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.