Friday, September 19, 2008

Angry Cabbies

As I shuffled down the stairs, I could hear the train pulling away. I rounded the corner and could see through the bars the W train pulling away. Great, I thought, pacing in the heat of the underground. It had poured earlier in the day, so you would have thought the humidity would be out of the air, but not down there. With my iPod out of juice, there was nothing to do but people watch the old fashion way. Other than a man who appeared to be wearing capris pants and an obese gentleman whose belt was pulled up on his belly with only a tenuous connection to his pants, these people seemed pretty run of the mill. An announcement came from the ubiquitous subway voice that an uptown train was two stations away at Rector Street. Five minutes later, an R trained bent around the curved track at the City Hall station. The air conditioning was a welcome respite and I wondered how people survived less than a generation ago without working temperature control in the subway. I got off at Prince and hustled up the stairs. Even with the delay, I wasn't too late and, for the early hour of the dinner, felt that I was close enough time-wise.

Walking into Zoe, I notice to my right a table covered in Bordeaux stems, a harbinger of good things. I met Mike, Steve and Kevin at the bar and was introduced to Sherri as well. At the corner of the bar, there was an older couple who seemed bemused by our impending festivities. A number of bottles were already lined up on the bar and I added my '04 Schrader RBS to the litany. We decided to sit down and, as we did, Sherri's husband David showed up. So, we were all assembled. The group was supposed to be larger, but last minute cancellations had us at 6, which was fine by me. Mike had organized this tasting group regularly for about 2 1/2 years, but signs of strain had begun to show. People's tastes had diverged, as had their expectations. I got the sense that this might be it and that that would be OK. We were going out with a bang with the wines of one of our favorite winemakers, Thomas Brown.

The first wine of the night was a 2007 barrel sample of Steve's nascent project, tentatively called Congruence. He was toying with the idea of using his name instead. "You're going to call your wine Steve?" I asked trying to push his buttons. "That's a cool name for a wine. Give me some Steve." He was slightly amused. Kevin more so. The wine itself was excellent. I was somewhat relieved as I like Steve, but would have been brutal if called upon to be. The thing that struck me most initially was the absence of obtrusive oak. The nose was pretty and floral and really needed coaxing. Mike insisted there must be some Petit Verdot in there and I agreed given the elevated aromatics, but Steve assured us it was all Cabernet, primarily from Coombsville fruit. The wine was elegantly styled with sweet fruit and a hint of herbs. Structurally, it was sound with great acidity, although I would have preferred a little more tannic backbone to it. Clearly, Steve has fashioned a wine that reflects his palate and his passion for Cabernet. I've always been reluctant to turn a hobby into a profession, as it leaves you without leisure, but I hope he succeeds. He is certainly off to a great start.

The next bottle was wrapped in aluminum foil. A wine served blind with the only the caveat that it was made by Thomas. I turned to Kevin, who brought the wine, and said, "Is this a trick because Thomas didn't make the Double Diamond." He was mum and I was confused. It was expressive on the nose with a dusty cassis that should have led me to Sonoma, but it didn't. Clearly, Cabernet from the notes of cassis and the hint of eucalyptus, it had some good fruit but was hopelessly muddled in the middle. Plenty of tannin, but they don't seem to be framing the fruit and gave the finish a bit of astringency. It was an OK wine, but at $50 a pop I wouldn't be recommending the 2004 Double Diamond Mayacamas Range.

Having gone through the preliminaries, we moved on to the first two vintages of Maybach. I have had the 2004 Maybach several times, from barrel to bottle. In the past, it has shown a lot of promise, but has been marred by some obvious oak that obscures the fruit. I am happy to report that the oak has receded to the background (although not completely), leaving the sweet black cherry fruit to speak for itself. While it was showing better than it ever has, it still is remarkably young and remains a bit obvious lacking a bit of breadth. Much more concentrated with additional depth was the 2005 Maybach. It shared the black cherry profile, but added some licorice and tended more to the blacker side of the spectrum. It was creamier in the mouth and, like its older brother at this stage, wore its oak on its sleeve. I think I was alone thinking that this would be the better wine, although I admit the 2004 was the better wine today. Others at the table liked these better than I did and they were certainly well-made and flashed some serious muscle. I'm glad to own these, but I was a little surprised that everyone was so gaga over them.

On the other hand, I have no trouble building up enthusiasm for Schrader. We were fortunate to be doing a fairly complete horizontal of the 2004 vintage (all but the mag). All of the Schraders are made from To Kalon fruit and, although I've had each of these wines, I was anxious to seem them side-by-side to see the distinctions. The 2004 Schrader Beckstoffer To Kalon was the tightest of the three, as it had seen the least time in the decanter. It showed deep and dark cassis with smoke and cedar on the nose. It had great density and substance in the mouth, but showed a slight sharpness on the finish. I didn't notice this last point at first. The 2004 Schrader CCS initially seemed to be the same wine as the regular BTK, so I had one of my tablemates take them and give them back to me blind. There was striking similarity on the nose, but I felt that the CCS (once revealed) seemed creamier on the palate and showed its alcohol a little more. The 2004 Schrader RBS was wholly different. The other two were great Cabs, they really were, but they were intellectual in their presentation and, therefore, opened themselves to the academic dissection I engaged in above. The RBS had the wow factor that elicited a more emotional reaction and so insulated itself from such small bore analysis. The fruit smelled of raspberry coulis with an interesting herbal component. It was full in the mouth and long on the finish, blah, blah, blah. What it did though, on the nose and on the palate, was pop. The flavors were broad and vivid.

On the other hand, I question why there needed to be three different bottlings of these wines. All were excellent and in the top flight of California Cabernet, generally and for the 2004 vintage. At the same time, they were more a variation on a theme and I wonder if there are reasons, other than marketing, as to why there is intended to be a distinction, especially with respect to the CCS and the regular BTK. That said, I think these wines were underrated by the table, especially as compared to the Maybachs.

We finished with two wines that are of lesser quality. The 2005 Outpost True is a very nice wine. It has brambly black fruit speaking to its Howell Mountain roots. While its no Dunn, it expresses the expected tannic bite of the site. This wine is still pretty young and there is no shortage of vanilla charged oak. I liked the 2003 Rivers-Marie Cabernet better. Not a great wine, but an excellent expression of California Cabernet at the price point. It showed dark back fruit, sweet tannin and more than enough vanillin.

We stumbled out into the Soho night. I love New York after the rain. The City shimmers with light and feels swept clean and full of opportunity. I hailed one last cab and headed home.

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