3.23.2014

Wine column no. 46: Honesty is the best policy

March 23, 2014: We toast graduations, new jobs, weddings, New Year’s Eve, and retirements. But that’s the stuff of champagne, mostly. Wine is usually for the events in between, like dinners with friends and family. Yet some wines merit toasts, too.


I don’t think I’ve ever met a wine aficionado who isn’t in some way sentimental about at least one bottle he or she has found in the past. My father still talks about the 1978 Shown & Sons Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon he had in California (the vineyard is now called Heitz Cellar Trailside Vineyard.) For my mother, it is the 2004 Topaz, a California late harvest dessert wine. Her eyes brighten and she always remarks, sadly, that you can’t find that wine anymore.
When my sister turned 30, my father brought out a 1982 Baron Philippe de Rothschild Chateau Mouton Rothschild, a Bordeaux from Pauillac, France, to serve at her celebratory dinner. He had bought it many years ago with the clear intention of serving it on that birthday. For those who appreciate wine, vintages that correlate to a loved one’s birth year can be a thoughtful tribute that will likely be used to honor future celebratory occasions. Especially if you buy a case of that particular wine, these are the types of gifts that keep giving back.
Then there are wines that you think are worth the effort but just aren’t sure will be able to handle the pressure of being opened at that particular time. Should you serve it now, after it’s been in your cellar for decades, or would it be better to wait another five years — almost as if it were on a five-year plan — to share it with others? In these cases, it’s really hard to say what the best course of action is, unless you have more than one of that particular bottle and can essentially sample it throughout the years. Some forward-thinking people take that approach, knowing that wines do improve over time. Others are more willing to gamble and will accept the wine as it is right now. And then there are others who continue to store the unopened bottle, waiting, possibly, for what they think will be the right time. The problem with that approach is you may end up inadvertently waiting too long. Even unopened wine will eventually turn to vinegar.
Doing some research helps. Plenty of wine writers have insights into the region your wine hails from and the positive and negative aspects of that vintage’s growing year. You might even be able to find someone else who has had that same wine at a different point in time. It’s also very important to make sure that you’ve treated that particular bottle well throughout its time with you (there’s no way to tell how it was treated before you encountered it at the store).
Finally, one more way to complement your wine’s characteristics, should you decide to open it, would be to build a meal completely around it. Whether the wine will shrink or stand tall in the face of all that unanticipated attention is hard to predict. In the end, that depends on the strength of the wine itself. But certain carefully selected dishes can provide the support it needs for it to be at its best.
Once you do decide to open the wine, realize you’re taking a chance. After all, you chose to serve it at the table in the first place; no one else made you do it. You aren’t obligated to like it, of course. But don’t make it into something it’s not. There can be a lot of pressure when talking about a wine, particularly if it’s something substantial you’re uneasy sharing at the table, or if you’re worried about what your guests might think. If you haven’t had this particular wine before, be honest with your guests; you don't benefit from pretending to have knowledge that you don't actually have. Don’t use false or trumped-up descriptors that demean the wine and misrepresent its meaning to you. 
If you do like the wine, be happy about the reasons it’s caught your attention. It’s unusual that a wine you’ve selected for an important event would fit so well at the table. Celebrate that it’s a good match. Accurate descriptors help you to better define its meaning to you. This helps draw a clear line between the idea of the wine and the wine itself.
Then raise a glass and say what you have to say.

(*This version includes some parts of the original, before they were cut from the Courier's version.)

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