The Epiphany of Mortality and Aging Wine

For real wine lovers the act of "putting down" wines to age is not an exercise in possessing or building a bigger cache than the neighbor. It is foresight. It is about making an investment in time that is at once an optimistic act and also an act of faith that what your wine will evolve into after some years will be an altogether interesting, satisfying and intellectually inspiring wine.

Charles Olken, the publisher of the Connoisseurs Guide to California wine, has a lovely article on the fate of the Zinfandels he’s put into one of his two wine cellars for aging. He makes the point that aging Zinfandels, unlike Cabernets, can be an iffy proposition. The old grape may or may not age into something stirring.

But what struck me about Olken’s piece on aging wine is the idea that as we ourselves age, we get diminished return on our investment in time and wine.   And it leads me to wonder, what melancholy thought process must take over for us to admit that the wines we are laying down will likely never pique our interest simply because we will not be around to experience them.

The epiphany of mortality, while surely jarring to continued notion of immortality that hangs with
us from our youth, needn’t necessarily be a moment of despair: it also marks the moment when
we commit ourselves to catching up with the contents of our wine cellar and begin to drink what we’ve aged.

But this takes planning.

If we begin at long last the age of 60 to start to set aside wines to age it seem we probably have at most 10 years of cellar time before our bodies become not so helpful in maintaining the kind of stamina it takes to regularly investigate what time has done to the wine. You are probably cheating the wines and yourself out of what was supposed to be a transformative experience.

This of course brings me to the point: If you have an interest in experiencing well-aged wines, you really should start setting aside those bottles with potential as early in your life cycle as you possibly can. This is not so easy, youth being the enemy of patience. But the idea really should be to be able to start to dip into your cache of well-aged wines before you are well-aged. Beginning to set aside wines at age 30 seems reasonable. In this way one can begin their adventure in transformation by age 40 and, with consistency, patience and dedication, continue to drink and investigate well aged wines till the end.

Still, at some point you really must face the question: when do I stop trying to attract dust to my purchases? When will there be not enough time left to get to them? It’s a delicate question.

7 Responses

  1. Trish - June 1, 2006

    Tom, I’d never thought about laying down wine in terms of my own personal expiration. That’s really rather depressing. Luckily, it’s a bright, cheerful day here in Akron. Wait. No, it’s raining again. At least I seem to have youth on my side.

  2. tom - June 1, 2006

    Sorry about that Trish. It occurred to me that it is indeed something to consider. For what it’s worth, it’s a tad overcast here today also.

  3. David - June 1, 2006

    I work at a Sonoma Co. tasting room and have people ask me all the time about ageability of red wines. When anyone asks about Zinfandel I always say “It’s really a personal preference” because I like my Zins when they have all the great, effusive, up-front fruit. So I tend to drink them earlier rather than later. My personal experience with aging Zin is somewhat like Charlie Olken’s…they get much more Cabernet like.
    Getting ready to turn 57 later this year, I’m no longer looking to buy any reds that will take several decades to mature. I’ve known too many seniors whose sense of taste sadly declined in their 70’s. Not going to take any chances. 😉

  4. Mark - June 1, 2006

    I’m at the same age as Tom and agree with him as well. I’m not buying Ports anymore. I read somewhere once about British wine drinkers that they drink Bordeaux in their 30’s and 40’s, switched to Burgundies for their 50’s and 60’s (when they can also better afford them) and then went back to Bordeaux because of declining palats if they made it to their 70’s. I also find myself on that path.

  5. Trish - June 1, 2006

    I think I probably jinxed myself with that youth comment. Indeed, it’s something to consider the next time I tell myself I don’t need to lay wine down now because I have plenty of time.
    There’s been a break in the clouds, by the way.

  6. Rory - June 1, 2006

    This is something I think about all the time (at age 24), because I do wish to lay down wines now that will last several decades so that I can enjoy them in my (not so) later years. However, I’m not so much trying race against death as I am aiming to be able to enjoy wines while still relatively young. I’d love to have a good collection of 10-20 year old bordeaux at age 40, for example. You failed to mention several other barriers of youth beyond impatience though. Number one is of course budget – it is hard to justify even occasionally spending $50+ on special, age-worthy bottles when you can barely afford to keep $10 bottles at the ready for everyday drinking. Space and mobility are also concerns – not only in finding “cellar” space in a 500 sq. ft apartment, but also being able to make sure that these wines are taken care of as one moves to other apartments, eventually a home, maybe across the country or even the world. I think it’s much easier to lay down a bottle and forget about it in a cellar than to buy a bottle knowing you will have to make an effort to actively maintain it over the years.
    I’m also surprised that you didn’t mention what I believed to be a common practice: leaving aged wines for future generations. I always thought this to be something of an attempt at immortality, as you will live on in the memories of your children and grandchildren when they open those special bottles. Maybe this is youthful optimism, but I’d like to think that someday when I have a cellar full of wine at age 70, I won’t be sad to see it go to waste, but happy to be able to pass this great treasure on to my loved ones.

  7. Ron - December 31, 2009

    For the longest time, when I could afford them, I’d make sure to pick up a couple of bottles of the current vintage of Chateau Latour. I’m currently 58 years old and I no longer believe that’s a wise investment. If I should live long enough to drink a mature ’05 and my doctor says I can still drink wine (I’d ignore him anyway) I’d be glad to have just about anything.

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