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By Charles Blackstone
PEGASUS BOOKSCopyright © 2013 Charles Blackstone
All rights reserved.
The Metropolitan Club members and their guests—men in chalk- and pinstriped suits and women beneath coruscating black and gold—mingled around charcoal-jacketed waiters bearing trays of drinks and amphitheatrically arrayed cocktail shrimp that they circulated in step with the rhythm of a combo's Miles Davis and Benny Goodman renditions. Meanwhile, I, in my campus regalia consisting of a blue button-down shirt and jeans, ersatz Princeton Club tangelo-colored tie, and a well-worn but adequately presentable blazer, stood in a narrow space between a round table and an expanse of Sears Tower windows overlooking the lesser skyscrapers and the city sixty-seven floors below. I sipped a glass of Champagne and waited for Isabelle Conway, someone I'd never met but had seen many times on television, to arrive.
Above the din of banter and languorously jazzy instrumental, I could hear Izzy's and my final e-mail exchange of the afternoon parrying and riposting in my ears. All this talk about wine is making me thirsty. Might you be interested in having a drink with me tonight? I asked. Two hours and fifty-nine minutes later, her reply: Tonight I will be hosting a tasting. It sounds much fancier than it really is, but we can hang out there if you like. I could use the entertainment. I'll be there at 6. This invitation is all based on the assumption that you are not a psycho killer stalker with unmarked graves in your backyard. It was now five fifty-seven.
Before long, I felt a presence inhabit an empty space to my left. The new arrival accepted, in a familiar-sounding voice, the glass a waiter offered her. With numb fingertips and a pounding heart, I took this cue to turn.
Isabelle Conway was even more remarkable in person than TV depicted. Her eyes were the color of coffee beans and lacked the vapidity attending those belonging to the sort of girl I typically flirted with. Her long hair was wound into a shimmery bittersweet chocolate–colored updo.
"Well, hello there," I said, in my best impersonation of the opening gambit of a tuxedoed Humphrey Bogart sort of character.
She cracked up.
"Peter," she said a little hesitantly. "You keep making me laugh."
A commotion of inquiry brought on by others of the evening's attendees who crowded in behind us made off with her notice. While they questioned her, I waited patiently. I couldn't help staring, recording her for posterity. She was tall yet stately, with precise shoulders that managed to appear expansive without detracting from the minimalist ethos of her proportions. She was also elaborately made up and costumed. Her face had a sheen of healthy, indolent tan, an ochre cosmetic applied to her symmetrical nose, square chin, and provocatively elevated cheekbones almost imperceptibly, as though she'd spent a long day reclining in a beach chair on an island sand. It was the hue women of my grandmother's generation spent the summers of their youth striving to achieve. The garnet on her lips turned her mouth into that of an RKO Radio Pictures actress's: sturdy yet delicate, alternately brash and elegant. Her outfit was a uniform belonging to a rarefied profession. It consisted of a suit top that looked like a jacket, with gold buttons running down the tautly tailored front. The long sleeves that clung to her arms concluded in identical buttons. Below was a square black skirt and matching lacquered heels.
Finally she was able to break away from her interrogators and return to me. This time when our gazes connected, they remained. "Sorry about that, Peter. Want to start over?" She extended a small hand.
"Hapworth," I returned. "Call me Hapworth."
"Have you been here long?" she asked me. "Traffic was crazy and I couldn't get an express bus."
"You took the bus here?"
A large chef I'd watched entering the room now stood making imperious throat-clearing sounds behind Izzy. The chef's coat he wore was larger than any garment that I'd ever beheld this close, as though fashioned out of an entire tablecloth. It had a bleached starkness that gave the impression of having never been used in actual service.
She turned, and the chef looked at Izzy importunately. Distress telegraphed his face. "Sommelier," he said in a putatively genuine French accent. "Maybe it's time you talk to the people?" His tinted English sounded to me like the halting, self-contradictory production of an unrehearsed impressionist, whose lack of forethought reduced his channeling to that of a porcine cartoon character's.
"Do you smell that?" Izzy asked then. "The perfume?"
I sniffed the air. "I don't think so."
She inhaled a measure of staccato eighth notes. "It's Estée Lauder."
An older woman turned around. "How did you know?"
"Her nose has a photographic memory," a man interjected.
Izzy shrugged. "You work in fine dining long enough, and eventually you'll smell everything."
When the chef stepped back a few feet, I followed. Immediately others descended and took our places in order to commandeer Izzy's attention.
"She is, after all, why they paid extra for this VIP reception," he said.
"I would have guessed for these gigantic shrimp," I teased.
"I am Dominique," the chef said then. He reached over a meaty paw. "Isabelle's business partner."
"Chef Dominique, of course," I said. "My parents took me to Bistro Dominique once for my birthday. Seven or eight years ago, I think?" I gave my name, which he seemed to dimly receive, as though he'd already known who I was. "My mother says your food is better than anything in New York."
"Well, certainly," the chef said. "We have won many, many awards."
"It really is quite a thrill to meet you." I gestured across. "And her."
"Yes, yes," he replied. "Sommelier is really quite something, isn't she?"
More VIPs clambered over to her. It was an opportunity for me to watch Izzy, study her in wide-angle. It appeared she knew some of them, restaurant regulars. I listened to her instantly recall precise details of the wines she'd poured and they'd drunk at dinners in the distant past. How the hell did she do that? She periodically met my gaze as the growing crowd put more space between us. Somehow, her focus obliquely, yet squarely, was me. I didn't mind being banished.
Upon a waiter's approach, Chef Dominique reached up a glass of Champagne in each hand. One he gave me. We toasted. I'd lost count of how many glasses I'd already had. I never recalled enjoying effervescent wine this much before. I usually found it impenetrably tart. Tonight it tasted sweeter somehow.
"I think that dinner was the last time I had Champagne," I said. I stared at my glass, turning it in my hand by the stem.
"It's cava," the chef said.
A gong clang signaled the cocktail reception was coming to an end. The chef excused himself, leaving me to drink more cava and watch Izzy and survey the proceedings. The servers pulled apart the curtains of a partition, which revealed a new quadrant. At the front of the expanded room, situated upon a dais, two chairs sat on either side of a small, low coffee table. Behind was a warm-colored backdrop. Facing the cozy and gently lit (spotlights notwithstanding) living room set, long tables with place settings had been arranged on the floor. On each plate were little canapés that reminded me of hors d'oeuvres my mother and father served at cocktail parties in our apartment on Riverside Drive when I was growing up. Around the plates stood six glasses of different wines: three whites on the left, three reds off to the right, each filled a couple of inches up from the bottom. Beside the place settings was an empty plastic cup, and between each pair were a black plastic bucket, a carafe of water, and a basket containing crackers. There didn't seem to be assigned seats, so I chose a setup in a middle row, to the right of the aisle, on what would turn out to be Izzy's side of the stage.
Izzy hadn't taken the chair that was obviously set aside for her across from Chef Dominique's, and instead stood in front of the darkened podium adjacent. She smiled and thanked the applauding crowd into stillness. "Okay, so I'm going to introduce you to the six basic styles of wines and some foods you can pair with them. We'll start with the whites: light whites, sweet whites, and heavy whites."
A few in the group stared ahead. Others nodded tentatively but agreeably.
"What are we supposed to eat this with?" a geriatric shouted, much more powerfully than one might have expected on the basis of his frangible physiognomy.
Izzy said into the microphone, "Could we please have some forks? Thank you."
Without delay, several servers began to orbit the room with baskets of cutlery. They distributed a handful to the guests seated on the aisles, with the implicit instruction to take a fork and pass the rest down.
"I'd like for you to pick up the glass of wine all the way on your left and tell me what you smell." The noses went in and out. Some shrugged. Others mumbled uncertain descriptors to those seated closest —"cat piss," I was pretty sure I heard one doyenne declare—but nobody ventured to offer a noun or an adjective to the entire group.
"Kind of hard to say, right?" Izzy said. "Let me show you why."
Izzy's brief technical but intimate primer in the basics of wine tasting began with how to swirl. The introduction of oxygen to the glass was what really brought wine to life. Swirling aerated the wine, Izzy told the room, and drove its quiescent particles into motion, so that you could smell (and taste) them. This was a smaller-scale version of what took place when one decanted a bottle. I struggled with the maneuver. Holding the glass a few inches into the air, I couldn't coax its contents into as smooth a typhoon as I saw Izzy make from the stage. My wine sloshed up only one side of the glass. I tried with my opposing hand and almost capsized. I was glad that I wasn't sitting in Izzy's line of vision. Many of the club members were also having difficulty transposing what they saw into actions of their own, and so Izzy offered an alternative method: planting the stem of the glass on the smooth surface to propel from a steady base. While we practiced, Izzy said, "You've actually already tasted the first wine on the program."
Some in the audience looked at each other with exaggerated expressions of astonishment, inhibitions clearly relaxed by the effects of consuming several glasses of said first wine.
Here Chef Dominique rose from his chair and lurched downstage. He moved in an unsteady manner, but in doing so managed to release himself from the background sequestration in which he'd somehow ended up. "The cava," he offered. This was his first contribution to the presentation.
Izzy nodded. "We'd usually pair this sparkling wine with a gougère—a cheese puff. Spanish cava's perfect for everything from hors d'oeuvres at your grand receptions to simple light-bites when you gather some friends in your living room. Oysters are also a good choice. The cava's tartness balances the saltiness of the oysters."
"We had shrimp," a rotund woman with a gravelly voice blurted out.
"Yes," Izzy said, undeterred. "Well, there's another rule of entertaining, which actually contradicts what I've just said. If you don't have shrimp, your guests won't be happy. And if you don't have happy guests, there's no sense in continuing the party, wine or not. Ladies and gentlemen, if you take away nothing else from tonight, remember this: shrimp trumps all."
Cackles and guffaws and high-pitched trills of laughter burst out around the room. The sound escalated counterclockwise, like a choreographed fireworks detonation.
"Okay, now pick up that glass of wine all the way on your left and give it a swirl before you smell it." We went for the glasses. "A little citrusy, a little grassy, freshly cut herbs, maybe? This part's tricky, because we're not even really smelling grapefruit or tomato leaf. It's just how our brain decodes the compounds in the wine that aerating sweeps up. The brain can only translate what's going on in the glass by comparing it to something we've already been exposed to and logged in our scent memory banks."
It made sense, I thought, and sounded easy enough. I lifted my glass again to see if I could decode any of its compounds. It just smelled tangy.
"Go ahead and take a sip—don't just swallow it right away; I want you to really wash it around your mouth, like it's Listerine—and tell me what you taste."
Back to the glasses. "It's lemony," someone behind me went.
"Yes," Izzy exclaimed. "And the food we have for you to try alongside is a cucumber canapé topped with smoked salmon, black caviar, and crème fraîche. This wine has a high acidity, so we like to pair it with dishes you'd squeeze lemon juice on, like salmon. Think of the wine as you would a condiment."
Words of delight and amazement came forth from the audience. It could just have been the booze talking, but out of this small measure of demystification, something was definitely starting to cohere. I took a bite of the canapé.
Izzy said to the room, "I have another question for you. What is the consistency of this wine? If you had to compare it to, let's say, milk, would this wine have the texture of whole milk? Two percent? Or would you say it most closely resembled nonfat?"
I took a sip. Whole milk?
"Nonfat milk, right?" Izzy said. There were nods and faint articulations of agreement. "Does anybody want to guess what the wine is?" Silence. "This light-bodied white is Sauvignon Blanc, from New Zealand."
Another canapé was next described, this time by Chef Dominique. "Here we have a tartare of beets. The beets are tossed with, eh ... olive oil, balsamic vinegar, fresh basil, salt, and pepper. This we serve to you on a point of toast."
Izzy, holding her tartare, gently added a detail he'd omitted, "Yes, and Chef, a schmear of goat cheese on the top."
Along with the scarce Semites in the room, I chuckled.
"The wine in your corresponding glass is a Pinot Gris from Alsace, actually one of my favorite wines," she continued. I almost finished the tiny, elegant tartare before remembering to introduce some of it to the Pinot Gris. "You'll notice this very noble wine has sweetness, but, just to make sure you don't typecast it as a wine lacking in seriousness, there is an earthy quality here."
I concentrated, with what little of my allotment remained, to pick up the flavors. The fruits eluded, but I could taste something sweet. I returned to Izzy mid-analysis: "... peach, apricot, and honey, combined with the wine's residual sugar left over after fermentation, all of these play with the sweetness and earthiness of the beets. The goat cheese provides refreshing acidity." Honey, I thought. Honey. What was the texture like? This wine had a more substantial weight than nonfat milk, like honey. Was I actually getting this?
As Izzy went on to tell everyone, you could ascertain many things about how a wine would taste before it even reached nose or palate, just by assessing the color of the juice. The Pinot Gris's brownish-gold tint resembled honey. Izzy next introduced a California Chardonnay. The Chardonnay's intense, dark-yellow tone was dramatic. "Reminds you of pineapples and guava and ripe peaches," Izzy said. Those juicy tropical fruits were precisely the flavors of this style. A sip revealed it was definitely heavier than the Sauvignon Blanc. This Chardonnay also had a characteristic texture, or "mouth feel," caused by a process during the winemaking, or vinification, called malolactic fermentation. Oh, did I love this terminology! Malolactic fermentation brought about the creaminess of the wine. "It tastes like butter, right?" Izzy asked the audience. "Here, too, there's complexity; the minerality gives that slight soil taste. This all plays off of the richness and earthiness of the mushrooms in the quenelle, which were sautéed in butter, garlic, and fresh thyme."
And it was very good.
"Okay," she said. "I know most of us are more familiar with red wines, so I'm sure you're raring to go with these."
A few happy hecklers, whose ties had become loosened and whose suit jackets now hung on the shoulders of their chairs, hooted. I straightened my spine and cleared my throat warningly to compensate—and offer symbolic rebuke—for the gentlemen's lack of comportment.
"Just as we saw a progression of weights and differing concentrations of fruit and balancing acidity among the whites that we tasted, this group's corresponding categories are light reds, spicy reds, and heavy reds."
Excerpted from Vintage Attraction by Charles Blackstone. Copyright © 2013 Charles Blackstone. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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