A Perpetual Journey
June 9, 2011
If you are a member of the English nobility and your castle or country estate comes equipped with a cavernous underground wine cellar naturally cooled by the earth to a year-round fifty degrees, there is—I imagine—a wonderful kind of pleasure that can be had in tossing all manner of wines into the cellar without any concern for how to make them fit. If you are a member of the caste of Americans who actually works for a living and therefore needs to live in a city where storing your wine costs in the neighborhood of two or three dollars per bottle per year, there comes a time when a metastasizing wine collection is no longer in your best interest. If this time coincides with the time when you find yourself asking, “What the hell was I thinking when I bought that?” you may find yourself electing to send a portion of your stash to auction.
If the answer to the question “What the hell was I thinking when I bought that?” is “It had a ton of points from a publication identified in auction listings by its initials,” then this has the potential to be a profitable endeavor, especially if the wine is popular in China (more about that later). Unfortunately, if your collection is anything like mine, you are as likely to answer the question with something like, “It seemed interesting at the time,” in which case dispossessing yourself of the wine will almost certainly bring no pecuniary gain other than sparing you the annual two-to-three-dollar storage liability. Note to self: seeming interesting is a perfectly good justification for purchasing a bottle of wine, but you don’t always need to go for the six-pack.
Anyway, I found myself in the position of re-living several chapters of wine purchases past when I recalled a number of cases from storage with an eye towards selling them. The wines in question fit into a several different categories. Some were definitively bound for exile with no chance whatsoever of executive clemency; their very presence in my cellar stood as an affront to my pride and aspirations to good taste. These included two cases of 2003 Bordeaux, a vintage which got everybody excited at the time as its unprecedentedly hot weather fueled speculation that the wines would end up super-ripe, rich, and exotic, but in fact the opposite proved true as it was so hot—“How hot was it?”—it was so hot that the grapevines threw their hands up in exasperation at the labor of having to ripen at all, and the wines ended up green, hard, and tannic. It is 90 degrees in New York as I write this, which is so hot that nobody is talking about anything except to bitch about how awfully hot it is and young women are walking the streets dressed like strippers halfway through their act; add 15 degrees to that and you get the Bordeaux heat record set in August 2003. Amazingly, I was actually able to sell these wines for a bit more than I paid for them. The wines may have turned into asparagus but their high-90s point scores will remain with them forever.
There were also a handful of Bordeaux in category two, which consisted of wines I wish I could hold onto but which have sadly increased in value to the point where I can no longer justify drinking a bottle instead of selling it, and will likely never be able to afford again. This included my one and only bottle of Château Lafite-Rothschild, which as an emblem of luxury in a fashion similar to a Louis Vuitton bag has become a status symbol among social-climbers in China, where it is apparently a popular item to give as a gift to broadcast that you are a man of wealth and taste or to bribe a Communist Party official to shower your business with official favors. Things were so much better when the wines used for this purpose were California cabernets in the Napa Valley “cult” wine genre that I had no interest in drinking. I actually liked Lafite, but not as much as I liked the $500 I was paid for my off-vintage 2002. Hopefully this craziness will come to an end soon. In the meanwhile, if you are a Chinese Communist Party bureaucrat in possession of my lovingly stored Lafite, I hope it’s corked.
Finally, there is category three, which included wines that I liked on release but didn’t have the foggiest idea how they might age as well as a number of wines I suspected might not be developing so well but which I nevertheless wanted to taste before wishing any of them good-bye. I spent the last several weeks going through them and the experience led me to do quite a lot of thinking about what we are hoping to accomplish when we cellar wine. For example, every now and then you taste a wine that is so transcendentally amazing that it’s like a novel you don’t want to end; you want to share it with everyone you know and to have a bottle at your disposal whenever you want to relive the experience. When we put a wine like this in the cellar it is often more about the satisfaction of ownership than the anticipation of what the future holds. Perhaps manifesting the accumulative habits of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, there is a certain personality (and if as a kid you kept your baseball cards meticulously organized in plastic pages in D-ring binders, you have that personality) that finds comfort in collecting things, as if they could offer the reassurance that everything meaningful to us could be stored away somewhere safe to be retrieved, unchanged, whenever the desire strikes.
But those transcendentally amazing experiences are not always reproducible results. Sometimes the thrill of that very first experience is the result of exactly that—the very first experience—and the wine that meant so much to you the first time around doesn’t hold up in reruns. (In other words, some wines are like ABC’s Lost, which would make you feel like a giant sucker if you were to watch any of its story arcs a second time around, and other wines are like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which you can watch in reruns hundreds of times—at least I can—and still experience the same emotional resonance as the original airing.) Henry James wrote that “there are two kinds of taste, the taste for emotions of surprise and the taste for emotions of recognition.” Some wines offer more satisfaction in the surprise department than the recognition department. It’s like a lot of tourist attractions. Once is enough.
There is also the fact that wine changes. It gets old and frail and sometimes just dies.
We live in an era in which professional wine critics condition consumers to think that aging wine is a science. They set forth anticipated drinking windows closing decades hence to the exactitude of a particular year not even rounded off to the nearest five or ten. And they do this despite having a track record of wrongheaded predictions that should have clued us in to the folly of the exercise ages ago. There is a great little book Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine which includes an essay by one Ophelia Deroy exploring the epistemological limits of our ability to make projections about a wine’s future. For example, of the phenomenon of a wine we characterize as “closed,” she writes, “It seems (at least to me) a sort of prophetic judgment, reserved to sibylline viewers of wine, to be able to know (or guess) that ‘there is something here that isn’t here yet. . . . In these cases, we do not simply say something about the way things actually are, but we claim to sense now how they will or could be in the future. Many will agree here that we overstep the boundaries of prudence here and go beyond what we can legitimately claim to know.” She then hypothesizes of a tasting of a St.-Émilion which both “Jane” and “Paul” agree tastes dull but disagree as to whether the dullness reflects poor quality or a closed state. Deroy reasons that for Jane’s “closed” assessment to have an informed basis, it must be true that she tasted an older vintage of the same wine which seemed similarly closed at a similar age but ultimately improved and that she is capable of remembering that initial sensation with sufficient clarity to draw comparisons between that memory and the glass in front of her. Deroy is skeptical that anyone can engage in this “complex relational judgment” when experiments have shown that “people have difficulties in distinguishing not only between many vintages but between only three glasses, not even memorized but all present and available for tasting.”
The thought exercise most people seem to be performing when they purport to project a wine’s ageability does not reflect the experiential basis of Jane’s thinking. Rather, most people seem to have a dogmatic belief that wine ages “on” one or another characteristic (such as “balance,” or “structure”) and then draw the conclusion that a wine will age in close proportion to the degree to which it exemplifies that characteristic. The best way to refute that theory is to taste through a few wines at age five or ten that all tasted pretty much the same when they came out, which describes a lot of wines in my category three. Many of these were rieslings from Germany, about which there is even more confusion and misinformation when it comes to aging than any other category of wine. There is no question that riesling has the potential to be among the most long-lived of wine-grape varieties. But that does not mean that every riesling that tastes impressive on release will benefit from age. This is a difficult truth to come to terms with because they can be so phantasmagoriously delicious on release that it seems incomprehensible that anything that can burst with such psychedelic beauty can turn into a can of stale Mott’s apple juice after as little as eight years, but that is occasionally what happens. What’s worse, because young riesling is so viscerally delicious, the wines destined for Mott’s apple juice decrepitude don’t necessarily taste any different on release from the wines that will maintain their glory. In other words, if you want to make a prediction about their future—whether explicitly in the form of a tasting note’s “anticipated drinking window” or implicitly in the decision to put the wine in your cellar—it is not an intellectual exercise wherein you can arrive at the proper conclusion by making deductions about the characteristics of the wine in front of you. Instead it is essentially an exercise in faith. If you are not inclined towards blind faith, the best evidence at your disposal is history. It’s a safe—although far from certain—bet that the wines that have aged well in the past will age well in the future. Absent that track record, it’s just guesswork and bullshit.
Fortunately, my tastings of category-three wines left me with a number of wines that validated my faith and which will continue to be points of pride in my cellar. I am very happy to be one of the only people around who will be able to pour aged versions of wines like Meinhard Forstreiter’s Tabor grüner veltliner or Domaine Karydas xinomavro, both of which more than rewarded the four years they spent hibernating in their cardboard boxes and still tasted fresh enough to justify holding on to the rest awhile longer. But all in all I ended up sending about a dozen cases away for sale and could probably be just as content sending away a dozen more.
When the poet Langston Hughes quit school to go out to sea he took all his books with him and then, to leave his old life behind, threw them all overboard. All of them except one—Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Apropos of nothing, my favorite verse from that book is this one:
I know I have the best of time and space, and was never measured and never will be measured.
I tramp a perpetual journey, (come listen all!)
My signs are a rain-proof coat, good shoes, and a staff cut from the woods,
No friend of mine takes his ease in my chair,
I have no chair, no church, no philosophy,
I lead no man to a dinner-table, library, exchange,
But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll,
My left hand hooking you round the waist,
My right hand pointing to landscapes of continents and the public road.
Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.
It is not far, it is within reach,
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born and did not know,
Perhaps it is everywhere on water and on land.
Shoulder your duds dear son, and I will mine, and let us hasten forth,
Wonderful cities and free nations we shall fetch as we go.
If you’re looking for a toast tonight, you could do worse. May all of the wines in your cellar be Leaves of Grass!
For further reading:
- Bordeaux negoçiant Bill Blatch’s report on the 2003 Bordeaux vintage.
- Slate wine columnist Mike Steinberger’s blog on the Lafite-flipping phenomenon.
- Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine on Amazon.com.
- Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” from Leaves of Grass.