Many years ago I was working at a wine distributor as a driver and warehouse guy. It’s not a glorious position but gives you some flexibility, if you’re efficient enough, and gives you access to a warehouse of wine at a serious discount. When I left that job for a graphic design position at a software company, my good friend Solo took my place at the distributor and started his journey down the long, sordid road to wine-guydom. A year and a half later I returned to the distributor where I worked with Solo, and for years thereafter we were a wine-guy tag-team, both working various wine industry jobs, feasting, tasting, toasting, and discussing.
So from these years at varying distributors and in and about the wine scene, Solo and I had acquired fairly sizable wine cellars. Neither of us really knew what we were doing so we filled the shelves with what we were most excited about (and had ready, inexpensive access to). We liked lots of Rhone and Languedoc, Zinfandels, Syrahs, California Rhone-Style, and some Oregon wines, many from when Solo worked at a local winery. We didn’t really put down many of the classic cellar-able wines that one thinks of: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barbaresco, German Rieslings, and so on.
Years later, when I closed my wine shop, thus losing my easy, cheap access to wine, I started diving into my cellar. (That is, after all, one of the reasons to have a wine cellar; the reserve supply for wines when the supply has dried up). I was now discovering, however, that many of these wines I loved in their youth, through time had lost most aspects that made me like them in the first place. Gone was the fruit, and the spicy and lively character had yielded to washed-out and rusty. None of the bottles I laid down were completely disastrous and, thankfully, there were very few corked wines. This did, however, open my eyes about the purposes of cellaring wines, what makes a wine age-worthy, and at what point it loses all practicality.
A couple of Fridays ago I had some friends over for an informal get-together where I was to make a cassoulet: the perfect French dish for a cold winter evening. There were six of us; all wine enthusiasts to some degree or other. For this meal, Solo and I were going to bring out some of the last holdouts in each of our remaining, and dwindling cellars. It was the Grange des Peres: a cult winery from the French Languedoc that has had a high-profile following since its inception in 1992 and has been given the two-thumbs-way-up rating from wine score tycoon Robert Parker. In fact, the guys from Grange des Peres are profiled and interviewed in the movie Mondo Vino, a film that raises questions of the power of critics and ratings in the shaping of the worldwide wine trade. But that’s another story altogether.
Solo and I had picked up a few bottles of this stuff back in the day when we worked at the same distributor. We had been holding onto them for some special moment when we would both be around and we weren’t drinking something else. Suffice it to say that it took quite a while for that time to come around. I had a vertical of the Grange des Peres from the vintages 1996, 1998 and 1999, and Solo had a 1998. Solo offered his ’98 so I could save mine for a bit later. Our friend Paul, who was also in attendance at this gathering had brought a home-bottled Barbera from his own cellar as insurance against a possible 3-bottle cellar calamity. That didn’t happen. The calamity, that is. But we opened the Barbera anyway.
Now, whenever I open something that has been sitting in the cellar in the basement for a long time, I am always a bit surprised when it doesn’t turn out to be vinegar. All the wine expert books and magazines can make you fret for sleepless nights, concerned that you’re ruining your wine if the conditions aren’t just right. Has the temperature been consistent enough? Do I really need a humidity controller? It the stuff too close to the furnace? Have they all been torched from the 6 month stretch when the dryer hose detached and was blowing into the room? And other such realizations like: Oh crap! I just left all these bottles sitting upright for the last two years! But things never seem to turn out quite as disastrous as the wine pros would have you think.
On this fortuitous Friday, once we all got gathered and settled and started in on the white wine appetizers (white wine IS an appetizer, by the way), we lined up the bottles for the photo-op. A cassoulet has to stew for a couple hours, which gives a large window of opportunity for wine tasting, comparison, and discussion. So once I got the main cassoulet preparations in good working order we popped the four bottles and fished out enough glasses for each of us to have tastes of each wine.
These wines are predominantly Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon (in what percentages I couldn’t readily find), both varietals that are known to age well when of noble stock and proper vinification and handling. The character of the Grange des Peres features a very concentrated fruit character, some stewed berries, and an aspect to them that I can only describe as “ketchup-y”; flavors I’ve gotten off of a number of Washington Syrah and Cabernet, and some Aussie stuff. Not having tasted these wines in their youth, I can’t accurately say exactly how they were fresh out of the barrel.
The 1996, being the oldest of the trio, had faded quite a bit, as one might expect. The fruit profile had gone a bit towards the flat, cardboardy side and remaining notes of toasted oak was taking over. The 1998 was showing much better, although Solo mentioned getting aromas of brettanomyces, a wine flaw that can add character or ruin a wine. I couldn’t taste the brett, but noticed higher concentarations of fruit that were slowly blossoming as the wine opened up. I thought the ’98 was the best shower of the three. The 1999 did perform just as well as a wine that was one year younger than the 1998. It was fine, had that aged quality to it, but losing a bit more structure than the ’98, and again fading to the secondary characteristics of barrel aging. We compared notes, argued, agreed and all lamented the fact that none of us had grabbed a 1997 to complete the proper vertical.
The mystery wine that Paul brought was the pick of the bunch when it came to the food. I remember it was a Barbera, but it did not come with a label, so I don’t have the information of who made it or where it was from or what vintage it was. Barbera as a varietal is a spectacular food wine, especially those Northern Italian varieties. If I remember correctly, this one was from somewhere local, and if so, was one of the first American Barberas I have found that holds a torch to the Italians. I remember it stood up to the richer characteristics of the food, as well as soothing over the gamier characteristics of the wild duck that was in the cassoulet.
As with any wine I remove from the cellar, there is the slight feeling of remorse and niggling feelings of doubt about the timeliness of opening those bottles at the right or wrong time; too early or too late . . . or at all. There is some return of the feelings and memories of the time that was when the wines were laid down, like the dust on the bottles. But all this gives way to the proper purpose of wine when it mixes with the present jovial times of sharing these things with good company.