Argentine Wines for RedneckSpring My oldest friend inNew York is a man of observations that grow on you-observations that have tobe lived with. Fortunately, he writes most of this stuff down, and permits meto read at least some of it. Fragments come at me from time to time, unbidden;they're like the perfect crescent moon I sighted last Thursday night down HoustonSt., dangling low over the Hudson. (That can't be real, I thought, ponderingthe sliver against the obsidian sky. It's like someone cut it from cardboardand aimed a spotlight at it, like someone contrived this rare vision for mybenefit, to stop me in my tracks.) Bits of insight that nestle in shy cornersof your brain are my old friend's business; they lurk; they await their moment.And let me tell you, this guy is an old friend. We go back a decade-a thirdof my life. My former ballet crony, back in those days when I could afford ballet.He's bitched about my driving and lived to tell about it. He's gotten me jobs.He's sent me postcards from exotic places I'll likely never see. At any rate, it was whathe once wrote me about summertime that hooked me. It was an embellishment onJames. Henry James, you'll remember, said that the two most beautiful wordsin the English language are "summer afternoon." And often I agree-when,for instance, a breeze rushes through the huge tree two houses up from my backyardpatio and there's a rustle in the air that carries the sympathetic tremolo ofan affluence that reaches even me, in my shabby luxuriation. The sun vanishesbelow laundry strung between fire escapes on clotheslines that my neighborsstill reassuringly use. There's a sky as blue as the sky in a Constable. It'sa summer afternoon, and James was right. What my friend thought, though, wasthat "summer afternoon" has a companion phrase in the language. "Indiansummer" was what he landed on, lamenting the possibility that politics-oreven discretion-could take it away from us. We fucked the Indians, herealized. Why rub it in? Indian summer. I gave itlittle thought until this last week, when the heat wave finally relented andwe-soggy misfits without air conditioning-got our reprieve from the funk. Itscarred me. Whenever the weather goes mad for a week, my skin revolts. My foreheadcurrently bears the evidence, the healing scabs from humidity blemishes. Andso our rainforest metropolis was scoured by the jet stream, the relatively drywinds returned and I thought, What should I call this? And thinking thenof my friend and his affection for Indian summer, I considered my people, myhillbilly lineage, and I asked myself: What do we call it when, in the gutsof August, a wind arrives to restore civility to the panting mountains of Appalachia?I said to myself, "'Redneck spring' is what we call it," and thereit was. So what does a man drinkduring redneck spring? Shit, boy, a man drinks whiskey, goddammit. Shit.What do you think a man drinks? But I've given up on whiskey, so I neededto find a wine to drink to celebrate the cooling, and I said to myself: Argentina.Because it's Argentina that's prodded my imagination for months now. Argentinaand surfing. But forget the surfing. Simply Argentina, and the tango, and AstorPiazzolla, whose CDs have lived in my stereo. Besides, Argentina is the redneckbackwater of the wine world, only now beginning to return to its former glory.When a dip in the temperature gave me a taste for red wine, my first impulsewas to load up on the juice from Argentina. (It helps that Argentina, like Chilea few years back, has become the wine world's hot topic, its new South Americandarling. One can go to Crossroads Liquors, on West 14th St., for instance, andfind an entire small section conveniently devoted to Argentine reds and whites.)Recent Argentine history goes like this: Juan-Evita-military dictators-the Falklands.Drama followed by repression and cynicism followed by humiliation. But the country-assumingthat there isn't a South American crisis on the heels of the Asian one-is bouncingback, particularly in the areas of viticulture, wine making and wine export.The big red-wine grape in Argentina is malbec, an oddity since this native varietalof Bordeaux has been declining in popularity in France for some time now. Malbechas thus been ignored almost everywhere that isn't Argentina, especially inplaces where the cabernet sauvignon/merlot model of Bordeaux-style winemakinghas dominated (in Napa, for instance). Down there in the southern hemisphere,however, malbec has flourished, and thank God Argentina's unleashed it on theworld. If you like Spanish Rioja,chances are that you'll also like malbec, a wine of invigorating fruity mouthfuls-fatwith blackberries and cherries-that still has structure and is generally agedin oak, which adds vanilla tones to the aroma. The color resembles ruby port's,and drinkers who like their wine to tend toward the qualities of port will probablydig malbec, with the lush burn of its mildly tannic finish. Like petite syrah,malbec is a mouth-blackener, a tooth-stainer. And try to drink the stuff that'sgot a few years on it, but not too many. Malbec can age-my recent favoriteswere '94-'95 vintages, and I imagine the earlier releases to be slightly better-butas is the case with red Rioja's, malbec's style is one that emulates Frenchqualities rather than truly possesses them. In other words, you might as welldrink your '95 malbec now. No sense in putting it up for five more years ifit's not going to develop any more complexity, and is only going to lose itssignature fruitiness. What's in the stores now dates from '94 on, and thoughArgentine malbec remains something of a secret, most merchants will, if youask, be happy to introduce you to the cult. That's a marvelous thing, really,because malbec is, ounce-per-ounce, cheap by comparison with the payoff.A bottle of the superb '94 Bodega y Cavas de Weinert goes for $14 at Crossroads. The Weinert is a smoothoperator. Somewhat shaggier, but still reminiscent of malbec in its more youthfultemperament, is the '97 Don Miguel Gascon, which at $9 is so much more interestingthan most other reds you'd drop that kind of money on that it makes sense tostock up on it. The third malbec I sampled was the '95 Valentin Bianchi ($14),and while it reminded me a lot of the Weinert-peppery, oaky, a lot of fruit-thetannins were a little too much for my tastes. In Argentina, Mendoza is the brag-about-itappellation, situated near the middle of the country and shielded from the Pacificby Chile and the Andes. Both Weinert and Gascon have Mendoza on their labels,but Bianchi comes from "San Rafael," which isn't a region separate from Mendoza, but a micro-region within, farther to the south and slightly moreinland. This might explain why, at $14, I thought the Weinert was the superiorbuy. Still, it's not that big a deal. The differences are slight. If it's 65 degrees at nightand feet are up on the back porch and you're watching the dogs gambol on thegrass-or even if you're standing in front of an open window just off FlatbushAve. in Brooklyn, the final dregs of another blissful redneck spring filteringthrough the filthy mesh while the local dons of urban signification thump downthe block and the weeds sway in the breeze-then it's a good time to drink malbec.If you're feeling brave, make sausage risotto to eat with it. Drink an out-of-seasonred wine that was crafted at the bottom of the world, because when the populationup here wilts in the haze, down in Patagonia they shiver. A meaningful difference,if you ask me; an adequate temptation to be not bicoastal, but trans-hemispheric,shuttling across the equator in search of an endless spring. Costly, sure, butin Argentina, they bottle the experience, and sell it.