In my career I have been lucky enough to work at some fabulous places with some lengthy verticals on their wine lists. Because I am a Napa Valley native, most of my first-hand experience with older vintages has been with bottles from California. I have enough years “in the cellar” myself to have drunk quite a few of them before they became “older.” Although many California wines can age well and will often show surprising longevity when you least expect it (we tried a 1976 Burgess Zinfandel at work one night that still had quite a bit of spring in its step), old wine in the New World usually means 20 to 30 years. Just as with our appreciation of antique furniture, art, or architecture, the concept of what constitutes “old wine” here in America would only qualify as adolescent in Europe. We simply haven’t been around and doing it as long as they have.
As a consequence, most people who drink older vintage California wines do so as a curiosity, or because they just want to show off. They often lack the experience to really appreciate the nuances of a well-cellared, older vintage. As wine drinkers, our palates have been conditioned by consuming so many big, slutty, overoaked, too-young Cabs and Merlots that anything older than five or ten years tastes ‘gone” to us. We are what my friend Mike Featherston used to call “baby killers.” I once had a guy order a lovely older vintage Ridge Monte Bello (a 1985, and this was back in 2005) just to impress his busty Rent-a-Date dinner companion. As I was de-canting it over a candle, the woman asks me “Why do you use a candle underneath it?” And before I can get Word One out of my mouth to explain, this Cork Dork starts in with “Well, the heat from the candle changes the molecular complexity of the wine, blah-blah-blah.” I mentally roll my eyes, and tell her, “Yes, plus the light helps me see all the little bits before they can go into the decanter.” I could tell he hated it, but he drank it anyway so as not to be shamed in front of me or the bimbo. A beautiful bottle of wine, and it was so completely and utterly wasted on these two.
I got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to try some older vintage wines last Friday at our restaurant. A party of 8 collectors had set up a special menu, deigned by Chef and our Sommelier, Yoon Ha, to compliment the nuances of these older vintages. And we are talking truly older vintages here: 1959 Laurent Perrier Grand Siecle Champagne, 1952 Krug, 1998 & 1928 Haut-Brion Blanc, 1929 Margaux, 1947 La Mission Haut-Brion, 1945 Latour, 1945 Latour a Pomerol, 1926 Cheval Blanc, 1926 Haut-Brion Blanc, 1955 La Romanee, 1962 La Romanee, 1898 La Tour Blanche, 1921 Suduiraut and a 1912 Tokaji Eszencia. Not your garden variety Cork Dorks, these guys not only had the experience and expertise to enjoy and appreciate these very old bottles, but also the time and money to source them, cellar them properly and transport to a place like ours where they can be drunk while enjoying a fine meal with people of a like mind. Among this particular group was Francois Auduze, one of the world’s authorities on older vintage wines. He has a collection to boggle the mind. The seven gentlemen joining him all paid big, big bucks to be at the table that night. That, on top of the cost of the wines themselves, which came from their personal cellars; then there was airfare, limos, hotels, and the cost of the dinner itself; all just to be there, eat nine courses, and be told of their history while they drank some amazing wines.
The bottles were all in great condition, but the corks required no small amount of skill and dexterity to negotiate. Our Somm is one of the most professional and knowledgeable I have ever seen or worked with; always grace under pressure. That night was the first time I had seen him worked into a near froth. Not only did he have 100-year-old corks to deal with, but also he had to de-cant and serve these museum pieces to people who actually know what they are, know their history, and what to expect from them in their glass and on their palate.
As is the case with very old wines, some were fantastic, others disappointing. Not because of improper storage but just because they were years past their prime. It was fascinating to experience the nuances of champagne from the year after I was born; and the 1898 La Tour Blanche had morphed into a silky, earthy little bomb of nuts, honey, and apricots. My favorite of the bunch was the 1929 Margaux. Still vibrant and colorful, even though it was made the year my father turned 10 and the Great Depression was just beginning. None of us got to taste much more than a sip, mind you. These guys treasured what they were served so much that one point in the dinner I tried to clear what I assumed was an empty glass, nothing but a few bubbles in the bottom and was admonished by the French host, “Eh, I sink you have tekken my glass, no?”
Dinner went on until 1:00am, when heads started bobbing and their speech was just slightly slurred. Limos pulled up to transport them all back to SF, where they were apparently doing much the same thing the next night. Must be nice…