The Case of the Old Friend

_DSC3574It’s unlikely that many of us have a lot of old friends. Those people you’ve come to rely on as a confidant, who know you and your peculiars, who you have witnessed changing over time as their personalities and lives are altered. It is a privilege to have such a person in your life. You learn quite a bit about how time makes its impact when you sample the same person over the years.

The things that recommend we take and keep and nurture old friends are the same things that recommend to wine drinkers that they buy wine by the case.

It is a spectacular and interesting thing to taste and experience a bottle of X, then 20 years later, taste and experience that same bottle of X after having followed its path through 11 earlier encounters. The changes you’ll mark, like those you’ll mark with the old friend over time, are remarkable.

It’s a shame that so few wine drinkers do buy by the case with the intent of going back, over and over, trying the same wine as the years pass and as the wine changes. There is no data as to what percent of wine drinkers buy wine by the case, but I suspect it in the single digits. Maybe five-percent.

Cindy, my oldest friend who has remained a stable and important part of my life, I first encountered nearly 30 years ago. The friendship was instant. In that time I’ve watched her mature, but not that much. She has more lines today, she is wiser, she is concerned about things today that she never thought about 30 years ago. Yet, her personality still, after all this time, exposes her as an empathetic, curious, fun-loving, self-critical, trustworthy woman. And I’ve gotten to watch all this develop in her.

The wine lover watches the same thing with a single wine. When you taste your last bottle from the case twenty years after you tasted the first, you should understand much better what it means for a wine to be “immature”. And mark my words, a fine wine 2 years out of vintage and placed in bottle just months before is entirely immature. But give that wine 5 or 6 years. All of a sudden its corners aren’t as sharp. Its single-minded fruit and oak have mellowed and something familiar but new emerges. Wait another five years and taste your 7th or 8th bottle and you’ll note a softening. Or perhaps a new more coarse character has overtaken the wine and its vibrancy has been beaten down. It becomes sour and bitter. We all go though angry periods in our lives. But then, maybe, as you reach the 12th bottle that anger has dissolved and you’ll find something new and enlightened with just a hint of what it showed in its youth.

If you’ve not yet made a purchase of a case of a single wine to experience over time, do it now, before it’s too late. It’s true that not all wine is meant to reach the 20 year mark intact. Many will have lost too many limbs and gone dark well before they reach that point. So choose wisely. Choose a red wine that is known to last. Then make that one time splurge. Maybe it’s Bordeaux or Barolo or Napa Cabernet. Maybe it’s from Rioja. The point is to journey with this wine. If you’ve got a sharp mind you may not need to keep notes as you taste this wine over the years. But I recommend it.

Here’s what I can promise you. If you do purchase that case of wine and if you do drink bottles over the course of 20 years, you will make a friend who will become an old friend. They may become sour or bitter in old age, but this unfortunate experience should be understood as part of the whole that deserves experiencing as much as youthful vigor. But maybe, if you choose your friends wisely, you’ll make a friend that becomes an intimate companion and that delivers you pleasure for many years and in many guises.


8 Responses

  1. Charlie Olken - March 6, 2013

    Loved this column. Perhaps because I am of that age at which I not only have wines that are twenty years old, but wines that are forty years old. Yes, too many are no longer anything but memories, and I admit to being unable to drink up my orphans–those single bottles of Chalone Chenin Blanc and Stony Hill Chardonnay from the 70s.

    But I do still have a few bottles of BV Geo. de Latour Pri Res, and you are so right. I have known and loved this wine through its many twists and turns, and when it went from rich and friendly young wine to maturing, complex and refined beginning at about age 12 and continuing to change and enchant at age 30, it has become, for me, my defintition of what cellar age is supposed to do. I opened bottles of this wine recently (68, 69 and 70) at a dinner for revered wine friends, and while the 69 had tired and the 70 was a bit angular and beginning to dry out in the finish, the 68 was pristine.

    Those old wines are now curiosities of a sort. Old friends to be hauled out for a sampling with newer wines standing by as guaranteed backups. No one needs to age hundreds and hundreds of bottles into near senility, but for those of us who have, there are unexpected rewards that keep enriching our palate even after all these years.

  2. Mike Duffy - March 6, 2013

    Let’s see…If I want to drink a particular wine over 20+ years, one bottle each year, I will need 2 cases. If I drink a bottle over two days, I need 185 of those to be able to open a new bottle every two days for a year. So, 370 cases in my cellar. Assuming a good bottle of age-able wine is $50 (and allowing for a 10% case discount), my cost is ($45 per bottle * 12 bottles per case * 370 cases), or $199,800 to indulge my fantasy.

    A man’s gotta dream! The fun part is picking out the 185 vintages. Perhaps we need Fantasy Wine Cellars (akin to Fantasy Baseball teams)…

    • Charlie Olken - March 6, 2013

      Mike–

      Of course, one does not always have to spend $50 for a cellarable bottle. And one certainly need not accumulate a cellar over a short period of time. Nor need one drink only older wines. Even a hundred cases purchased judiciously over time is not inexpensive, but then again, neither is skiing or sailboating or having a second house in Sonoma or the Hamptons. It is all in what one can afford and likes.

      • Mike Duffy - March 6, 2013

        Mostly I was speaking tongue-in-cheek, Charlie, although I’d love to have that $200K cellar to keep me company for the next 20 or so years.

        A more serious question: how does one identify wines that are worth cellaring for 20 years?

        • Tom Wark - March 6, 2013

          Mike,
          That’s easy. Ask Charlie.

          • Charlie Olken - March 6, 2013

            Mike,
            Not to put too fine a point on it, but a good wine review, one that has helpful, analytical words and does not overrely on ratings for its message, will typically give good indications of a wine’s ageworthiness. Tom has graciously suggested my publication, Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine, http://www.cgcw.com, and I will say that ageworthiness, especially when the variety under review does tend to age well, is always considered. We are not the only ones, of course.

            But, only a few varieties do age twenty years as a matter of course. Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Nebbiolo and Syrah are the most likely suspects. Pinot Noir can, but often does not. Zinfandel can, especially those like Grgich and Storybook Mountain with their higher natural acidities, but most will fall short. Some Syrahs will, but we are just now accumulating a data base of CA produced Syrahs and it is too soon to say with certianty how long those wines will age.

  3. jim conaway - March 6, 2013

    Great sentiments and another argument for wines structured to last.

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