Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Tale of Two Wines


In the beginning, I always wondered when I would be able to drink wines that were ten years old with some regularity. This seemed an almost mythic and unattainable goal. Like most young wine lovers, I imagined that ten-year-old wines were far superior to wines that had just been released, that if only I could uncork older wines all the time I would finally understand the beauty and mystery of wine. I know now that this is foolish. In my experience, the vast majority of wines, and I’m speaking now of fine wines, not the oceans of plonk that make up most of the wine consumed in this country, do not get wildly better as they age. Even at twenty years old, most disappoint, or underwhelm. Wine is certainly different as it gets older, but better? This is a matter of taste. But I suspect most wine people would agree that wines that are brilliant after twenty years of age are relatively rare. But they’re what we live for.

When I open an older wine from my humble wine cellar, what makes it fun and rewarding is the trip the wine takes you on, the trip back in time and memory. What was my life like back in 1999? (Well, I got married to my beautiful wife Kathleen, most importantly.) It almost doesn’t matter if the wine is magnificent or memorable on its own. I’ve learned how to choose wines that will not fall apart over time, so the wines are rarely undrinkable. But the real pleasure is in the associations the wine brings to mind—that first year of marriage, the wonder of how grand and beautiful life can be. I hold the bottle in my hand, gaze at the vintage, and the producer, and I am overwhelmed with memories. Hell, I almost don’t even have to open the wine to enjoy it.

I always tell people starting out in wine to collect wines that have emotional meaning for you. You ordered it on your first date with your lover. You served it at your wedding. You visited the winery and fell in love with the place. The wine speaks to you, changes your feelings about wine. Those are wines that will reward cellaring, assuming they are wines structured to age. If you cellar wines because they received 100 points, you’ll find little meaning in them when you open them in twenty years. It was in the Wine Spectator Top Ten? Believe me, you won’t care. That’s a fool’s game. I know people with cellars filled with First Growths, 100 point wines, Top Ten wines, and cult wines. They brag about their collections, but that’s all they are. Collections. Meant to impress others. They’re soulless, and the enjoyment of wine is as much about feeding your soul as it is about drinking great vintages. I’ve tasted countless wines that were highly rated, and was grateful each time. But the wines I will always cherish are the wines that were not just magnificent, but nourished my soul, that triggered personal memories, which reminded me to be grateful for my life. It’s memories that make older wines complex as much as the tertiary aromas.

All of this has been said before. There’s almost nothing new to say about wine, though we spend countless hours saying it again and again. Wine is a vast subject, filled with infinite minutiae about infinite bottles, but, in its essence, it’s not hard to understand. Though it takes a while. Every beginning wine lover has to wade through the misinformation and folklore that surrounds wine. Spend a day in a tasting room with ordinary folks and you’ll hear an amazing amount of misinformation about wine that they’ve accumulated from various sources, primarily friends or relatives they see as wine experts, or misinformed tasting room employees or wine shop employees. It’s daunting how much bullshit wine generates. Wine blogs are filled with it. I attended TexSom and heard people with letters after their name say things I know are false, though often to promote themselves or an agenda. And, of course, the HoseMaster does his share.

My gorgeous wife and I were in Cambria for my birthday week in October. I brought along six or eight bottles of wine from our cellar for the occasion. One bottle in particular was reserved for our birthday meal at Bistro Laurent in Paso Robles. It’s that bottle, and another that I’ll get to, that sparked this little essay, that made me think more about aging wines and the rewards of doing so. Not while I was drinking the wine, not at all; while I was drinking it, I was speechless and utterly enthralled by how great the wine was. But later, in the passing weeks, as the experience stayed with me, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
 
The bottle was the 1990 Chave Hermitage. I don’t think I have the chops to adequately describe it. Anything I write would do a great disservice to a remarkable bottle of wine. I will say that at 25 years of age it was still young, vibrant and alive with energy. I’ve always loved Hermitage. For me, it’s the pinnacle of Syrah, though I also love Côte-Rôtie. The other legendary Hermitage from 1990 is the Jaboulet “La Chapelle.” I’m lucky enough to have consumed a few bottles of that great wine, also, and, make no mistake, it is a great wine. The Chave is better.

Where was I in 1990? I was in my third year working as a sommelier, and, truthfully, supremely ignorant about wine and the wine business. I was 38 years old, and finally surfacing from the grief of my fiancée’s death a year earlier. Near the end of 1990, I was dating the woman who would become my first wife--a remarkable woman who saved my life, and who awakened me to my own shortcomings and pain when she wisely divorced me. The Dow Jones hit a record at 2800. “The Simpsons” began. Barry Bonds was the National League MVP playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates while wearing a normal-sized hat. The Zodiac killer terrorized New York. And Chave produced yet another remarkable Syrah.

But it was the personal memories that the wine evoked as I consumed it with a fantastic meal at Bistro Laurent that really mattered. Sitting next to my beautiful wife, recalling the heartbreak that was part of my life in 1990, and thinking about my first gorgeous bride, and about all that had happened since, all the luck and all the heartbreak, the tiring and lonesome trail that miraculously led to my wife Kathleen, that was the gift of the ’90 Chave Hermitage. Its beauty and life reminded me of the beauty in my own life, the incredible luck and fortune that have been my constant companions. Nothing else, and not anybody else, could have given that to me. My favorite wine from my favorite Syrah appellation at twenty-five reminding me of how long twenty-five years is, and how lucky I am to have survived all those days. Only a great wine, a wine I’ve carried along with me all those years, imagining the day I’d finally get to drink it, could have done that. I have no idea what it scored, or if it was a Top Ten Wine that year. Only an idiot would care about that. It was a wine I shall never forget, joining a very, very short list of wines in that category.

In the midst of thinking about the Chave Hermitage, I happened to stop by Ridge Vineyards out in Dry Creek to pick up some wine and taste what they had to offer. Ridge doesn’t need my praise. They’re one of the greatest producers in California. And on this day, with that Chave still kicking around in the back of my head, I was greatly impressed by the Ridge 2012 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. In fact, after sniffing and tasting, my first thought was, “I’d love to drink this wine in twenty-five years.”

The Ridge is spectacularly good Cabernet Sauvignon that is sourced, I was told, from the younger
vines at Monte Bello Vineyard. Younger, in Monte Bello’s case, meaning twenty years old. If you’ve never had the pleasure of drinking Monte Bello Cabernet, especially one that is twenty years old or so, you should put that on your wine bucket list. Anyone asked which are the five greatest California Cabernets who doesn’t include Ridge Monte Bello simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about. This 2012 Estate is not the legendary Ridge Monte Bello, but, truly, it seemed as good as its older brother. I was astonished, and kept tasting it trying to pick it apart, see why it was so much cheaper. I’m no Paul Draper, but I would be surprised if, in 25 years, you could tell the Estate from the Monte Bello. No matter, both are great wines.

Let’s put it this way. There are a lot of Cabernets that aren’t half as good made from vines that aren’t half as old that sell for a lot more money to the folks who chase scores and “cult” wines. The Ridge 2012 Estate is fifty bucks. Twenty years from now, that will seem insanely cheap.

Somehow, my brain decided to link the Chave Hermitage with the Ridge Estate Cab. You stick around wine long enough, taste tens of thousands of wines, and your brain alters—and not just from the alcohol. It finds connections that might make little sense at first, but which you mustn’t ignore. You might be tempted to call it intuition, but it’s more certainly wisdom. I’ve learned to listen to that wine voice in my head. When it says, “I want to taste this wine in twenty-five years,” I pay attention. Will the Ridge be another Chave Hermitage? Most certainly not. Doesn’t matter. It will be great in its own way.

If I live another twenty-two years and open the 2012, I know it will be something special. How do I know? Beats me. But I trust my instincts. And when I do drink it, it will remind me of 2012. Of the days when I was the HoseMaster of Wine™. Of the people I met and loved because I write this crap regularly. Of the people who may have passed since then. Of my sweet and adorably dumb Norwich Terrier, Mickey, who was born in 2012, who we raised from birth. And, therefore, of his mother, Kate, a dog I feel is my canine soulmate on her second visit. Of my long and remarkable marriage to the kindest soul who exists in this time and this place. Of a time that will seem imaginary to my future self in 2037, slippery, hard to recall, but was my 60th year on this mysterious planet. Only a wine can do that.

Every old wine, but especially the ones that take your breath away, is a time capsule we open with a corkscrew and a full heart.  A living, breathing, energetic reminder of our past that will unearth memories that have long lain dormant. And when people ask me how a wine can be profound, there is the answer.

27 comments:

DocV said...

Thanks for this Hoser, as we say in the winosphere,YOU CRUSHED IT!

Sweet thoughts leading into the most sentimental season.

Bravo

Carl LaFong said...

Well written and a good read.
Cheers and keep on for the next 20

David Pierson said...

Walder has been posting on what he's been reading on wine in his weekly post and it's the best part of his blog. Read a piece on Joe Smith, the record exec whose Beverly Hills estate has got wines so cool and great that would make any wine fan drool and weep. But the cool thing is, he actually drinks them. His collection is probably worth millions but all he cares about is sharing the right wine with the right friends for the right occasion. Here here.

Don Clemens said...

Ron, this was a surprising post. I always find something to enjoy in your writing, but this one actually brought tears to my eyes. Thank you so much for sharing your memories, and your passion - both for great wine and great women. I've had a few similar moments, with both. I only hope that my eyes, palate and heart are ready for more such moments in the future. Thanks again for a wonderful post.
Don

Unknown said...

I enjoy laughing at the Hosemaster, but I'm most touched when Ron shares himself. This is a great article, thanks for sharing. Steve Pinzon

David Fish said...

A great story Ron! Not a shark in the whole thing, just lots of love of wine, and of people and of life. Got me right in "the feels".

David Fish said...

"snark", autocorrect wrote "shark".

Charlie Olken said...

"I suspect most wine people would agree that wines that are brilliant after twenty years of age are relatively rare. But they’re what we live for."

I will admit to having collected too many bottles. It is am occupational hazard for me. But when I pull out an older wine that behaves magically, then I am glad that I did.

I am often asked why I do not sell of the excess, and my answer is always the same. I spent a few bucks and some electricity so I could choose to drink one of those old memories when the occasion is right.

And, yes, ten years is a good age for most wines, but twenty is somehow better for great CS. And to my surprise, many older Zins have aged into almost ethereal beauty like the 75 Joe Swan Zin. It turned out to be as memorable a moment as drinking 74 Martha's Vyd.

Sorry for seeming to brag, but it is not the bragging that is important to me. It is the wine when it turns out really well.

Ed Kurtzman said...

Thanks for the excellent Thursday morning post, Ron. The few times I've been able to have the '90 Chave and '90 La Chapelle have been some of the highlights of my 27 years in the wine business. Yes, the wines are great (La Chapelle has the slight edge), but the occasions when they're opened and the thoughts they provoke are so much more memorable than just the taste of the wines. A dear friend and old work colleague, who used to work at Ridge, gave me a birthday gift of a 1964 Ridge Estate Cab. Not sure if it's before they started calling it Monte Bello or if it was the "young" vines. Since that was a birth year wine for me, it was destined to provide me with a lifetime's worth of emotions, every time I looked at the bottle. The wine was spectacular when I had it around my 40th birthday. Now you've reminded me I need to get some of the 2012 Ridge Estate Cab. My son was born that year. Who knows if he'll ever love wine, he's only three, but I'm sure I would love to have a bottle to open on his 21st birthday, in 2033. I'll remember your post and what prompted me to get that bottle.

jock said...

Brilliant as usual. This is one I could have written though not as eloquently. The 1970 Ridge Montebello is one of the first wines I bought to lay down. Long gone. The 1990 Chave was a two case purchase from Kermit Lynch. One case for me and one for the Wine and Food Society Cellar. My last bottle was about four years ago and it was "off" but it reminded me about the ones that weren't.

Goddess of Wine said...

Your words often move me to snorting my morning coffee, but today you made me weep. Those things, wine or otherwise, that evoke the special times in our lives, are what makes the journey worth it. All of us who love wine are often called upon to explain the magic in the bottle, but you have nailed it. Thanks for a moving and thought-provoking essay today.

Rocky Volcanics said...

Beautiful.

VinoNovato said...

I am waiting just a short while longer on one 1984 Monte Bello, as it was a heck of a big vintage year for some. I had just met my wife to be and now believe both are worthy of the investment of my most valuable resource within their realms. Time to see if the bottle can deliver on its fine and rare status as well. Cristine's has been demonstrated continuously for 30+ years, thankful for one, hopeful for the other.
Thanks for the insights.

Dave Miner said...

Amen, brother. I find myself shedding tears, missing my departed wife Emily, and wondering what I should pop tonight to remind me how lucky I was, and still am. Thank you for a moment of sanity and clarity in a world of cackling hens. I miss you.

Orris Cowgill said...

...been reading your trash for years and loving it as I'm a trash collector. The comments are often as much fun to read as the HSM stuff. As I'm now commenting A Tale of True Wines must have hit a high note. From the heart, keep the good trash coming. I've also purchased some 2012 Ridge Estate, the winery has only magnums for sale on their web site...The Lord High Steward.

gabriel jagle said...

loved it

Aaron said...

This is exactly it. These are the wines that I've started to build my cellar on, which is when I connect with that winery and go "oh, this is so good". I'm going to need all of the patience I can to build up, a few bottles at a time, wine that I go "I want to know what this is like in 10, or 20 years". Thanks for the excellent perspective Ron!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Common Taters,
First of all, thank you for the kind words and thoughtful reactions. My day was made this morning when my beautiful wife told me how much she loved this piece.

Something about that old Chave moved me. I tried to capture that here. We often talk about how amazed we are when a wine survives gracefully for 25 years, but isn't the real point that we ourselves also survived? We can buy older wines, open them and enjoy them, but there's something more powerful about the bottle having made the journey with us. That we're lucky enough to be healthy and alive and able to spend time with that old, great bottle of wine. When so many we've loved cannot. Sorry, beer and vodka and cider lovers, they cannot do that.

I've always tried to write HoseMaster for myself, for the simple act of writing. I certainly don't do it to make a name for myself in the biz, which, frankly, is what's wrong with 99% of the wine blogs out there. I'm sure it's sort of jarring to people when I write in my own voice, maybe even more than it is when I write as Lo Hai Qu. But I find that there are things I want to write that have nothing to do with satire and comedy. That any of you read it completely baffles me. But thank you.

Steven Einstein said...

What a beautiful and informative essay. Pretty damn good trash, says I. Now I'm going to hold onto that bottle that I've been speaking to for 7 years, a while longer.

Bob Henry said...

“In my experience, the vast majority of wines, and I’m speaking now of fine wines, not the oceans of plonk that make up most of the wine consumed in this country, do not get wildly better as they age. Even at twenty years old, most disappoint, or underwhelm. Wine is certainly different as it gets older, but better? This is a matter of taste.”

Going forward, collectors of modern day red wines need to worry about “pre-mox”:

Excerpt from Decanter
(May 24, 2013):

"Red Wines May Have Premature Oxidation Problems, Say Bordeaux Researchers"

[ Link: http://www.decanter.com/news/wine-news/583929/red-wines-may-have-premature-oxidation-problems-say-bordeaux-researchers ]

By Jane Anson

Those who wish to experience older wines can avail themselves to bottles at auction:

From the Los Angeles Times “Food” Section
(April 23, 2008, Page F1ff):

“It's Vintage Napa
(Classic California Cabs can pack a big reward)”

[ Link: http://articles.latimes.com/print/2008/apr/23/food/fo-wine23 ]

By Corie Brown
Times Staff Writer

Bob Henry said...

"Spend a day in a tasting room with ordinary folks and you’ll hear an amazing amount of misinformation about wine that they’ve accumulated from various sources, primarily friends or relatives they see as wine experts, or misinformed tasting room employees or wine shop employees. It’s daunting how much bullshit wine generates."

Sounds like the latent wine educator who lurks under the mantle of wine curmudgeon?

Bob Henry said...

"Read a piece on Joe Smith, the record exec whose Beverly Hills estate has got wines so cool and great that would make any wine fan drool and weep. But the cool thing is, he actually drinks them."

When Henri Jayer came to Los Angeles to celebrate his retirement, a dinner was organized in his honor at Spago restaurant.

Purportedly, Joe Smith supplied all of the wines that night . . . in magnum format.

Such a mensch.

Bob Henry said...

And my last comment: on Ridge Vineyards and aging wine.

From Wired
(July 8, 2014):

“One Man’s [Paul Draper’s] Quest to Reveal What’s Actually in Your Favorite Wines”

[ Link: http://www.wired.com/2014/07/paul-draper-wine-labels/ ]

Mike Dunne said...

There he goes again, channeling Harry Waugh and Len Evans with his poetic grasp of all things large and small in the world of wine, except for his remembrance of the Zodiac killer, a presence in the Age of Ripple, not the Age of Chave.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hey Mike,
Yeah, you're right about the Zodiac killer. I was referring to the copycat Zodiac killer who was killing people in NY in the early '90's. You know, copycats, like most Poodles.

Poetic? Hardly. More Compost than anything.

Amy said...

This is brilliant, sage advice! "I always tell people starting out in wine to collect wines that have emotional meaning for you."

Unknown said...

Wow.... Hosemaster waxes sentimental? What a great column though.... and as I'm reading and writing this, I'm enjoying a 1997 Kenwood Jack London Cabernet. It's not stunning, but in its own way, it's quite enjoyable and it reminds me of why I put wines away. Wine has given me great friends, great times, great meals, and great enjoyment. What else could do so much? Thanks Ron for reminding all of us why we put up with everything else in the industry in order to enjoy the benefits.....
George Ronay