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You and your big vermouth

Perucchi Vermouth Rojo “Gran Reserva” (Spain) – A rich mélange of herbs and cut grass, with a red tinge (not just to the color) that reminds me of a high-quality red wine vinegar minus the acetic acid. Very enticing. (6/09)

[rosso & pet-nat]

Go froth & conquer

The “moment” arrived about ten years ago. Perhaps earlier? Memory’s forever bent by the convex lens of so very many wine glasses. Nor do I remember where, or who…though I have some guesses. I do remember what, though. It was Lini, and as expected it came in red…but it also came in pink, and white. The rosso was disruptive and I wasn’t yet prepared to understand it, the rosato was pleasant enough, but it was the bianco that grappled with my attention.

“Lambrusco comes in white?”

In theory, I’d known this. I’d read the texts, eyes flickering over the allowed expressions in the hilarious anarchy of Italy’s DOCs. Mostly, aside from a very small handful of internationally famous appellations with vaguely restrictive codes (regulations that would be impossible for any self-respecting Italian winemaker to ignore), the “laws” seemed to be the same everywhere. Make it white, pink, red, sparkling, dry, sweet, fortified, aromatized, or really whatever you feel like doing…

But still. “Lambrusco comes in white?”

I drank a lot of that white, over the next few years. As a by-the-glass pour it metastasized all over Boston, where I lived and wrote back then. Why not? It was delicious, and — perhaps more importantly, on the commercial side — it was inexpensive. I occasionally dabbled in the rosato. But the rosso…the rosso…

There lay the actual struggle, even though I didn’t realize it at the time. Keep Reading

First we take Manhattan…

[sandra bullock takes a sniff]A scientist, an artist, and an artisan walk into a bar…

…and order a cocktail. Because they can actually have a conversation about that. Wine? Impossible. On that subject, the three shall never speak, nor (even more tragically) listen.

The long silence of this blog has been accompanied by a significant personal focus on cocktails both in concert with and in lieu of wine. There are more differences than similarities between the two disciplines, despite both being founded on the pleasurable boozification of daily life, and one of the biggest is that in the cocktail world, analytic inquiry is not relegated to — or worse, dismissed as being the unseemly meddling of — industrialists.

Some of the very worst biochemical travesties in the natural wine realm come from those who not only avoid science, but are actively hostile to it and whatever lab-coated hyper-globalist monsters stand behind it. This while their case-stacking and exceedingly wealthy counterparts in the mass-market realm dismiss not only the raving unwashed hippies at the other fringe, but any notion of wine being more than a soulless recipe custom-fit to a receptive demographic.

Cocktail folk, to their great credit, aren’t afraid to poke these monsters with syringes and pipettes, to see how and why they bleed. Witness this analysis, for example, which questions whether or not there are actual recipes — golden proportions, if you will — that transcend ingredient identity. The wine community will see no similar effort, because the Olivier Cousins of the world would never read it, and because Constellation Brands has already profited from it.

There are a few exceptions here and there. Some winemakers are actual technologists, like Clark Smith. Some are disruptively interrogative pebbles in the natural wine machinery, like Eric Texier. Though they start with completely different philosophies about wine’s essence, and their products evidence relatively oppositional goals, in actual practice they don’t let results stand in the way of inquiry and testability. Sadly, such people are thin on the ground in the wine community, and when they exist they tend to be gobbled up by the megacorps.

This somewhat depressive muse comes not as a result of the above-linked article, but after reading this brilliant thought experiment on the intersection between aroma, sweetness, and sense. Go read it; it is eminently worth your time.

I’m somewhat hesitant to respond to this terrific essay in the manner I’m about to, because I don’t want to give the impression that I’m in serious disagreement with it. I’m not. A great deal of its foundation is based on subjectivity (because it’s about taste), and with that there’s no fruitful argument. The rest is thoughtful, forceful, and challenging. I think it proposes some extremely penetrating notions, and even if they prove to be wrong or partially wrong (though I don’t know how one would “prove” such things), rarely is the starting point pinned so far, and so authoritatively, into the latter stages of the conversation.

Despite my now well-established cocktail enthusiasm, I don’t yet feel expert enough to respond to the spiritous specifics in the essay, so my responses there will remain general. Regarding the wine-related portions, however, I do have some reasonably-founded thoughts. This will be a somewhat scattered essay, on my part, but the source material filled me with knotty mental puzzle pieces, few of them neatly-knit into a cohesive narrative.

Let’s start with the lowest-hanging fruit:

This lesson was first mastered by port wine producers who created the 18×6 template. For port, 18% alcohol puts the wine at the minimum of preservation so as not to be a distraction.

I think it’s an easy but understandable error to attribute intentionality to such choices, at least with the confidence this essay implies. The fermentation-stoppage alcohol employed in the Douro has varied wildly over the years and across producers, with both innocuous and deformative effects on the organoleptics, the aromatics, and the perceived balance of the finished beverage. And it’s little use to speak of Port as a single entity, anyway; an aged Colheita and a baby-cheeked Ruby don’t express balance in the same fashion, nor do a White and a Vintage. It’s possible that there are known ratios for each category, but I submit that ratios are quickly superseded by house styles.

Further, Port is an interesting example in that its tinkering winemakers and marketers have (like their counterparts in Champagne) long exploited differing cultural responses to the beverage. Drier, more oxidative Ports are popular in one country, while tooth-decaying young-Ruby sweetness reigns in another. In a third, Port may be more or less unsalable as part of a wholesale rejection of “classic” sweet wines.

That said, Port is correctly identified by the essayist as, at its core, a procedural, “recipe” wine…in which category it is joined by Champagne and most other sparkling wines (save pet-nats), Sherry, and nearly the entire universe of fortified wines. To my knowledge, Port doesn’t have a Marco de Bartoli-style iconoclast (Infantado would be the closest I’ve tasted) working to reduce or eliminate all but the most necessary interventions and producing atypical yet incomparable results along the way, but it could. And then we might see whether or not the received ratios are actually all that golden.

Champagne, however, is currently littered with such iconoclasts, and what they’ve demonstrated amongst all the strict interventions and recipes is that there is a multiplicity of positive responses to the sugar/alcohol/non-sugar dry extract/ester quartet. In other words, subjectivity of form and response are a greater factor than the linked essay allows. Which is still very far from saying it’s wrong, only that if it indeed applies to cocktails, it still might not apply to wine. But if it doesn’t apply to wine, yet wine is being used to support the thesis…well, there’s clearly more work to be done.

Are there demonstrably successful ratios that fling wines from shelves into customers’ baskets? Maybe, but I’m deeply suspicious. I’m particularly uncertain that the market demonstrates the validity of such truisms. When’s the last time you laid down a case of Port?

I thought so.

Drinkers of dry wines complain that even alcohol contents as high as 15% can be distractions from aroma when there is not residual sugar.

That’s a massive simplification of an extremely vociferous debate, though I’m quite certain the author knows it. Response to obvious alcohol is variate and personal, but the crux is always balance-in-context. The most strident anti-alcohol ranters have likely tasted (for example) Ridge zinfandels far above their personal thresholds that seemed poised and appealing despite being only a few ordinals shy of actual Port. It’s almost never the number, though the number is a convenient whipping boy. It’s the imbalance and the entire set of corollary effects — fruit-sweetness to the point of overripeness, textural issues, structural abandonment — that form the entirety of the objection to high alcohol in dry wines.

Let’s get this out of the way first: this is an easily-manipulated response, manageable with tricks both crude and subtle. Clark Smith claims that “balance points” for a given wine exist at multiple alcohol levels, and while it is (or was) his business to use technology to bring wines to those points, I’ve no reason to believe he’s lying. But as the most volatile component of wine, alcohol can be trapped or shunted by a studied choice of tasting vessel. In fact, the entirety of the wine-tasting rigamarole is based around this and related concepts. Anyone who’s purchased a boozy domestic pinot tasted from a narrow stem and carted it home to their wide-bottomed Burgundy bowls knows what I’m talking about.

The more interesting consideration here is a utilitarian one. Is the wine being employed as a cocktail? Or is it a component of a food-centered ritual?

I submit that of all the differences between wine and cocktails, the greatest is that one is normatively intended to accompany food and the other is not. I say “normatively” because there is a very lucrative subset of wine consumers who do, in fact, drink wine as a cocktail. That they will perceive issues of balance, aromatics, and sweetness differently is immediately obvious.

Wine, even with residual sugar, can be (and in the majority is) intended as a companion. A supplement. An enhancement of the food, or itself enhanced by the gustatory accompaniment, but in any case only one element in a more complex work. Cocktails, however, are generally considered in isolation. To bend one context to the other, wine (as traditionally employed) is not the cocktail, wine is the vermouth in the Manhattan. (That vermouth is in fact wine seems massively apropos.) Whereas a Manhattan is not the wine, a Manhattan is the entire meal.

It follows, then, that wine-as-cocktail has a fundamentally different set of sugar/alcohol/ester relationships than wine-as-food-partner. I’d submit that the bifurcation of wine response is most profoundly expressed by that division. And thus, it inevitably follows that while the science of organoleptics and the personal art of sensorial response are theoretically the same, they are inevitably divided by utility. To speak definitively about balance in wine is to skip past the essential, first-principle “how.”

And perhaps also “where.” The structural theory of wine, as grounded by history in the Old World (and Older World), is based on a cuisine that increasingly exists as a cultural artifact and is fading nearly everywhere. Many of the truly paradigmatic wines, like age-worthy red Bordeaux, remain unconflicted only with the most restrained of dishes. The modern trend towards fusion-in-all-things and pan-national culinary polyamory has almost destroyed the traditions that support things like structure-driven cab/merlot blends, which is instead now a market almost entirely supported by icon-seekers in multiple cultures, and people whose diets somewhat inexplicably consist of steak after steak after steak. I don’t say this to criticize or judge — people should eat, drink, and buy what they want — but to point out how the field of play has shifted: the most dedicated wine consumers no longer consume a diet that supports most of the traditional assumptions about structure, aromatics, balance…and yes, sugar.

We have long been living in a gustatory world that should wholeheartedly embrace off-dry wines, as Asian influences permeate nearly everything we eat and even our driest, most animalistic dishes tend to employ some sort of sweet counterpoint. This while the Germans, who mastered the most brilliant wines to accompany this sort of eating, have fled such styles wholesale in the pursuit of magisterial dry rieslings (which they can now make with steady confidence, thanks to climate change). Certain umami wines, like Burgundy, have proven unexpectedly adept at marrying world cuisines, but there is an entire universe of bibulous assumptions that has been somewhat unquestioningly abandoned by the modern diner. To cheer or regret this movement is to miss the point; it is, and the wines must respond or be rendered antiquated.

But even as wine and food tastes bend inexorably to an unfamiliar horizon, is it possible that spirits confound this trend, falling into neatly predictable ratios that transcend the vicissitudes of the ages? Perhaps. And perhaps it is my natural cynicism that makes me doubt it. A moment in time is little more than a vivisection. Perhaps we can definitively characterize a given moment and support it with data, but I don’t know that our firmest conclusions will be of much use to the swillers of 2040. The very reasons for cocktails in their traditional forms have profoundly changed over the interregnum between creation and our modern revivalist fetishization. Their utility would be slightly more familiar, but even that cloth is fraying. Do I think that today’s answers will apply tomorrow?

Honestly, I don’t. They certainly haven’t in wine. It’s true that cocktails have a much more intensely-tended root system, and I think it’s entirely possible that the “core curriculum” of cocktails will be preserved for eternity, to be admired and learned and introduced by bartenders to curious stool-perchers until the heat-death of the universe. But is what I just described “cocktails” as actually experienced, or is that just a foundation on which many future and highly differentiated edifices will be built?

I don’t know.

The brash attentional nature of these Manhattans are thought to dispel anxiety and with that said we might have just found their motive. If the Manhattan simply becomes a vehicle for attentional therapy there quite a few ways to skin the cat.

In fact, this is where and how the wine world divides most neatly in twain. The largest cohort of drinkers most certainly seeks familiar and repeatable commodification. This is a hyper-competitive market obsessed with pricing, positioning, and marketing minutiae. The rest are the cornucopia of niches who must be micro-marketed to by a haphazard chain of producers, shippers, and outlets, but who consume the vast majority of labels and of media generated in service of those wines. The former are the wine industry as an industry, the latter are the the entire reason that the greater wine industry has persisted and blossomed for millennia.

Do people who order a Manhattan without modification want the edges pre-filed to fit neatly within expected parameters? That’s the assertion here, and it’s likely to be true for the mass of drinkers, but what of the enthusiast? Is the delicate propriety of a safe Manhattan what they’re after? Do they even order Manhattans? Or do they order something from a creatively-crafted list, or a more touchy-feely cocktail like a Sazerac? I can’t answer for the market, but I know that I prefer the latter; Manhattans I save for bars I can’t trust (a cruelty I bafflingly inflict upon myself given the pitiful “success” of the results) or home.

It may be that this is a significant difference between cocktails and wine, in that the creatively important segment of the wine market (in terms of sustaining interest in something other than a mere alcohol delivery system) is very much obsessed with “vehicles for attentional therapy.” Indeed, there seems little other reason for most non-commodity wines to exist. No one needs a hundred new natural wine labels any more than they needed hundreds of differentiated Burgundian lieux dits. But we have them, and we embrace them.

If our motive is to thwart complacency it might make sense to have a formula forced upon on us through random old school free pouring where we will just learn to love it. Many people enjoy this randomness, but we are quick to chalk it up to a lack of understanding their options. Free pouring and random recipes are cocktail movement blasphemy but they may not have been without positive effects.

…and this gets to the very crux of the issue. Historically, we have “learned to love” all manner of contradictory things. We would not now drink Port with steak and Sauternes with roast game birds, even though to do otherwise would once have been to challenge long-settled wisdom. We do not tend to drink hyper-sweet wines as apéritifs if “we” are Americans, fearing them destructive to the dry whites or reds that are sure to follow, but the French ritualize that very behavior. We do not love resinated wines, unless we are a certain sort of Greek traditionalist, and we have abandoned aromatized wines to the cocktail folk for their blending experiments…only to have them turn around and offer those wines unadorned as breezy, delicious alternatives to cocktails. Apparently, the simple act of adding a citrus peel transforms something that is very obviously wine into not-wine, a categorial exclusion that is based on shifting cultural appreciation of aromatics and approaches to balance. Why do we consider Dolin Blanc a cocktail beverage and Conundrum a wine? Because we’ve decided so, whether via choice, marketing, or acculturation. No better reason.

Whether or not we are naturally inclined towards any aspect of wine (like sweetness) or require assimilation (as we likely do with tannin), it’s fairly clear from the multiplicity of wine styles that we are a constellation of opinions regarding balance. The industrialists have chosen recipes (and there are many) that are, by and large, repellent to enthusiasts. A cloudy Riffault Sancerre is predictably shocking to a Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc drinker, but it isn’t any more likely to appeal to a regular buyer of Vatan Sancerre. And what of the late-picking Cotats and their ilk, who occasionally lose their AOC privileges despite the historical precedent for off-dry Sancerre? Or the opposing camps in Marlborough: one favoring enzyme-enhanced pyrazines and the other off-dry fruit salad from their sauvignons, while a third wave skirts the perimeter with uninoculated, texturally dense alternatives? There’s a strong and opinionated market of enthusiasts for all these wines, and in fact it could easily be argued that “learning to love” not just what is, but what is developing, is a foundational motivation for a very large number of wine consumers.

I often think that this trend is almost exactly reversed in the cocktail realm. The “new/now/nextness” in the wool-vested world frequently comes from adulterating vodkas and whiskies that are almost entirely rejected by the cognoscenti. Want to get cocktail geeks excited? Resurrect a lost formula. “Unimprove” a modernized product, like Lillet. Convince the Amer Picon folks to export to the States. Want to bore a room full of wine geeks to tears of indifference? Tell them you’re going back to Hermitage-ing classed-growth Bordeaux, just like they did it in the old days. The deafening silence of crickets and empty bank accounts will follow. But tell them you’re kveri-fermenting and skin-macerating a white from some Latvian grape they’ve never heard of, and the wine nerds shall flock.

“Thwarting complacency” is the raisin d’être (sorry, I apparently never tire of that pun) of wine geekery. As for “randomness,” it’s the very essence of the natural wine movement. Is there a “lack of understanding their options” at work? Perhaps among some of the most indifferent True Believers, but the majority understand their options very well, and have specifically and deliberately rejected complacency in favor of its opposite.

Though I still don’t know if they’d prefer free-poured cocktails.

It’s fascinating to consider the intellectual and emotional tension between the two worlds, actually. That the scientific perfectability of a Manhattan could be seen as desirable makes sense from the perspective of my inner cocktail enthusiast. My longer-time companion the internal wine enthusiast finds the very idea tedious, at best. I wish I had a verifiable explanation for how these fields have arrived at opposite conclusions regarding irreducibility. I don’t. I can only speculate that the difference is that cocktails are, by design, multivariate complexity unified by craft, whereas wines are singularities that must express both authenticity and complexity with, preferably, as little resort to craft as possible. (Here, of course, I speak only of non-industrial wines.) But this is only a contention, not a demonstration.

Some of the most fascinating work in the linkedy essay revolves around the tension between aroma and sugar. For example:

Among people with well entrenched acquired tastes, when we flatten a path to olfaction by holding all the the other senses at their most innocuous (a sweet drink) the aroma presented must be extraordinary or the experience will be seen as unharmonic.

Again, there is a clear difference when the subject is wine rather than cocktails. Industrial exemplars of the category — Blue Nun, Apothic, and so forth — don’t really have any aromatic extraordinariness at all. The current vogue for moscato certainly highlights aromatic explosiveness, but are the painted-whore charms of muscat really extraordinary? Rarely. Industrial wines that rely on sugar to sell themselves, of which the once-triumphant Kendall Jackson Chardonnay and its usurper Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio are the exemplars, are severely aromatically muted compared to their non-industrial brethren.

Yet I definitely agree that an overtly sweet cocktail must work harder for my attentions…proportionally along a continuum of same… than a drier cocktail. If I’m to truly adore a muscat, I need more than sugar and a flower shop/fruit salad detonation, yet access to those organoleptic realms is only hindered by muscat’s lurid varietal signature.

Again, I wonder at the reason for this separation. Wine lovers appreciate lavish aromatics, certainly — witness the rhapsodies writ with the ink of Burgundy or Barolo — but there is hesitation when it comes to overtly sweet wines. Instead, adoration usually only comes when the wines sugars have retreated; not in measure, of course, but in comparison to the maturing varietal, terroir, and winemaking signatures that blossom with age, rendering the wine “less sweet” to the palate. There are people who drink young Layon for the overwhelming sugar, certainly — most of them are French — but no serious aficionado reaches for their corkscrew until the decades-long process of drawing forth chenin’s elegant, earthen complexity has at least begun.

Here’s where I come around to a conclusion, of sorts, regarding the Boston Apothecary essay. Do I think there’s value in the search for a paradigmatic Manhattan? Yes. Immensely so. There may even be one, though I harbor more doubt than the essayist. But as is so often true, it’s quite possible that it’s the search that provides more value than the conclusion.

Mostly, I regret the lack of similar inquiry into the science of wine’s sensorium. Not because I want a One True Sommerberg Riesling, but because I think the people who would most benefit from a robust examination are leaving the questions (and thus the answers) to people who make wines they hate. Personally, I abhor artisanal wine’s too-frequent rejection of science, and hope for a day in which both the most vapid industrialist and the most committed naturalist can agree that biochemistry is an important tool.

And now I’m going to make a Manhattan. Because I’m thirsty.

Stool pigeons

huntington garden cactusPizzeria Mozza – One fewer barstool. That’s all I ask, Pizzeria Mozza. I know you’re busy, I know it’s the lunch rush, but please: one fewer barstool. Especially as the guy next to me eats pizza like a fifties running back, all stiff-arms and flying elbows.

What? I’m supposed to talk about the food? Um, why? So they can do more business?

Oh, hell. The pizza’s good. Not “the best,” whatever that could possibly mean, but only the very stingy would fail to praise it in some measure. As is my tradition, I go for the strangest-sounding one: stinging nettles, finocchiona, and cacio di roma. It’s not a combo for the salt-averse, but other than brief punctuations of grumpy old man elbow it’s a pleasure to wolf down.

The wine list is all Italian, and written by someone who actually knows Italian wine; the “best” (there’s that awful word again) are rarely present, but the “very good” – no doubt cheaper and thus more appealing for this concept – are, in quantity. I want to give special praise to the pitchered portion of the list, perfect for a solo diner for whom one glass just isn’t going to be enough.

And one fewer barstool. I beg you. Really. You won’t go out of business.

Brovia 2010 Roero Arneis (Piedmont) – I’d say that this wine serves as a constant counterpoint to those who insist that the Piedmont doesn’t produce interesting white wines, but of course a handful of fine arneis (and the very occasional nascetta) do not a robust counterargument make. Dense, with just enough light and space to let the apple blossom and honey (dry, dry honey) through, as they ooze with white powdered minerality. (11/11)


huntington library terraceCole’s – The originators of the French dip, are they? Well, whatever. I’m not here to eat, I’m here to drink. And the bar looks very promising.

I think many visitors to LA (and I’d number myself among them) think only of flashy surface ephemeralism and sprawling Mexican-influenced architecture when they picture the city. But any actual resident will correct this: that’s not the city, that’s the greater metro area. Downtown, where the high-rises are, there’s plenty of American Dream classicism, though sometimes you have to look around for it.

That architectural style I just invented out of thin air is the bold mélange of classic European borrowings, Art Deco stylings, and our-horizons-are-limitless triumphalism that can be seen all over the industrial heartland, but which reached its absolute pinnacle (and continues to this day) in Chicago.

Of course, Chicago aside, the “Dream” is mostly in decay and ruins all over said industrial heartland (feel free to insert your own analogy here; I try to avoid politics on this blog), and that’s mostly true in Los Angeles as well. Still, there’s an obvious attempt at revitalization, and one of the unexpected benefits thereof is that some really cool spaces are once more being trafficked by eyes that can enjoy them.

Such is Cole’s bar – we finally get around to the purpose of my little digression – which looks like a Smithsonian version of what it must have been a long, long time ago. The place I really want to go is The Varnish, the restaurant’s craft cocktail enclave, but it opens too late for my purposes. And I’m assured by Those Who Know that the cocktails here are excellent, which assurance seems more likely when I see the progenitors – Old Fashioned, Sazerac, Martinez, etc. –given menu prominence before one gets to the usual diversions and extrapolations.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t turn out quite that way. Some of the cocktails (mostly the diversions and extrapolations) are quite fine. Others…not so much. My Old Fashioned is watery. A companion’s Martinez contains something that’s gone horribly stale (the obvious culprit is the maraschino liqueur, because one would think they’d go through vermouth rather quickly at a bar like this). It turns out that preservation is a mixed…perhaps that should mixologized…blessing.

High sahtea

Dogfish Head “Sahtea” (Delaware) – Ale with juniper berries and black chai. And I drink it full of amusement at the number of times I’m asked, rather out of the blue while browsing any craft beer aisle, what I think of Dogfish Head. Because this pretty much encapsulates my answer: they can be extraordinary, they can be awful, I love the iconoclasm, but I’m not sure a good portion of what they make is actually beer. (Except, of course, in the most basic form of the definition: the base alcohol on which the product is built.) That is to say: some of what I like…and hate…is based on the premise that I, the consumer, don’t actually want one of the many variations on beer, but that I want whatever the thing is that Dogfish Head has bottled. In this, I think it’s like a chinato or a vermouth from the wine world…yes: wine, technically, and yet not “wine” as a drinker would conceive of it when choosing between it and another beverage.

So this is chai, first and foremost, with a little bit of beery froth. I’m not the juniper berries add an obviously separable character, but on the other hand their high-toned, patently gin-like treble does make itself gently but persistently known…though without knowing the source, the sensation (rather than the actual aroma) is not entirely unlike that of slightly oversteeped tea. This is really excellent, but “beer” it is pretty much not. That’s OK, though.


Dogfish Head Punkin Ale (Delware) – One of my favorite pumpkin ales, though a little of such brews goes a long way, and I’m glad it’s a purely seasonal dalliance. Most lean rather heavily and overtly on lush stews of baking spices, and while I can appreciate those if done with “restraint” (the term barely applies to these lavish displays of additive brewology), this is something a little purer: it really does taste of both pumpkin and beer, melded and confident, with the minor vegetal bitterness of the former and the grain of the latter. (9/11)

Three days in New Amsterdam

[drinking]It’s a birthday ending in zero. Why not spend it in New York?

Day 1

After two weeks squiring French friends around Boston, to Vermont, to Montréal, back to Vermont, and back to Boston again, with all the attendant excess food and wine (and their corollary and cumulative sleep deficit), there’s neither time nor desire for extended festivization…just a quick bite, and then sleep. So, a meal at Momofuko Noodle Bar suits, and it’s pretty much as expected: good, eclectic, crowded, and so forth. I don’t really understand the hassle this place gets. Yes, each dish can probably be had for less somewhere else. The same is true for a lot of restaurants. My Szechuan noodles…better elsewhere? Undoubtedly. But I don’t think those places are going to serve me sashimi as a first course. Which, itself, is probably not up to other places either. But for a couple of interesting courses, a beer, some water…it’s just not that expensive, everything tastes good, and it’s all in one place. What’s the problem? OK, the seats aren’t that comfortable. There’s my big criticism.

Afterwards, I saunter over to Terroir to meet some wine board folk. Scott Reiner is there, with a friend. There’s also an exceedingly energetic young lady whose enthusiasm for wine studies would be infectious had such enthusiasm not long since been beaten out of me by the hateful cynicism of the wine trade. Or maybe, that’s just my own homegrown cynicism. Well, whatever. (I later hear a rumor that she’s California winemaking royalty, of a sort. Is that like being a cellar princess? Are the crown jewels made from tartaric crystals? Well, I wish her luck. There’s a big exam in her future that should be happening…right about now.) There are some others with us, as well, and everyone seems to love wine, but we’re about two too many and in the wrong ambience for full-group conversation.

And then there’s Sharon Bowman. With whom I have a long chat, even though – thanks to Terroir’s scene-setting soundtrack – I can only hear about every fourth word she says. Get some Freon in those lungs, Sharon!

The wines? There’s a 2003 Burgundy that’s surprisingly OK (a Gevrey? I can’t remember), and a de Moor Chablis that’s better than OK, but I don’t take notes and don’t much regret that I don’t.

Day 2

It’s nice, for a change, to not be staying in Midtown. I wander the neighborhoods, noshing on whatever rises above the can’t-get-that-in-Boston threshold, which here is a pretty hefty tally of stuff. One standout is Otafuku (236 E 9th St.), where the multiply-sauced fried octopus balls, eaten on a two-seat bench out front, are stupidly addictive. The day’s perfect for strolling, and so stroll I do. And not once do I have to push through any holders of tickets to Legally Blonde: The Musical, or walk past any naked cowboys. Hallelujah!

Later, I’m jacket clad, and thus a little less comfortable than before. A taxi deposits me in an awfully ritzy neighborhood just behind the U.N. I’m here for dinner, but also for another encounter with a nefarious wine board habitué. This time, it’s Levi Dalton.

Levi and I have an interesting history that’s not worth recounting here, but involves my repeatedly trashing a former employer, and then a creepy stalking incident a few years back in which he told me where I sat and what I ate at a dinner at said establishment that happened at least a decade ago. (Or maybe he just has an eidetic memory. OK, so forget the “creepy stalking” thing.) Despite all this, we’ve never met, but he recognizes me as I malinger on the sidewalk. It’s at this point that I realize that he’s actually Ivan Lendl.

I always wondered what he’d gotten up to.

The Olde Englishe Drawinge Roome feel of Convivio’s bar is suited to its current patrons, most of whom are probably wearing socks that cost more than my entire suit. I never do get a look at the interior dining room, but a few rather striking model-types walk by on their way to and from, so maybe this is a mistake. I will say that the one thing I’d want, were I an employee here, is a bar that I didn’t have to duck under every single time I passed its threshold. After all, Lendl’s a tall guy. That can’t be easy.

So anyway, “Levi” pours me some sparkling wine while I wait for my dining companion:

Donati 2007 Malvasia di Candia Frizzante (Emilia-Romagna) – Straight from the bottle (which was, I believe, previously-opened), there’s a bit of traditional-lambic funk; alongside the spritz and the nippy acidity, this is like a far less painful Cantillon. These elements settle and cohere with air and rising temperature, bringing out some proto-peach and grapefruit precursors, a tactile but not gustatory salinity, and that ever-present spiky buzz of sparkle. If there’s a quibble, it’s that the wine is monotonic in pitch. But there’s a lot going on in that note, and so the quibble remains no more than a quibble. (6/09)

After said companion’s arrival, we’re seated outside, in what must be one of the only quiet street-side patios in Manhattan. It’s a beautiful night, with just a hint of chill. Theresa orders from the menu, I just let them bring whatever seems best, and the procession of courses that follows is really quite impressive. This is Italian, more or less…and the “more” is the simplicity of conception, more than the actual style of cooking (though that’s Italian as well). There’s nothing I don’t love, and that’s a rarity. Moreover, the prix fixe menu – their suggested mode of dining – is, especially for Manhattan, a rather impressive value for what one receives.

As I leave the food in the kitchen’s hands, I also leave the drinking in Levi’s hands. (Not that I actually drink out of his hands. That would be gross. Especially with all those blisters from years of topspin forehands.) There’s one exception – Theresa’s in the mood for a specific dessert wine at the end of the meal – but I’m both well- and over-served, and this is another not-in-Boston moment…because back home, someone would have to drive afterwards.

Coste Piane 2006 Prosecco “Tranquillo” (Veneto) – This grape seems to lend itself very well to representations other than the dominant one…so much so that I wonder if a lot more exploration along these lines might be beneficial. And just as fully dry sparkling Prosecco is often too parched and barren for its own good, so too do the barely-sparkling and still versions benefit from something that one can’t quite call sweet, but rather “soft”; they might call this sec-tendre in Vouvray (though I should note that I actually have no idea of the actual residual sugar level in this particular wine). Here there’s a yellowness that’s neither lemony nor stone-fruited, sun and freshness, and a kind, subtle nervosity about the meniscus that lends the wine just enough edge to avoid turning into a drinkable pillow. Yet there’s the dusty memory of earth, as well, and a little bit of crispness that clarifies. But no…these are too many words for this wine, whose pleasures are simpler than all this verbiage. (6/09)

Sella 2007 Coste della Sesia Rosato “Majoli” (Piedmont) – Pink nebbiolo is my favorite (still) pink of all, I’ve learned. It’s a shame that there’s so little of it. This is a more aggressive interpretation than many, less so for its structure – the tarry bite of tannin is shed, and the acidity has loosened into full-blown juiciness – than its fruit, which is as much orange as it is red and pink, and sounds the occasional braying, brassy note. So it’s a rosé that demands attention, and keeps it by remaining balanced throughout (lacking the so-common rosé flaw of excess alcohol). But it’s not a “serious” wine, whatever one prefers that term to mean. (6/09)

Giobatta 2007 Riviera Ligure di Ponente Rossese di Albenga “U Bastiò” (Liguria) – Mercaptan-dominated. There seems to be some rather gorgeous, barn-floor earth and soft red fruit underneath, but for me the stink is not quite penetrable. The less-sensitive (among which are numbered by dining companion, whose wine this actually is) will find less fault, and in fact said dining companion rhapsodizes about the wine. (6/09)

Cà de Noci 2006 “Notte di Luna” (Emilia-Romagna) – Not an orange wine, exactly (it’s far too pale and recognizable for that), but one in training, with the sandpaper scrape of tannin abrading a broth of whitish stone fruit, dried pith, and powdered stone, then finishing with the tactile buzz of newly-absent soda. While potentially gorgeous, it’s sorta elusive in my glass…not in the endless-descriptor fashion of the true orange-wine cohort, but in a more diffident fashion. This could just be a function of its context (other wines, food, distraction), and so I’d like another chance at this. Preferably several. (6/09)

Somwhere in here is a Vestini Campagnano Terre del Volturno 2005 “Kajanero” (Campania) that, alas I don’t manage to taste. Or if I do, I don’t remember anything about the wine.

Fià Nobile 2007 Cerasuolo di Vittoria (Sicily) – Spiderwebs of red fruit that come off as insistent, but are actually rather soft-hearted. Volcanic dust, as well? Yes, some (alongside more organic brown earth), and this is a wine with a fair measure of soil amidst the berries. Balanced and highly approachable. Yum. (6/09)

Gulfi 2007 Cerasuolo di Vittoria (Sicily) – A mix of red and darker fruit, shouldery and fairly powerful, yet with enough restraint to avoid being boisterous or overblown. There’s a dark core of soil and rock here, slightly lava-esque, but the concentration of the fruit that surrounds it doesn’t allow much penetration at present. Full and muscular, with aging potential. (6/09)

Pellegrino 2007 Passito di Pantelleria (Sicily) – Perfume and pine with a shot of sweet clementine nectar. Simple and tasty, with a little bit of suntan lotion. (6/09)

Dessert (amaro gelato with espresso poured over…I could not possibly love this more) is accompanied by a gated barrier of glasses, all of which are eventually filled. Good heavens.

Perucchi Vermouth Rojo “Gran Reserva” (Spain) – A rich mélange of herbs and cut grass, with a red tinge (not just to the color) that reminds me of a high-quality red wine vinegar minus the acetic acid. Very enticing. (6/09)

Caffo Vecchio Amaro “del Capo” (Calabria) – Unfortunately, I remember little about this liqueur, except a sensation of depth and a better balance of bitter and sweet than is typical (usually, amari tip towards one side or the other). (6/09)

Russo Nocino (Campania) – Pretty straightforward…dark walnut, sweet and sticky, with hints of cocoa and old wood. Very tasty. (6/09)

Aggazzotti Nocino “Notte di S. Giovanni Riserva” (Emilia-Romagna) – Nocino amped up, less with power than with density, like a slow-built stew with layers upon layers of flavor. There’s dark chocolate, Sicilian espresso, even the darkest of black cherries…though perhaps a slight devolvement of the walnut’s central role in such a liqueur. Nonetheless, this is fabulous, and if nocinos received points, this would probably be the beneficiary of a lot of them. (6/09)

Vajra Barolo Chinato (Piedmont) – There’s way too much volatile acidity here, and despite my attempts it remains impenetrable. The less sensitive might do better. (6/09)

Mitchell & Son “Green Spot” Irish Whiskey (Ireland) – Friendly, even “pretty,” yet with smoke and ancient wood enough for enjoyable sipping. It must be said that this was tasted at the end of an awful lot of wine and other, more spirituous beverages, and my attention was not fully upon the glass in front of me. (6/09)

When the bill arrives, only the passito – the one wine we asked for – is on the bill. This is an insane bit of generosity on Levi’s part. Maybe I should slam his employers more often? What’s even crazier is that over the course of the evening, Levi only tells me I’m “wrong” once. Heck, I was ready for a half-dozen more iterations, at least, and it seems grossly out of character. (Maybe after these notes?)

The walk back to the hotel – all the way from Tudor Place to Union Square – is semi-restorative, albeit hard on the feet. Wingtips aren’t made for long post-nocino strolls.

Day 3

It’s hot, humid, and there’s rain on the way. Yet for some reason that can’t possibly be related to the above narrative, I spend rather more of the cool morning in the hotel than I’d planned. Granted, there’s some work to be done, but still.

Of course, the other explanation for lethargy is that today’s the birthday-with-a-zero. Ugh.

I skip breakfast. I skip lunch. Of course, by mid-afternoon I’m ravenous, and a bowl of ramen at a place I can’t remember the name of …it’s a few blocks south of Union Sq., in a place signed with dire warnings about the non-portability of its lunches…is about all I need. I’m caught in a deluge on the way back to the hotel, and umbrella-less, but I don’t really care all that much. It seems like a good metaphor, all things considered.

Back in a jacket, and this time with an uncomfortable tie in the mix, we meet an old friend for a drink at Bar Jamón, which is just a block and a half from our hotel. I’ve passed this more than a few times on the way to and from wherever, and it has looked interesting (though Scott Reiner tells me that Casa Mono, steps away and under the same ownership, is better).

Ameztoi 2008 Getariako Txakolina “Rubentis” (Northwest Spain) – Not strawberries, but a papyrus representation of strawberries on which has been spilled a considerable amount of sharp, frothing soda water. Comes at the palate like the churning maelstrom at the bottom of a very, very small waterfall. Anyone who doesn’t like this may not actually hate wine, but they probably hate life. (6/09)

Unfortunately, a few sips of this drink is about all I can tolerate. Not because of the wine, which I love, but because of the ambient temperature. It is at least ninety degrees in here. There’s not a breath of air-conditioning. People are coming to the door, feeling the furnace, and walking out again. Soon, I’m literally drenched in sweat, and forced to stand outside. So, a warning: all that wine at Bar Jamón? It’s all cooked. I’d be a little wary of the food, too.

We retreat to some dive bar around the corner for a beer. Hey, it’s an improvement. And they have AC.

The actual celebratory (or “celebratory”) dinner is at wine geek nirvana Veritas. We go for the full-bore tasting menu. It’s a lot of rich, high-style French food, and I’m not sure we’re used to eating quite like this anymore. But it’s (almost) all fantastic, the service is as exquisite as any I’ve experienced in the last decade, and of course the wine list and its service can’t really be topped. The only niggle is probably the too-close tables, which make it nearly impossible to entirely ignore one’s neighbors. But this is minor and inconsequential; if you’re coming to Veritas for a romantic evening, you probably care more about the wine than your date anyway. (Not that this is a bad thing, necessarily. It would depend on the date.)

Roumier 1969 Morey Saint-Denis Clos de la Bussière “1er Cru” (Burgundy) – Tentative and tired as the cork is removed, yet there’s a low pulse of strength within, and the finish is surprisingly broad despite the wan aromatics and over-resolved structure. And then, as one hopes, it grows. First in outlines…a bit of wiry structure here, the desiccated residue of red fruit dust there. Then the basic hues – antiqued cherry, soft earth tones – gaining intensity and fullness as succeeding coats are applied. After fundamental vibrancy is achieved, the detail work begins: filigrees of hazelnut and Perigord truffle, a plateau of beautifully mature darker berries, and layers upon layers of rich, fertile earth. As the work continues, the finish not only continues to broaden, but deepens as well, and recapitulations of the primary themes come rumbling from those depths, enveloping the palate in satin memory. It’s so typical as to be a cliché with wines like this, but the last sip is both the best and cloudy with dregs of regret at its finality; to liken the experience to drinking the sunset is to employ more than one metaphor. (6/09)

Peyraud “Domaine Tempier” 1993 Bandol “Cuvée Spéciale” La Tourtine (Provence) – Surprisingly, almost shockingly, primary. Stuffed with sizzling blackberries and plums, black earth, walnuts, and a blizzard of black pepper. The structure has retreated into the background, but it’s still most definitely there. As intense a Bandol as I’ve ever tasted, in flawless balance, but still so, so young. Ten more years? Twenty? Probably more the latter. (6/09)

There’s also a glass of 1999 Beerenauslese that I don’t bother to remember, even though it’s quite excellent.

The walk home? Only a few blocks of foot-floating bliss. It turned out to be a pretty darn OK birthday after all.

Day 4

This morning, there’s supposed to be a trip to Katz’s for giant towers of pastrami. Instead, there’s a fruit salad from the deli next to the hotel, tea, and a cab to the airport. My next meal might not be until 2010. Perhaps on my next birthday, though I think this one will be hard to top.