a Sourdais Chinon Les Cornuelles 1995 that is hand-delivered by David Lillie. The food is beginning to arrive, and I suddenly realize that I am utterly famished.
Kane waltzes by, having thoughtfully saved me the last pour of a bottle of Domaine de Bellivière Les Giroflées Coteaux du Loir 1999. It's a pale salmon colored wine, with a beguiling and puzzling nose--ginger candy with traces of cinnamon... red earth... I don't know, this wine escapes me. Tastes smooth and feathery, with a slightly limpid feel at first that is buoyed by snappy acidity and tangy fruit. Strange, and I am forced to give up on it as I have consumed my ounce or two before I can parse it any further.
Now approaches a brace of Châteauneufi, first a Vieux Donjon Châteauneuf-du-Pape 1999: Black olives, red raspberry and saddle leather on the nose, smooth and easygoing in the gob. The fleshy red fruit spreads out gracefully on my tongue in warm layers of flavors. There's a certain meaty softness and lack of structure to the wine, it has Kaneish tendencies, but it's well put together and very friendly at the moment.
Next is an Eric Texier Châteauneuf-du-Pape Vieilles Vignes 1941: Quiet but amazingly youthful nose, light red berry-cassis fruit, opens up marginally with air but remains undemonstrative. At first the wine seems monolithically one-note red, tangy and tight, but soon some warm earthy tones flash on the finish and hint at future development before they are smothered in fine stern tannins. Way too young, has many of the same qualities that gave me pause in the 1999 version--give it another sixty years.
Someone shouts "Look out--a Parker wine!" about some woody Spanish thing that is making the rounds. Christian tastes it and is troubled: "I like the Parker wine," he says. "Does that make me a bad person?"
I put my hand on his shoulder in a brotherly gesture of compassion: "Today," I say, "we're all just winegeeks."
And as if to prove it here's a Taurasi Terradora 1996: Plenty of smoky oak here, along with dark tangy red fruit, ripe berries and cassis. Big upfront smoky-fruity rush, hollow in the midpalate, finishes with rough tannins. Ripe, oaky, undistinguished.
I pick up a bottle of Clos de Roilette Fleurie 1993, but it is spent. I glance around, and I see much animated conversation, but some have slipped quietly into the thousand-yard stare that has been the face of the city this week everywhere you go. If you ask someone "How are you doing?" the most common response is "Um... you know... like everybody else."
But there's wine here now, and friends.
A Roty Griottes-Chambertin 1992 comes around, just slightly corked. I pass it to Lisa for confirmation, and it gets the yellow flag, although the 5-yard, not the 15-yard penalty.
A Matrot Blagny Le Piece Sous le Bois 1998 is next on the scene: Cherry and cloves, very little sous-bois. Crisp, light, a small and easy wine that gives you some decent cherry-clovey fruit. Decent, not much heft.
I hear Lisa explaining to Carolyn that her first words to Robert were "You don't scare me, Callahan!" and then she begins to reopen their age-old feud about Burgundy (as an appellation) being as easy to understand as Bordeaux. Callahan protests plaintively "Oh, don't listen to me... I'm just a dope... I don't mean any harm..." and the combatants are reconciled. Carolyn mentions the monster SUV they've rented while they wait to see if their car (parked downtown) is still a car or just a heap of metal. "It's funny the perspective this gives you" she says, "I could see fretting about the car before this. But now it's just a car, it doesn't matter at all..." I nod, knowing what she means.
A Château Trotanoy Pomerol 1997 comes around, smelling of bright red gravelly fruit, cedar, touches of oregano. Tastes meaty and structured, a firm, assertive young wine with a bit of an attitude that turns towards silkiness, then firms back up again on the finish in a flurry of glassy tannins. Nice, young. Manuel makes a face.
Another oldster, a Domaine Sylvie Esmonin Gevrey-Chambertin Clos St. Jacques Première Cuvée 1941 hits my glass, and hits it in style, smelling airy and limestony-minerally over a sour cherry base, zingy in the nostrils, a bright and penetrating nose, whiplike. Tastes sharp, racy and stonily cherried, cranberry traces arise in the midpalate, fruit is hung on a spine like a steel spring, whee, coiled and crisp. Intense, lithe, impressive.
Good heavens, it's Loire shaman and new father Don Rice coming through the door! We offer our congratulations on his and Melissa's recent joyous arrival and he attempts to make a quick exit, but when he hears there are open bottles of '59 Vouvray on the premises he suddenly remembers that he needs to be here for awhile. Shockingly, just about now Mr. Connell is caught drinking water, slapped silly, and forced to go back to vino like a good lad.
Here's a Château Carconieux Médoc 1996. It's very decent, lightly graphitey over a base of easy red cassis fruit. Decent, a bit hollow. Shrug.
Kane bounces over: "Wanna try some crap?" I quickly take him up on his offer by sampling some Réserve des Fustiers Gigondas 1994. Tarry, stewed odors. Madereized, cooked, crap. Kane is right!
Château Keyfraya Comte de M.... 1997: Spicy-toasty red berry fruit. Ripe, simple, pleasant, a nondescript but perfectly decent wine.
Now is the toasting time of night: Andrew claims to have a speech to make, then reneges, but finally manages to mumble something brief and wacky. He is greeted with tumultuous applause.
There are several tributes to Joe, and I start to sense a theme brewing when Kane begins his little speech with "I've known Joe for XXX years..." It's up to young Master Dressner to trump with "If I remember correctly, I've known Joe for fifteen years now..." and proceed to note that this was the first time he'd seen Kevin talking and acting like a "Frat Boy," a charge that is not refuted.
Joe's father Sam stands: "I've known Joe for over seventy years now..." he begins, and carries on from there. As I said, I understand a few things about Joe better now.
When my turn arrives I clarify that I've known Joe since last week when he answered an ad in the Village Voice about filling out my birthday party, then offer some ruminations on how I should've padded the room by inviting my parents and kids too, and finally close with an indictment of the ITB types in attendance and a toast to the pure, amateur winegeeks. I don't know what any of it meant. I was just talking. We're all just talking until we can think of something to say.
Last reds now, a Tollot-Beaut Corton-Bressandes 1997, which smells earthy and spicy, cloves and horehound over light cherried hints. Light and somewhat dilute, turning towards bitterness on the finish.
A Château du Mansenoble Corbières 1995 is distinguished by its weighty, California-style bottle. Silky-smooth and ripe, plum-berry and smoky hints on the nose, plum-berry and smoky hints on the tongue. Nice enough, but rather generic.
Callahan is showing signs of either post-traumatic stress syndrome or advanced drunkenness or perhaps both, banging on the table and chanting "I want my dessert! I want my dessert!" in a childish singsong. Lisa does the only thing possible, which is pour hot coffee on his head and shoulders. It does the trick; he shuts up.
Domaine Moret Monet Saint-Maurice 1999 is surprisingly ripe, almost jammily red and blackfruity to smell. Tastes just as ripe, silky smooth and moving from dark fruit towards a tarry-licoricey streak. Happy ripe fruit, decent if not particularly pronounced acidity, a juicy-fruity fun little wine.
Some dessert wines come by--I take special note of the wine that came across oceans and continents from friends far away in foreign lands, a Klein Constantia Vin de Constance 1996. It's a medium gold color, and smells of sweet orange rind and spicy apple-honey-vanilla, yellow apple and caramel. Brightly acidic, it's tangy, almost puckery-tart, with baked yellow apple flavors and spicy cinnamon notes. Quite sweet, it approaches the viscous but is reined in by the strong acidic spine. Nice. A toast to our South African friends.
A Franz Haas Moscato Rosa Alto Adige 1999 is quite delicious, cherry-berry fruit and rose petal nose, fine concentration and sustain through a humming juicy finish, matte mouthfeel, just a surprisingly grippy sweet red to wrap your mouth around. Very nice.
I've had better bottles of Lustau Pedro Ximenez Solera San Emilio; this one smells and tastes like slightly stale box of raisins.
Here's another wine that came to New York through many friendly hands, a Romariz Colheita 1963. Tawny and rich, vibrantly walnutty and butteryscotchy aromatics. Quite sweet and intensely nuttily flavorful, not terribly layered or complex but a nice dense mouthful of tawny port.
I spy a bottle of Ravenswood Zinfandel Teldeschi 1997, but someone yells "This tastes like snake saliva!" and I can't bring myself to investigate further. Frankly I'm exhausted. The festivities may have reached a slightly manic level.
A Domaine du Traginer Banyuls Blanc Vin Doux Naturel 1998 is really pretty to smell, spicy muscat-like notes, sweet baked cinnamon-apple and pineapple-tropical hints. Crisp, medium-sweet, a pure tone of fruit like a yellow-amber laser. Really very nice, with the best balance of any of the sweeties, bracing acidity and a nimble mouthfeel and expressive, concentrated fruit with many facets. Really good.
Dressner, brooking no argument, picks up the tab for the evening and mutters that we might want to add the cost of dinner to any donations to the Red Cross or the police and firemen's relief fund.
At the last Lisa offers up a toast: "To the future of the City of New York, the greatest city on earth" and we drink, knowing well that the spirit of the city is not broken, but carries on around us even now in our absurd little rituals.