(For earlier excerpts, go to Post Coitum (2/2/13) and Cotton (1/13/13).
An hour and twenty minutes later after the tasting began, Clyde Craven-Jones leans back in his wheeled throne and sighs. Nine bottles down, and not a clear winner. He thinks he knows who made half of them, and can come close to guessing the rest. Two hover in the mid- to-upper teens of his twenty-point ranking system, which will make their investors moderately happy, but no ecstasy in this tasting. If the mystery wine’s among them, then it’s merely good.
The brown wrapping paper disguised the last bottle, emblazoned with the number 10, the poured wine in the Riedel deeply hued. He pulls the glass to him, picks it up by the stem and quickly, deftly twists his wrist, driving the wine high up the sides. Its concentrated fragrance reaches him even from that distance. He dips his nose directly into the invisible pool of inspiration and inhales. He’s impressed by the wine’s power, and annoyed: surely this is not the mystery bottle, which means he failed to detect the interloper among the previous nine. He scribbles “... barely ripe black fruit... toasty... a lean, shimmering nimbus of cassis.”
He takes a mouthful and holds it for a moment, lips parted, drawing air in over the wine, then closes his mouth and, without swallowing, exhales through the nose, pushing the sacred “ether of harvest and extracted oak,” as he often puts it in his lectures, back out through his nostrils, with a surprising result. He’ll describe it as “reverberating cabernet bells.” St. Paul’s? Too grandiose. A chapel? Too parochial. This wine tolls on the nose with all the power and precision of Christopher Wren’s gem, the Church of Mary Le Bow... If you can fully appreciate that complex melody you’re not Cockney, you’re enchanted!
He swallows, the cascading flavors identifiable, married in an onslaught of what he thinks of as the essence of Bordeaux, not California – elegant, balanced, with a long trail on the palate that dwindles into the soothing convergence of light and shadow in a distant clearing... Yes, that will do nicely. The wine might well be one of Bordeaux’s best, from a first-growth estate, introduced as a joke. Detectable tannins, but overall so silky as to be forgiven. Less heat around the gums, meaning relatively low alcohol.
It could represent the glory of France, but the initial, decisive burst of fruit and lingering ripeness has the power of California. Has someone finally managed to make a wine in the valley with the contradictory merits of France and America, or is this a con? If so, it’s near the top of the chart and worth a great deal of money.
He takes a fistful of popcorn and crams it into his mouth, snowing all over his sweats. Now for the sobering second swallow, the true test. He tears the wrapper off the bottle and is confronted by a column of dark liquid in generic glass; that he has no idea whose this wine is or where it came from is humiliating. A wine critic without self-confidence is - how did he put it at the Friends of Wine lecture in San Francisco the week before? - in the evening of his being.
In the frenzy of stripping No. 10 he has upset No. 6, spilling inky cabernet over the white table cloth. He attempts to mop it up with the wrapping paper, without success. More tearing to expose the other bottles, an array of family and fanciful names - Eagle Ridge, Block 69, Trifecta, Copernicus. He knows them all and he knows their makers; No. 10 is indeed the interloper.
CJ confronts the wreckage of his tasting, takes another swallow: Ah, is there anything better than a glass of fine red wine of an afternoon? Well, of a morning, actually. He can feel the alcohol now, not just No. 10’s but the collective onslaught of the wines he has absorbed despite spitting, a hazard of his profession.
He peruses his notes. Numbers 2 and 5 - Block 69, and Trifecta - are clearly the stand-outs, after No. 10. What comes next is tricky. He stands and pads to the hallway door, opens it a crack, softly whistles. Then, “Missy.”
A scrabble of claws on heartwood Doug fir, a blur of brindle hair ejecting from the bedroom, smiling if a mastiff can be said to smile, her soft brown eyes full of anticipation. He reaches down and digs his fingertips into her wiry coat, but the dog brushes past him.
CJ eases the door shut and returns to the disarray of the tasting. Bracing himself with one hand, he slowly kneels, groaning, and places the two winners on the floor while Missy watches, a timeless scene: dog, master, quarry, older than history.
Missy creeps forward and tentatively smells each glass in turn. She settles on Trifecta.
She obeys, still eying the glasses as if they might take flight, and waits while he crawls forward, carefully blocking her view. He replaces Block 69 with No. 10. If Missy picks the mystery wine, this will compliment his olfactory abilities since she’s infallible, and very close to his own palate.
He crawls out of the way, sweeping aside wine-soaked wrapping paper and dropped pencils. Spilled wine drips through the crack between the leaves in the table; popcorn litters the carpet.
Used to the drill, Missy sniffs at Trifecta, then at the interloper, hesitates, and stays with the nameless wine. “Ah,” says CJ proudly, since it’s his choice, too. He has to remind himself - down on all fours himself - that this colleague is, after all, just an animal.
Next: Glass Act
Next: Glass Act