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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Dear Katie:

I just found a bottle of 2004 Fetzer chardonnay in my hall closet. It was on the floor hidden under a down comforter. Is it still good?

Sincerely,

Thirsty in La Quinta

 

Dear Thirsty:

No.

Sincerely,

Katie


This answer might seem obvious to a lot of people—obvious because the idea is that chardonnay doesn’t age well. Obvious because Fetzer is an inexpensive brand. Obvious because it’s been housed in a sweatbox. Maybe obvious to some because it’s from California, and the common perception is that only wines from Europe age well.

But … what if it isn’t so obvious? What if the scenario was a 1998 Caymus Special Selection? What if the bottle wasn’t in your sweltering hall closet, but rather in a temperature-controlled wine fridge or cellar?

I recently celebrated a milestone birthday. Thus, it was a perfect excuse to uncork some bottles from the year of my birth and discover what aged better: Me, or the wine?

I’ve had a bottle of 1978 Kalin Cellars zinfandel in my possession for a long time—so long, in fact, that I can’t remember who gave it to me. Nothing in my cellar filled me with as much joy as this bottle. I thought this wine would always remain uncorked and in my collection. Maybe with a little “do not disturb” sign on it. I figured I would keep it as a fun wine relic that made my collection legit. Because I was not the original owner, I had no idea how this bottle was treated before I started lovingly caring for it. There was a significant amount of ullage (fancy speak for wine evaporation), and the mold was creeping out from under the foil. After a lot of thought, I decided that I could always keep the bottle—but if I was going to taste this wine, crafted by two people of undisputed genius and integrity, now was the time.

To my amazement, the cork came out almost entirely in one piece and was completely soaked through. Immediately, I could smell musky leather and sweet cigar. There was an earthy spiciness to it and even a little dried cranberry. It was alive! I actually shrieked out loud as if the wine glass I was holding was a winning lottery ticket. This 40-year-old California zinfandel was not just drinkable—it was delicious. Imagine that.

My dear friends gifted me a magnum of 1978 Niebaum-Coppola Rubicon. This was the inaugural vintage of this wine under the expertise of the great André Tchelistcheff. Otherwise known as “The Maestro,” this man is considered the founding father of Napa, and his passion and knowledge is unrivaled.

Pulling the cork from this bottle gave me chills. I was about to experience history. Before tour buses, phony castles and bachelorette parties made their mark on Napa, it was a place of great destiny and unfettered hope. The dream of potential greatness was now in my glass, and it did not disappoint. If I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, the wine was every bit a Bordeaux. Truffles and mint and licorice leaped from the glass. I was in heaven.

I was 2-for-2. 1978 was a very good year.

At a party the other night, one of my friends was telling me that she had recently gone to dinner with her husband to celebrate their anniversary. They decided to open a bottle of 2005 Far Niente cabernet—the year they got married—to commemorate the occasion. To their shock and sadness, they discovered the wine was far past its prime—an undrinkable waste of money.

The question was, of course: Why? Convention says that wine gets better with time, and this was an expensive bottle from a very reputable producer. They had handled the bottle appropriately, and it really wasn’t that old. How could my 40-year-old wines kick the flavor pants off the 13-year-old?

Should we add wine to the list of things no longer allowed to age gracefully?

These questions gave me a great excuse to call my smarty-pants brother-in-law who also happens to be the enologist for Hall Wines in Napa. We got all nerdy about phenolics and color precipitation, and he schooled me on wine stability and pH levels. This is not exactly riveting content for a layman, so to put it simply: We discussed how winemaking has changed.

When California began its wine career, the idea was to emulate Bordeaux as much as possible. The first step in doing so meant picking the grapes earlier. An earlier harvest means grapes with higher acid and lower sugar, which translates to lower-alcohol wines. These are going to be wines with a beautiful garnet or ruby color. These are wines that have a silky and elegant mouthfeel. These are wines that have flavors and aromas like violets, cedar and plums. These are wines that are meant to be aged.

More often than not, when you pull the cork on a cabernet from California nowadays, you will be met with an opaque, inky, almost black wine. These will be wines that are rich and opulent on your palate. Flavors like blackberries, black cherries, vanilla and licorice will jump up and smack you in the face. The wines will most likely have an alcohol percentage of at least 14.5. These are wines that you want to drink sooner than later.

Winemaking has evolved over the last 40 years because consumers needs have changed. Their palates have changed. We buy a wine at 11 a.m. in order to have something to drink that night with dinner. We are a Jack-and-Coke, gin-and-tonic culture that learned to embrace wine—as long as it packed the same punch as our cocktail. I’ve even seen T-shirts that say “no wimpy wines allowed.” So most winemakers, in a crazy scheme to make money, follow consumer demand and create fruity, ripe, high-alcohol wines that are meant to be consumed right now. Any cellaring that needs to be done has most likely already been done by the winery before the wine is ever released to the market.

So what does this all mean? In short, we can’t have it both ways. That full-bodied wine that’s ready to pair with your steak tonight is not going to blow your hair back in 13 years, let alone 40. All those beautiful up-in-your-face fruit flavors that come jumping out of that inky liquid are going to be the first thing to dissipate as the wine matures. Once those primary flavors and aromas are gone, the wine has nothing left to offer. Without the preservative power of enough acid or tannin (and a few other nerdy factors) that will help the wine soften gradually and allow the flavors to meld together, that high-octane juice is going to fall flat on its face. Or worse, it will become an expensive bottle of vinegar.

This is not to say that Napa isn’t producing age-worthy wines—it is! They are just not the norm anymore, and that means the consumer needs to do a little homework before buying.

When in doubt, err on the side of younger is better. (Ahem, I’m still talking about wine here). Find a reason to celebrate (The newspaper wasn’t in the gutter this morning!), and open that bottle.

Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Wine

The couple picks up a bottle of expensive wine for a special occasion—something off the top shelf at the strip-mall liquor store, perhaps. They know they like cabernet sauvignon. But faced with a row of bottles that are relatively pricy, they’re lost.

What year? What winery? In the end, they choose the wine with the most-attractive label.

Call it crapshoot cab. Maybe they like it. Maybe they don’t. Maybe they won’t be able to figure out, exactly, why this wine costs more than a case of three-buck chuck. Is it really that good? They may think: Are we just too stupid to appreciate the finer qualities of this wine?

Nah. Really, all wine is a crapshoot. Like lovers, no two bottles of wine are alike—and they won’t ever be experienced in the same way twice. But if you’re after an erotic experience with a bottle of fine wine, keep a few things in mind.

1. Choose wisely, grasshopper. Buy wine you’ve sampled at a tasting room or wine bar. Know what’s up at your local wine-bottle shop. Mega wine stores track their inventory closely, and when wines get too dusty, they end up on sale. A grocery store or gas station can keep bottles on its shelves forever and ever—not so good. Probably avoid discount stores altogether. You don’t know where that wine has been, or to what temperatures it’s been exposed.

2. Older is not always better. Some wine is built to age well. Oh so patient are the people who stayed behind in Europe, making wine in France and Italy, while the cool kids were colonizing the Americas. However, many California reds are built for drinking sooner rather than later. We do not like to wait. That said, my favorite Napa and Sierra Foothill cabernets right now are from the 2006-2008 vintages. Five or 6 years old—kindergartners.

3. Unleash the beast. Get that wine out of the bottle, and introduce it to the air. Like the Genie of the Lamp, a wine needs to stretch a bit after being cramped up in a bottle for long periods of time. This is what decanting and aeration is all about. If you’re great at planning ahead, you can decant the wine by pouring it into any large glass container with lots of surface space. You can buy reasonably priced decanters for $15 to $20. If you possess less patience, invest in an aerator. Dave has a sturdy Vinturi that’s survived after being dropped on tile and rolled in the dirt under picnic tables. I have a Soiree that fits in the top of a bottle and aerates as you pour. It’s a sexy but fragile little gizmo.

Note: Decanters or aerators are only good for those heavier red wines. White wines and light-to-medium-bodied reds, like pinot noir, most likely get enough air simply being poured into the glass.

4. Use decent wine glasses. The wine won’t be all it can be if you drink it out of plastic cups or Mason jars. Shape—the architecture of the bowl, stem and base—counts. Large wine glasses help aerate full-bodied wines. Stemware makers contend that glasses specifically shaped for a varietal—say, one for a pinot noir, and another for a cabernet—help deliver that varietal’s bouquet, texture, flavor and finish. Burp. I’ll drink out of anything that’s big enough to aerate the wine and send its molecules of deliciousness at my nose. I prefer thinner glass on my lips.

5. Manage the flavors in your mouth. A fine red wine consumed after something tangy may not feel as smooth and refined as the same wine after cheese, bread or olive oil. Experiment with a few foods to see what you like. Keep dark chocolate on hand for emergencies.

6. Spend a few minutes on foreplay. You’ve picked a decent wine, and you’re decanting or aerating. It’s waiting in the nice, bulbous glass. Sniff it. Give it a swirl. Like what you’re smelling? Inhale deeply. Your mouth should water a bit. Tease your palate. Get excited. This is going to be good.

This all sounds like lots of work, I know, but it’s really just a start—habits I’m still learning.

I hang out at a bar that pours Carter Cellars 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Revilo Vineyard by the glass. A glass is $16—not something I can really afford—but it’s half-price during happy hour. I can and do pay $8 for a glass of this Revilo Vineyard cab.

If Bartender Zach opens a new bottle, and I swill that redness down right away, I’m going to be sorely disappointed—even if Zach pours it in a giant wine glass, shaped especially for cabernet sauvignon. Without enough exposure to the atmosphere outside of the bottle, the wine’s tight and chalky, with dust on the nose. Not something you’d want to drop $16 a glass on.

Zach is a smart dude. He’s offered to pour my wine when he comes in to work and set it on the back of the bar (when I give him advance notice that I’m coming, of course). When I show up an hour later, it’s almost ready to drink. I can give it a hearty swirl in the giant glass and, man oh man, let the adventure begin. I inhale warm swirls of cocoa and black cherries and leather. I smell the wine so long that others at the bar give me sideways glances. There’s a reason that this wine costs so damn much.

My tongue gets all tingly.

And then I take a sip.

Ah, mouth-gasm.

Published in Wine