Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The 2nd Annual West Village Wine tasting

In November 2002 I hosted a wine tasting party at my friend Marty's condominium in Greenwich Village New York. I have always idolized Greenwich Village because in the 1920's it was truly Bohemia. Harold Ross started "The New Yorker" magazine there. The poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, who is named after St. Vincent's Hospital in "The Village", fended off the affections of Edmund Wilson, the literary critic in that neighborhood. And Scott Fitzgerald, the novelist whose Great Gatsby novel was rescued from out-of-print obscurity by the same Edmund Wilson lived there as well. Most recently for me, Greenwich Village is where I had a very short relation with Melissa, an Italian beauty who looked like the painter Modigliani's muse Jeanne Hebuterne. Melissa and her roommate Andrea lived in an apartment near the gay neighborhood of Christopher Street. Melissa's dad paid for the whole apartment and bought Melissa two Volkswagon cars, each one a different color. Other girls had matching shoes; Melissa had matching automobiles. Melissa had an oval face, a long lean neck, upright posture, and wide hips. The affect that Melissa had on me was more powerful than opium and more addictive than nicotine. Alas my love for Melissa was short-lived and unrequited. She carved out a hole in my heart that perhaps never will heal.

In 2001 I also hosted a party at Marty's apartment near the intersection of 13th street and 6th avenue. As in 2002 we had a blind wine tasting pitting wines from New York, Pennsylvannia, and of course Virginia. I want to tell you in detail about the wine tasting party but first I need to explain to you about my time spent in New York in 2001.

Like the writer Adam Gopnik says of opera'he says it is "a thing unto itself'so it goes with New York City. For 5 glorious months in 2001 I found myself working on a do-nothing, multi-million dollar computer project at a British bank. Like many multi-vendor, complex operations this turned out to be a monumental flop. But the bank's location in New York made the hilarious on-goings there especially surreal and much different from what we see in rural Virginia. For example, the entire management team at HSBC was Russian Jew immigr饳. These used to be called "refuseniks" back in the days of Ronald Reagan, Gorbachev, and Margaret Thatcher. The whole computer department was composed of middle-aged whites and a few blacks from New York and computer contractors mainly from India. But we also had Brazilians and, since the bank is located mainly in London, a slew of Brits who said funny things like "bits and bobs" and called each other "mate". I especially liked the way the English women call each other "luv". Again this being New York the office administrators were mainly aspiring actors who did more typing than acting. I asked one what she acted in and she said she "acted in life". I don't think she had seen her name in lights too often.

Our office was actually located in Jersey City on the Hudson river, a short Path train ride from either 33rd Street in Manhattan or The World Trade Center. The office itself was as ludicrous as the situation in which we found ourselves. There were 10 contractors from Sun Corporation and 8 contractors from the company where I worked at the time. The people from Sun were crowded into a room not much bigger than a closet two rows deep. So the guys sitting in front had their laptop computers perched on a tiny shelf. Sitting behind them with their backs to the wall were another row of Sun engineers. But since they had no room for a desk that sat all day long with their laptops literally on their laps'so the computer name "laptop" was very much a propos in this regard. Those few people who could fit in neither the front row nor the back were relegated to the top floor of the building where they sat in the 55-degree computer room all day long. It was freezing up there'I could not stand to be in that place for more than an hour at most.

My co-workers and I sat together in a room we called the "fishbowl". The four people on our team who actually had something to do sat in another room closer to the center of attention and action down by the management team. One enormously fat guy, Jason, was hired as a contractor and soon monopolized all the work. He worked until 3 or 4 in the morning on American and British problems and then from five AM on until daylight on those problems in Hong Kong. Some time in between he managed to arrange sexual trysts with girls he met on voyeurism web sites like sexyads.net.

So Mark, Stoddard, and I together with our manager, Marty, were left with nothing to do all day long but hurl insults at one another and spend our days planning our evenings. We quickly evolved into late-rising New Yorkers who stayed out until 5:00 AM and did not wake up until 9:00 or 10:00 in the morning. Mark slept so late that he even slept right through the 9/11 crash of those airliners into the World Trade Center. Had he been awake he would have had a bird's eye view of the disaster because his room at the Double Tree Hotel faced the Hudson River as did our office building.

In New York City you find lots of people, especially young ones, who live their life in such a manner. But since they have jobs they stay out until 5:00, get up at 8:00, throw up and then make their way into work red-eyed and bleary. One girl Mara I dated, Mara'again for a very short time'I memorialized in an unpublished short story called "The Girl who Makes Quilts". Mara stayed up all night weaving quilts and then slept all day. She wasn't exactly like Truman Capote's Miss Golightly in "Breakfast at Tiffany's". But like so many other New Yorkers she was indeed nocturnal.

There is not supposed to be unequal treatment of the sexes in America but for the New York club scene this rule is overlooked. If you are young and female they readily whisk you in the door at such clubs at Eugene's, Spa, and the roof-top China Club. Men cannot get in unless they are on a meticulously maintained list, called "the list". The way you get onto such a list is to know a "club promoter". Legions of promoters funnel beautiful young people to the toniest of clubs. Fortunately we did know one such fellow, Ungie who was Marty's friend. It was Ungie who could get us into Eugene's where acres of whirling and wriggling female flesh brushed against hundreds of eager young men all in a daze of loud R&B music and a haze of alcohol and cigarette smoke. I was a little older than most of these men but just as eager.

New York was a paradise of sorts for us because we went out almost every night and we managed to meet women on most days. They were easy to meet especially on the subway or path train or just pluck them off the sidewalk. At 3:00 in the morning those women whose waning sobriety allowed them to sit up straight were usually eager to talk. We met girls who spoke Spanish, blond girls from Israel, Italian girls from Long Island, South Africans, and out-of-town businesswomen on convention. Stoddard said everyone who comes to New York has a dream. This is true. We met aspiring and actual actresses, writers, and fashion designers. Such a cornucopia of talented dreamers could not be found elsewhere on the planet. New York was a bacchanalian celebration that rages 7 days per week, 365 days per year, in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah along the banks of the Hudson River.

Let me tell you something about my friends now. Marty went to live in Korea one year working for Ernst and Young so he saved enough money to buy a one bedroom apartment on 13th street for $200K. This was and still is quite a bargain. I am not sure how old Marty is but his taste in music runs younger than mine. In fact he is the person who taught me to like R&B music and even rap which something I never have listened to just a few years before. Marty's interest in rap is pretty hard-core'lots of music he has I cannot stand. But we both share an appreciation for Ashanti, Ja Rule, and Eminem.

Stoddard projects the image of a gentle Patrician. He hails from Princeton, NJ and got an Ivy League education at Northwestern University. Stoddard is attractive to females but does not exploit his obvious advantage in my opinion. Rather he prefers to go from one girl friend to another when he could date many. Stoddard taught me beauty tips which I thought were always the domain of women. O' contraire. One must not wash their hair but every other day or just once per day. Comb you hair straight back but don't part it in the middle. For New York always wear black pants and a dark blue shirt. Stoddard says all that you need to do is read three issues of Cosmopolitan magazine and you will have ample beauty tips. Beyond fashion Stoddard is quite good at dealings with people and is a good judge of character. Although he is much younger than me I relied and still do rely on him for advice on how to deal with the fair sex.

Mark is a gloomy, morose, acquitance who wears the misery of his divorce on his sleeve. I have tried to make friends with Mark but fun just does not seem to be in his retinue. For whenever he start to have any fun Mark goes home early. He went on a date with me, Melissa, and Andrea and Andrea asked me if he was bored. Any other male would have been so excited to be in her company that they would not have been able to contain their enthusiasm. You cannot provoke Mark even if you jab him with a stick. I will say that Mark is a good fellow to drink Martinis with and is quite close to his parents. He bought an old duplex house in the nicest section of Providence, Rhode Island and is remodeling it. He is quite smart to let out part of his home and let strangers help pay off the mortgage. But Mark made the mistake which so many men and I imagine women make. He married out of his social class. The poor have problems which are different from the rich, middle, and upper class. He married a poor girl who although was quite beautiful walked out on the sad fellow.

During those 5 months we never truly reached sobriety, but in one of my more lucid moments I decided that we should have a wine tasting party. There were a couple of stores in New York where you can buy wines from New York. I thought it was time to introduce a few New Yorkers I knew to vintage Virginia.

Invitations went out and we planned for a few weeks. Marty and I got together some food, bought a couple of cases of wines from various vineyards, and then wrapped these in brown paper and wrote a number on each bottle. The night of the wine tasting I made a little speech. It went something like:

Marty and I would like to welcome you to the Second Annual West Village Wine tasting. We call it that because last year we had the First Annual West Village Wine Tasting. Last year everybody drank too much wine, got buzzed, and no one followed the instructions. Therefore we really couldn't tell which wine was the favorite nor which wine taster was most successful in correctly picking wines.

First let me explain to you why we are serving New York, Pennsylvannia, and Virginia wines and not French or Californian. Marty is from New York which is an old wine growing region. There are 4 wine-grape-growing regions in New York: The Niagra area, the Finger Lakes, Hudson Valley, and Long Island. Each of these has a favorable climate for growing French and French hybrid grapes. We include Pennsvylvannia for a reason I will explain shortly but mainly Philadelphia is where Marty, Richard, and I were working until a few weeks ago. Pennsylvannia has a lot of boutique vineyards. And finally Virginia is where I live. I am starting to grow grapes on my farm and I write for a Virginia wine publication.

OK, who can name the top 4 wine producing states in the United States' They are number 1 California, followed by number 2 New York, Pennsylvannia at number 3, and next comes Virginia. Washington state is somewhere in the 4 list and might have nudged Pennsylvannia aside.

As I said before, for many years New York State has been a center of grape growing. Cornell University has been instrumental in developing hybrid French grapevines that can tolerate the low winter temperatures and the high heat and humidity of the East Coast here. French grape vines like Cabernet Sauvignion from Bordeaux and Pinot Noir from Burgundy make the best red wines. But these vines and subject to all kind of diseases caused by the high humidity in the East and can be killed out right when the temperature drops below minus 5 degrees which it certainly does here in New York and sometimes in Virginia. So Cornell and others have figured out how to cross breed European grape vines with native American vines to produce vines that produce grapes that taste like the same European grapes but are more tolerant of the weather, pests, and diseases here. Now, in New York before European grapes or European hybrid grapes were planted and even today vineyards here planted native American grapes: the Concord, Niagra, and Catawba. These grapes were usually made into Champagne or Sherry by such large vineyards as Taylor. Who here has not heard of Taylor Lake Country Red'

California on the other hand has almost perfect weather for growing European grapes. They have a Mediterranean climate with wet winters and dry summers. When you use irrigation it possible to water the vines in June and then let them stay dry during the July and August months when they ripen. This is pretty what happens in Bordeaux, France for example. But of course in Bordeaux it is colder than California and more wet in the summer. Yet even California is not a grape growers paradise. The Central Valley and the southern part of the state are too hot to grow certain grapes well so there they make lots of raisins, seedless table grapes, and wine grapes of low quality.

So what exactly is a hybrid grape' This question is kind of moot since Marty and I brought no hybrid wines today except one. This is called a Cuv饠which in this case is a mixture of the Chardonnay and Seyval grapes. Chardonnay comes from France and Sevyal in a hybrid. A hybrid grape is created by crossbreeding two grape varieties. The grower paints the pollen from a male stamen onto the female flower. But hybrids are not as popular nor as easy to sell as the well-know European vines. And the growers in the east have learned how better to keep frost off the vines and to spray the vines to keep various diseases and pests at bay. The wines we selected here today are almost all vitis vinifera. These are the so-called Old World grapes. So our own choice today shows the preference we have for European grapes over hybrids. Still the grower who choses to plant nothing but say Merlot or Pinor Noir will have disappointing results some years and might even have to toss our his entire crop on occasion. But then again this happens in Bordeaux in some years as well.

I just used to word "varietal". What does that mean' In the United States you buy wines based on what grape is mainly used to make the wine in the bottle. For example a Cabernet Franc is made mainly or maybe exclusively from the Cabernet Franc grape. But in France wines are named after the location where they are grown in particular the chateau or vineyard. A so-called Bordeaux red is usually a mixture of several of the 5 principal red grapes of Bordeaux: Cabernet Sauvignion, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. In fact the Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Noveaux is nothing more than very young wine made from the Gamay grape.

We do have today one grape which is considered native to North America even though some viticulturists have suggested that it is a hybrid that cross-bred itself somewhere around the James River of Virginia where early settlers had attempted to plant European grapes. Anyway this grape is called the Norton grape. It was planted widely in Missouri before Prohibition and now is growing in several Virginia vineyards. It makes an excellent red wine although it takes considerable skill both in the vineyard and the barrel to reduce the levels of acid in the grape and thus make a palatable wine. By the way, who can name the most famous Virginia resident who to grow European grapes on the East Coast' Thomas Jefferson. And was he successful' No

Finally I should mention that all grape vines, even those grown in France and California, are now planted by grafting the top of the vine onto rootstock that is native to America. The reason for this is that the phylloxera pest ravaged the vines of Europe 100 years ago. Some enterprising American discovered that the American vines could save the French and so the grateful French government awarded him some gold medal or other and then they went back to turning up their nose at the rest of us.

Now each of you has a form to fill out as we drink these wines which we have wrapped in paper bags and then numbered. The goal is to determine which wine you like the best and to see which of you is the most discerning connoisseur and can best identify which wine is made from which grape. If you look at the categories we have taste, color, aroma, the state where the wine is from, and the dominant grape. Now last year certain people like Candi wrote words in the taste column where we asked for a numerical score. So we have:

1 horrible

2 OK

3 pleasant

4 good

5 superb

Color and aroma are not too important just indicate whether you like either. Taste is most important'just indicate whether you like the wine a lot, a little, or think it horrible. The state where the wine is made would be just a matter of luck'neither Marty nor I probably won't do too well in that category. But identifying the grape is where we separate the wheat from the chaff and determine who really knows their stuff. To that end we have the following grapes.

Merlot'this is a mild tasting red wine.

Traminette'scratch this Gew'miner hybrid off your list because I left three bottles on my kitchen table and forgot to bring them here.

Reisling'this white wine from the Alsace region of France and the banks of the Rhine river in Germany is spicy and is closely related to Gew'miner.

Cabernet Sauvignon'from Bordeaux this is a heavy red wine.

Cabernet Franc'also from Bordeaux, less heavy than Cabernet Sauvignon.

Viognier'is a spicy white wine from the Rhone region of France.

Norton'very heavy red wine made from native American grapes.

Chardonnay' often aged in oak barrels it should have a mellow taste.

Pinot Noir'this French grape from Burgundy produces a delicate red wine.

The first year we had the wine tasting party we had lots of expensive hors d'ouvres that we got from the up-scale grocery store Balducci's. It didn't cost us much because we charged it all to our client where we were working at the time. But this year we were considerably less rich so bargained with our buddies to bring food. One of them, Steve, who was supposed to bring the bulk of the food failed to show up at all. So our food tray looked liked some pathetic soup kitchen. Yet Rob brought three jars of genuine Beluga caviar that he got from some Russians in New York for only a few hundred dollars. At the party we only ate one jar so I took home the other two. In Virginia I wasted these few precious ounces on Michele who dumped me the next week when she found out that I went to Europe with Vicky. Such are the problems of the single, divorced male.

Anyway party quests came trickling in a few at a time. Actually most of the people there were Marty's friends but they soon became my friends as well. My son Walker had conned me into buying him a Gameboy computer so he busied himself with that while my youngest son Nathaniel ran his remote control car through Liz's hair where it got tangled in the wheels.

Liz is Sunil's girlfriend. Sunil is quite a character. He is not quite 5 feet tall, wears $700 turquoise shell glasses, sports a full-length black jacket regardless of the weather, colors his black hair with brown highlights, and hails from Scotland. One would expect such a spectacle from someone from Glasgow or Edinburgh but Sunil is of Indian descent. Prima facie you would think him more conservative and would expect him to have a Hindi accent. Instead when he speaks out rolls this Scottish brogue peppered with English and American curse words. I used to work with Sunil on computer projects. If he showed up at all it would not be until, say, noon long after everyone else had arrived. But the clients did not care: they loved him because he was a computer genius. And in case you did not believe that just try to argue with him. He would browbeat you, patronize you, and outwit you with the accuracy of his reasoning. Sunil was no charlatan like so many consultants are in the computer business.

Sunil liked practical jokes. Sunil poured the 12th bottle of wine that we opened. I thought this spurious since he hadn't even gotten off the couch the whole evening. As people began sipping this wine they looked at one another puzzled then jotted down on their wine tasting form their impressions. I said "Heh! This lasts like Corona beer and Riesling". It was in fact Corona Beer and Riesling. That was quite funny and I swelled up with pride because even though the wine tasted of beer the Riesling grapes were readily identifiable and I seized upon their identity to much acclaim.

I didn't spend much time filling out the wine tasting form because I was too busy running around talking to old friends and making new ones. But I couldn't resist showing off my knowledge and answering questions. Candi wanted to know what was the difference between Virginia and New York wines. I explained as best as I could and she still looked puzzled. Someone opened a bottle of Pinot Noir from New York and I said "you can tell this wine immediately because of it's color". This is true. The Pinot Noir grape from burgundy is decidedly light red in color; it is almost ros鮼/span>

Last year when we had this party nobody really followed the rules. My cousin's friend Treasure got buzzed as did my cousin Elisabeth. Stoddard put Treasure into a cab and sent her home. I took Elisabeth down myself and put her into a cab. I stayed at the party until the end, long enough to ask Mara to go see the play "Proof" with me the following week. Marty seemed to have a good time opening bottles, pouring wine, and filling out his tasting form. This year I left a little early to take my kids back to the Waldorf Astoria hotel. Elisabeth helped me drag them into bed as Nathaniel was sound asleep.

Both years of the party Ungie ran around the room snapping pictures with his digital camera. Ungie is quite a ladie's man. He has a whole collection of photos that he takes at New York night clubs. He carries pasties'which are devices you glue onto a girl's bare-breasted nipple'in his pocket and convinces girls to accompany him to the men's room where they bare their breast, glue on a pastie, and then have Ungie photograph them. My mother would be shocked. To me it's just one more spectacle in that magnificent parade of activity they call New York.

An entire month later I finally got around to tabulating the results from the party. I am disappointed to report that this year's results were the same as last year: New York bested Virginia. But I studied math in college and I can say-as a way of dismissing these results-that the sample we took was too small to be of statistical importance. Still Scheider vineyard of Long Island New York won and I sent them a congratulatory note. The top 4 wines: Scheider Merlot 1998 NY 4.1, Brimstone Hill Cabernet Franc 2001 NY 3.1, Barboursville Merlot 2001 VA 3.1, Blue Rock Inn Chardonnay 1998 VA 3.1.

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