WineInk: Should I open it now?
The right time for that special wine
“Had anything great lately?” It’s a question I hear frequently from those who read this column. I like to immediately turn the query back on the person who posed it to get a gauge on what they may be enjoying. And I’m starting to see a trend.
Maybe it is the tenor of the times, perhaps it is just that people are eating more at home with the pandemic still at hand, but folks are starting to open those special bottles that they may have been saving for special occasions a little earlier on than they may have in the past. And to me, that is a good thing.
Many people get bottles of wines for birthdays or anniversaries and put them away for a day when they may relive or celebrate the moment by opening that bottle. Then there are those who collect wines with the specific purpose of enjoying them when the wines have matured and reached the stage of life where they are at their prime. These are two different things, But, either way, keeping the wines in proper condition for an extended period of time is critical to enjoying them when the time comes.
Just this past week two stories came to the fore that illustrated this clearly.
The first came from a longtime local banker who was minding the floor in the Aspen branch of Wells Fargo. (When was the last time you were in a bank?) Anyway, as has been our custom for many years, the talk turned to what we have been drinking lately.
“I decided to open a Barolo for Christmas Eve,” he relayed. “It was a 2010 and I had been saving it, but I thought it was a good time to try it. We had a prime rib, and it was delicious. The wine felt like it was just right.”
You could see the enjoyment on his face as he told the tale. As we talked further, he explained that he has a cool place to store the wine and would occasionally take it out and turn it. It was a bottle he had long looked forward to drinking and, though he could have perhaps held it a bit longer (a good Barolo can age for up to 30 years), he felt now was the time. And, obviously, he was right.
The other story? Well, not so good. A work colleague was having the extended family over for dinner and they were looking for something to toast the occasion. Their son remembered a left-long-ago bottle of “Champagne” that had been in a laundry room cupboard for years. “Should we open it?” Was the question put to me? “Well yeah,” I replied, not having seen the bottle. “But keep your expectations low…and send a photo.” Thirty minutes later the verdict was in, with visual evidence. It turned out the bottle was not Champagne, but rather a sparkling wine from California made by Shramsberg, the great Calistoga house from – get this – the 1980 vintage. The wine was over four decades old.
The family had gathered around for the unveiling of this “gem” and amazingly, the cork popped well. But the wine? Not so much. Over the years, while sitting in the laundry room, it had transformed to a deep, dark, yellow hot mess. “How does it taste?” I texted back. “Are there bubbles? Is it metallic?” The reply came back, “Disgusting. Like urine. Just gross.” So much for that experiment.
But the point is this: now is the time to enjoy those wines you may have put away or were saving for a rainy or snowy day. If you are like the Aspen banker who tends to his wines regularly and keeps them in optimal condition, then you may have better luck storing your wines a little while longer. But if you are keeping wines in a rack or on a shelf, do yourself a favor and go through the wines and pick those that you have had a while and make tonight or tomorrow night your “special occasion.” Go to the market and get the fixin’s for a meal that fits your wine and make a night of it. This is the right time.
At the end of the last century, in 1999, the wife and husband wine writing team of Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher, who co-authored the much beloved “Tastings” column in the Wall Street Journal, had a splendid idea. They thought that people should open those special occasion wines that “they were loving to death by holding on to them” on a non-special occasion. So, they picked a day and designated it “Open That Bottle Night” or OPTBN. The premise was to select that special bottle that you had been saving for just the right moment, gather with friends and drink it. Now.
The event became a phenomenon and each year people would open those special wines and share the stories with Gaiter and Brecher who would retell them in their columns. There were tales of people drinking wines left by long lost relatives, or wines that they had “smuggled” in on planes after overseas excursions, or wines that were the final remembrance of a wedding night long ago. Really sweet stuff. I opened wines myself with OPTBN in mind and always marveled how the wine writers had brought so many glasses of happiness to so many people through their simple idea.
Though the Tastings column ceased publishing in 2009, “Open That Bottle Night” lives on as a celebration of wine for what is approaching a quarter century. It is held annually on the final Saturday of February and this year’s OPTBN will take place on Feb. 26, just a random night made exceptional for those who choose to participate.
It doesn’t take much to be a part of it. Simply go to where you keep your wines, pick a bottle that has some meaning and plan to open it, either with friends or in this day and age, if you prefer, in the comfort of your own home alone. Take a minute to think about the wine, the place it came from, the people who made it, how and where it came to be in your home. Then sip and savor. No matter that the bottle is perfect or not, it is the memories, the thoughts, the moments that count.
The time is now. And it is the right time for that wine.
Two Grandfathers 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon
There are some bottles that you may never open. This one falls under that category.
For seven years I had the great pleasure of working alongside John Madden, the famed Oakland Raiders coach, gaming icon and NFL broadcaster. Sadly, John passed away earlier this month. In addition to his life in football, John owned a vineyard in the Livermore Valley of California, where he produced grapes that he sold to other producers, including the Wente Vineyards.
It so happened that his son, Mike Madden, married Noel Hanna, the daughter Elias S. Hanna M.D., founder of Sonoma’s eponymous Hanna Winery. In honor of the birth of their mutual grandson the “Two Grandfathers” blended together Cabernet Sauvignon from their respective vineyards to produce a limited-edition wine for their families and friends to share. John gave me a bottle on the Madden Cruiser before one of our games and I will likely never open it. It is a keepsake.
In 2005, “Coach,” as he was known, told USA Today in an interview, “I’m drawn to wine by the earthiness. I think we all have that in ourselves somewhere.” It was a classic Madden line and one that resonates with me to this day.
“Without any exception the worst snow storm known since the advent of the railroad west of Leadville has been raging over the crest of the continental divide since last Thursday,” asserted the Aspen Tribune on January 31, 1899.