Thursday, March 23, 2017
EPHEMERA: 1969 Chappellet Cabernet Sauvignon--"ITS ALIVE!!"
You never know when the next great wine will appear in your life. “Great” is one of those words that gets bandied about endlessly when it comes to wine, and has become nearly meaningless. I’ve been fortunate enough to have tasted more than my share of what I consider great wines. I’ve never counted how many. That’s a bit like guys who keep a list of women they’ve slept with. I remember them all, but I don’t lump them together as trophies. Not all three women! Great wines, to me, are wines that simply knock you off your feet, leave you virtually speechless, fill you with gratitude that you’ve lived long enough and well enough to put them in your mouth. They are only rarely encountered, and they are never forgotten. They’re true loves, not one-night stands. I recently met one.
I was invited to Chappellet’s 50th Anniversary tasting in February. I haven’t the vaguest idea why. Most of the other attendees were far more illustrious than I. Among the attendees were Esther Mobley, the supremely talented wine writer for the "San Francisco Chronicle," Karen MacNeil, Kevin Zraly, the last name in wine writing, Kelli White (speaking of supremely talented), Laurie Daniel, Elaine Chukan Brown, and me. I felt like John Waters at the Director’s Guild Awards. I don’t belong here, I tell people to eat shit. However, I’m a longtime fan of Chappellet, and always bought their wines, especially their late-lamented Old Vines Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon, for my wine list, so I was excited to be there. Yet I had no idea I was going to meet a true love.
There’s something magic about an old wine that is still vibrantly alive. Very few are. Most begin to show their faults as they get older, many just get weird, an awful lot are dead but don't seem to know it. We have families like that. And then there are the blessed, the ones who age obscenely gracefully, a Molly Chappellet (the loveliest matriarch of Napa Valley, especially since the recent passing of Mary Novak of Spottswoode), and the 1969 Chappellet Cabernet Sauvignon. The Chappellets were kind enough to offer us the ’69 at their 50th anniversary tasting, and when a wine can dazzle even the jaded palates of countless wine “experts,” and the ’69 was the talk of the room, it has to be extraordinary.
What’s magic about an older wine is that it takes us on a journey through our memories, through our lives. Nothing else we consume does that. OK, maybe mushrooms. I was a junior in high school in 1969 when Donn Chappellet and Philip Togni were harvesting this wine, and it must have been bottled when I was a freshman at Occidental College—the same year my wife Kathleen was born, 1971. Imagine that. I had no idea in 1969 I would end up a sommelier married to a woman who wasn't yet born. I’d never tasted a single wine when this wine was bottled. Not one. Nor had I met anyone not yet born. And if I had tasted this wine when it was released (I would have been underage, but, more importantly, under-qualified), I would no doubt have hated it. We both needed to evolve.
I won’t bother to attempt to describe it. Esther Mobley did that beautifully in her SF Chronicle column about loving older wines (she said it was maybe the best wine she’d ever tasted). My tasting notes begin, “IT’S ALIVE!!!” I was channeling Dr. Frankenstein at that moment, amazed at the electricity in the wine, and falling in love with it at the same time. Wines like that are ineffable. Like being asked what I love about my wife. It’s both impossible to express in a meaningful way, and too personal. I was an unhappy kid in 1969—lonely and confused, angry and reclusive. And yet somehow I managed to live a wonderful life filled with amazing loves, and end up in 2017 happy to be alive. The ’69 Chappellet was like a message in a bottle from that miserable kid living in that miserable time. A message of hope. A kind of congratulatory experience, a reassurance that sometimes, and maybe more often than we think, if we just hang around long enough, things can work out. Drinking it felt like, despite all odds, I’d had a great life, and, as a reward, ended up drinking that great old Cabernet among my peers. It was humbling. Great wine always humbles anyone with a heart.
The other nine Cabernet Sauvignons Chappellet served us were interesting and variable. Many were top-notch. I’ve never been to a vertical tasting where that wasn’t the case. How did the ’69 turn out so miraculously, so much more compelling than the rest? No one seemed to know. Everyone was guessing, everyone had a theory, but no one actually knew. A bunch of decisions were made, most of them irrevocable, many of them guesswork; the wine was paid attention to, nurtured, but could easily have been undone by any one of those decisions. We’ll never really know how it made it to 2017 so alive and remarkable. And the same could be said for all of us in that room that day, not just the ’69 Chappellet.
The truth is, we don’t have to know how it was made. No wine, no one’s life, can be replicated anyway. Some, inexplicably, just turn out to be miracles.