Sunday, December 28, 2008

Fifteen Rounds With Apollo Greed, or, You've Gotta Be $$$$ing Kidding Me


"But surely, Emperor," said Ausonius, "Surely the Gods would better favor the munificence you would demonstrate bestowing this wealth upon your subjects. The aqueduct at Nemausus is near collapse. . ."

There was a small knife now in Caligula's left hand, absently stroking the skin of a green apple.

"My dear poet, I am. . . disappointed," he began, his eyes on a painting hanging from the far wall. "Disappointed that a Roman of your renowned good taste would stand opposed to the most magnificent feast the world has ever seen. Spices are already en route from Persia and Thracian bulls have arrived for slaughter." The poet sighed. "Ausonius, this will be the ultimate legacy of my glorious reign. I asked you here because I wish your own Burdigalian wines to accompany the celebration. You will pour them beside me, your own glory recorded for all eternity. But if this offends you. . . you are free to go."

"Caesar," said Ausonius. He was unsure how to continue. "Please hear my humblest apologies. I would never deign to question your divine wisdom. It will be the honor of my life to stand beside you on this wonderful night. I will send for my finest wines at once."

"Thank you, Ausonius." The emperor let some time pass. "You may go." Ausonius kissed his outstretched hand and left.

Caligula stabbed the apple. "He is never to speak before the Senate again. No poet is ever to again." White knuckles twisted the knife until the fruit's core cracked and split into three chunks. "Fanciful, idealistic hearts--incapable of understanding matters of state. How dare he attack my decisions about the welfare of Rome?" He turned to Macro, the centurion at his right.

"Shall I inform him of your displeasure, Caesar?" the soldier asked.

"Yes," hissed Caligula. "And Macro--" Macro paused, having started for the door.

"Bring back every drop of his blood."


A storm descended on the afternoon of the feast. Two men died in the scramble to erect tents in the palace garden. Caligula sulked in his chambers all day, occasionally snapping orders for things he neither needed nor wanted. Late in the afternoon he told his head servant to cancel the event and send everyone away. Having survived the post longer than any of his predecessors, the old man knew better and simply nodded. He had a dram of morphine sent to the emperor and continued directing the chaos in the garden.

The storm continued into the evening, but by then Caligula was under the tents in full regalia and apparent good spirits. The meager attendance was lost on him as he drank prodigiously from a dark bottle labeled with ornate Gallic script and spoke loudly to no one in particular. Guests ate ravenously, moreso out of nervousness than than appetite. Macro carved the first bull at sunset, and the eighth three hours later.

Caligula, now hopelessly drunk, was haranguing a senator at the central table. The squat politician's gestures of agreement were punctuated by reflexive lurches backwards when the emperor spat or leaned into his face to underscore a point. Finally the senator, himself saturated with meat and drink, turned sideways and emptied his gullet into a shrub. The table howled at the percussive retches harmonizing with the damp cadence of vomit striking soil.

The emperor joined the laughter at first but was too intoxicated to experience joy. He looked indifferently around his feast until he seized Macro in a long, expressionless eye contact, then raised his bottle and drank; unctuous, deep red.


Meanwhile, with the American Empire declining and falling around my ankles, I banished all dialogue from my brain and took the first sip of Chateau d'Yquem 1988.

So you're a dime-a-case wine nerd: You don't have a swinging dick cellar, but you do own a tulip-shaped tasting glass, you can find Yecla on a map, touching a real Cheval Blanc label excites you indiscreetly, and somewhere along the line you've swallowed a few drops of really exquisite juice. The prospect of drinking Yquem '88 is going to occupy your daydreams for weeks. And so it did for this dweeb after floating the notion of a potluck, a potpowerball, to eight fellow pilgrims.

"With your best bottles in one hand and your best Escoffier impression in the other, the whole will spill like glowing lava over the sum of its parts," said I. Or maybe it was "Bring it on!" One best bottle was the big Y, chanced into a friend's collection by a set of circumstances that don't matter here. Fourteen others showcased different faces of scarcity, and like flags on a mini-golf course served as guideposts for a 360-minute dinner that unfolded in shameproof degrees.

I haven't had much caviar outside of the orange measles speckling $4 California rolls at quickie sushi joints, so a tin of domestic (no profits for Putin/Ahmadinedingdong) sturgeon eggs destined for creme fraiche-schmeared blini was an exotically exemplary way to kick things off. And when the aroma of the ocean distilled to a concentrated essence hooks up with Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 1990, you just feel like finding a revolution to grind beneath your ibexskin boot. Few things get my mojo working like champagne in its last years of bright yellow color. An old-souled eighteen, Grande Dame 1990 was brassy and rich with a fizz so profound it felt like The Brothers Karamazov tapped in morse code on the tongue.

As insurance against anticlimax, we opened the Yquem next. This is not a wine that invites food-pairing creativity from mortals. So it was seared foie gras on toasted brioche with balsamic and sherry vinegar reduction. A lump of Roquefort stood by on each plate as, hah!, a palate cleanser.

Monsieur Lur Saluces, what have you done? The laser acidity hit me first, even ahead of a sweetness that I doubt exists anywhere else on earth. I felt compelled to make mental tasting notes, knowing this would be my only chance for a long time to codify MY OWN IMPRESSION OF CHATEAU D'YQUEM. No dice, of course. I did picture the candied peel of an especially edenic orange after the third or fourth sip, but try as I might it was so overwhelming I just couldn't bend it like Broadbent. Whatever. Half the bottle was still there, waiting.

Ordurvs over, the idea was to have whites before reds. A silky pea and basil soup stropped the razor edges of F.X. Pichler Gruner Veltliner Federspiel "Klostersatz" 2006 and Helfrich Riesling Grand Cru "Steinklotz" 2005. Pichler is a freaking genius. Every time fate has thrown his wines my way, my definition of "intensity" has been stretched, strained, ripped to confetti. I love them all.

Diver scallops in an eloquent cantaloupe-mint sauce propped up fatter wines. First, the symmetrically balanced Rustenberg "Five Soldiers" Chardonnay 2006, the finest non-Burgundy chard I've had excluding Dan Goldfield's single vineyard Sonoma bulls-eye. Then, two Chenin Blancs--De Morgenzon 2006, a stately ambassador from the cultivar's adopted home, and Clos de la Coulee de Serrant 2004, Nicolas Joly's argument for Chenin's immortality.

A word on Coulee de Serrant--legendary as much for its quality as its winemaker's insistence that that the berries are only harvested under a waxing gibbous moon with tungsten carbide pruning shears soaked for exactly seven hours in a baptismal font (not exactly true), this incredible wine is a front-runner for the greatest white I've ever drunked. After decanting about 90 minutes before pouring, the cognac/Pale Ale color forecasted something very special:

Liquid pennies from heaven. Bracingly dry with a hazelnutty depth that one usually only encounters in things oxidized, this wine illuminates every centimeter of the palate like a pinball bleeping bonus lights as it hurtles downramp. More, please, forever.

Reds began with Argyle "Spirithouse" Pinot Noir 1999 and Pisoni Pinot Noir 1998. Duck confit, duh. Spirithouse packed more luscious fruit than I was expecting from a 1990s American pinot--maybe I assumed they were all veggie-flavored ersatz Burgundies back then. Wrong! An eerie yarn explaining the proprietary name lent a toasty campfire vibe. The Pisoni, then, was a visceral, "wow, this is really #*!%ing good" wine. I almost let the lamb and hen-of-the-woods mushroom ravioli I was tending disintegrate in the pot--couldn't keep my face out of the glass.


We also had:
  • Tenuta Dell'Ornellaia 2005
  • Bodegas Los Astrales Ribera del Duero 2005
  • Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2004
  • Chateau Branaire-Ducru, St.-Julien, 1995
  • Witch Creek Winery Aglianico 2006
  • Sandeman Royal Corregidor Rich Oloroso Sherry
Sorry to go to digest form here, but I feel this account Thelma and Louising into the abyss of long-winded wine bullshit. Also, my senses were blurring at this point in the dinner. Getting sloshed with an Ornellaia coming down the pipe is dumb anywhere, but what the hell was I supposed to do--spit the Yquem? Or maybe just not have any delusions about the effect of eleven glasses of wine, and front-load the lineup with the best of the best. Or just cut the "lineup" down to size. Maybe dinners like this are bad idea. I don't have a job at the moment, and this was six hours I could have spent looking for one. Or doing anything other than simulating wealth that should be punishable by death these days (kidding, kidding, stop writing my name on that list, c'mon).

Though the expense was modest--the bottles I contributed were bought in better times, and the tab for ground lamb shank, a few ounces of foie gras, and flowers for the table wasn't crippling--an evening like this leaves a disorienting reference point for pleasure. This isn't the venue to dissect the morality of indulgence, but suffice it to say I indulge all the damn time. Regardless of whether spiking the luxury mainline like the above-described garden of gustatory delights is inherently OK, fact is that doing it makes licking Mammon's boots after every quotidian "do I really need this -----?" dilemma that much easier. I can live with this, uneasily.

Now, the experience of drinking Yquem and Grande Dame and Coulee de Serrant and Ornellaia is surely worth something from the appreciation side. The clueless conclusion would be that once the universe's only Premier Cru Superieur weaves its spell on the nervous system, no Barsac will ever be man--er, wine enough to satisfy the lucky drinker. I think not. Possibilities can only open when a grape/region/whatever's ultimate potential is in the sensory trophy case. Certain bottles of garbage will be more quickly identified, as will undervalued lovelies that you always liked but never realized tasted almost like Yquem! Another happy result is a generally more perceptive palate. After surviving the beautiful ordeal of the indescribable--yes, they are indescribable, sorry Suckling--aromas and flavors in wines like these, the simpler characteristics of more earthbound bottles are easier to pin down and name.


Did you hear about the Park Avenue tax lawyer who volunteered at the soup kitchen and poured one of his Lafite 1959s into the minestrone? No, I just made that up. Shut up about the recession. We'll review the meaning of living within our means, then live the hell out of the whole thing.

The dinner guests were long gone, and I had been cleaning for three hours. It was 4 AM, my fingertips were shriveled by bleach, and I had manslaughtered two Riedels and a big Pyrex. Atop the begging-for-mercy dishwasher was a sweaty half-glass of Yquem. I shot it like a double Jameson and flicked off the light.

Ebrius occurrit quoties tibi, vinum
Non nimium, dicis, sed bibit ille malum.

Recent notables:
  • Red Hook Long Hammer IPA - Well here's everything great about IPAs--perfumy, ass-kicking bitter hops, a little seamlessly-integrated sugar. Not exactly "extreme" but very intense. Though as a Brooklynite, I think the Red Hook Brewery (Portsmouth, NH) should have to relocate or change its name.
  • Red Tail Lager - Two things going for it, going all the way--it's one of the finest beers (the finest, IMH,H,O) to cost typically under $8 per six-pack, and it's a really delicious, complex lager. I don't find many of the latter. Singed orange color, big barley taste, refreshing concise finish. I'm stocking up for the summer already.
  • Willi Schaefer Riesling Kabinett Mosel Graacher Domprobst 2007 - Beguiling perfume of peaches and lime, initially chalky in the mouth with citrus stuffing that falls halfway between lime and grapefruit. Enough residual sugar to put it safely in the "off-dry" basket. This is great stuff--if it were half the price I'd drink it three times a week.
  • Chateau La Vielle Cure 2005 - It's Joe Calzaghe's cocked right hand--just leading you around the ring for now, not quite ready to make your head spin. One senses tightly wound nuggets of really delicious fruit not asserting themselves at the moment over strong acidity and tannins. Still a great Bordeaux value, this is one worth laying down and having next year. (Note: LVC's second wine '05 is kickin', right now.)
  • Chateau Clarke 2004 -Drinking this made me realize, with some melancholy, that 2004 was a long time ago. This is drinking great. When I worked in a wine shop a year ago I operated under the assumption that '04 Bordeaux wasn't "ready". Maybe true for Leoville-Barton, but not this Rothschild outpost in Listrac, which combines soft, giving Merlot touchstones (blackberry, stewed raspberry, licorice) with a stout graphitey backbone that proves (to me, at least) that the left bank is still keeping it real.
  • Caol Ila Islay Single Malt Scotch 12 Yr. - A mellow Islay that spares us the hyper-assertive smoke of Laphroaig or Ardbeg. Nice, plush (tropical?) fruit aromas add a welcome dimension to the nose.
  • Highland Park Orkney Single Malt Scotch 18 Yr. - Much has been written about this whisky, sometimes with an extra jigger of hyperbole. That aside, it is hedonistic and very good. I don't think I've had a better single malt. Glenmorangie Nectar d'Or is close, but an unambiguous silver medalist. This has a layer of flavor that is easy to understand if you can picture the difference between brown butter and regular melted butter. And a very long finish. Towers above M********s that are far more expensive.


Alisha said...

I'm glad you're giving the Argyle - and de facto the Oregon pinot scene - the credit it deserves. If you can get your hands on a bottle of their brut, it is divine.

Where pinots are concerned, keep eyes out for Panther Creek, Ken Wright Cellars, Cameron. Amazing things.

Fabulous blog - I envy your highly-cultivated oenophile's palate.

JBH said...

thanks--glad a kindred spirit is reading some of these long-winded things.

two of my drinking buddies here are devout portlanders (you can sort of see them towards the right of the dim photo at the bottom of this one) and most of the really good oregon wines i've had have been via them. they brought the argyle to this dinner and also introduced me to ken wright, patricia green, archery summit, et al. i've heard of the argyle brut--i think wine spectator said something to the effect of it being the best american sparkling wine ever.