Do as I say... (February 20, 2009)
from Tidings, February/March 09
In Tidings' November issue I wrote about moving into a condo. My wife Deborah and I – plus Pinot the Wonder Dog – left a three-storey brick house in North Toronto for an apartment half the size. Nine years ago when we bought the house, I had a climate-controlled wine cellar built in the basement that could accommodate 1000 bottles.
That cellar was my pride and joy. I would visit it even when I didn't need a wine, just to enjoy the sight of neat rows of bottles slumbering in ideal conditions. My cellar, I decided, was a health spa for wines.
But in moving, I had to subject its contents to the oenological equivalent of the Rape of the Sabines. The bottles had to be torn from the racks, boxed and dispatched to a wine "hotel" until I can accommodate them in the condo (more of this in future columns).
The "hotel" in question is the Fine Wine Reserve, an off-site storage facility in downtown Toronto that has conditions even more wine-salubrious than my small basement cellar. While I always recommend that cellar owners have a system that allows them to know exactly where every bottle is located (cellartracker.com is a good start), mine was governed by the Serendipity Syndrome. Bottles had been slipped into any available slot and a desired wine could only be discovered by unsheathing it from its berth to read the label. Bordeaux châteaux were scattered all over the place and when I wanted to find an Oregon Pinot Noir, for example, I had to pull out several bottles before I found the one I was looking for.
When I had to empty the cellar for the move I tried to be systematic, putting all regional wines into the same box and marking them – Red Burgundy, Claret, California whites, Ontario reds, Dessert wines, etc. This proved to be a revealing exercise because when all was safely packed I found that I had more Canadian wines than I did European or other New World. But what alarmed me was the number of wines in the cellar that have probably passed their "best before" date. I had bottles of Beaujolais from 1999 and Italian whites from even earlier!
Again, I had not been following my own advice, which is not to let your wines mature until they are candidates for the old age home. There is an unhealthy veneration of old wines for the sake of age. Too often, wine lovers find that they have hung on to a wine for a decade or more only to find that, at best, it has lost its fruit or, at worst, become maderized or oxidized.
I am reminded of a quote from Madame Lily Bollinger of that splendid champagne house: "I drink champagne when I'm happy and when I am sad. Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I am not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it – unless I'm thirsty."
Madame Bollinger had a vested interest in promoting Champagne, but if you substitute the word "wine" for "champagne" in her confession you will have a reasonable expectation of drinking pleasure and avoid that cardinal blasphemy against Dionysus – vinous necrophilia.
The most common response to my question, "Why don't you drink that bottle of Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 1994?" is, "I'm waiting for a suitable occasion." But what occasion will be significant or worthy enough to prompt you to pull the cork?
The other excuse I hear most often is, "How can I afford to drink it? I paid $50 for it ten years ago and now it's worth $1000." Well, what are you going to do with it? Let it die a natural death? Enjoy it while it still has life. Go to your cellar right now, take out that bottle you've been hoarding for a decade or more and open it for dinner. You'll feel better for it. And if you have to move you'll have one less bottle to pack.