As I write, in the first week of the new year, I’m in the process of picking out a selection of wines from my cellar. I’m standing them up in a designated spot with the intention of drinking them in the coming 12 months. Here a 1989 Pichon-Baron; there a magnum of 2000 Clerico Pajana Barolo.
It’s an annual ritual that calls to mind a friend who visited a liquor store a few years ago to top up for his New Year celebrations. Rooting through the remainder bin, he improbably came across a bottle of 1986 Château Margaux at a cut-rate price. ‘It was in perfect condition,’ he bragged at the party the next night. I asked how he knew. ‘I drank it yesterday afternoon,’ he said.
My friend has a formidable collection, rows of Bordeaux and Burgundy resting on wooden racks in optimum conditions. But that bottle of Margaux never made it through the cellar door. It was undeniably ready to drink. But other than the hour or so of pleasure he experienced while drinking it, he might as well never have owned it.
I guess that’s enough for some people. Not for me. I’m a hoarder, and it isn’t just with wine. I have a shelf of new shirts waiting to be worn for the first time. My wife rolls her eyes. ‘They aren’t getting better in the closet,’ she says. But the wine in my cellar is getting better – at least in theory. Sure, I could drink it now. But I’ll often have a better experience if I wait.
That’s only part of the reason for holding off though. Some of my prized bottles have lingered in my cellar for two decades. They’ve become old friends. In fact, plenty of friends have come and gone while I’ve waited to drink those wines. Occasionally I’ll pull a bottle out, think about when might be the time to open it, then put it right back where it was. I happily admit to periodically taking a mental inventory, on a plane or during a sleepless night, of the magnum of 1970 Vega Sicilia Unico, the two vintages of Redigaffi, and the three full cases of 2000 classed-growth Bordeaux that I can open when I please. It always leaves me feeling secure – like my retirement account would if I had a better retirement account.
I acquire wine frequently. Some of it that clearly needs to be drunk within a year or so gets drunk within a year or so. The rest gets stashed deep in the recesses of the cellar. It has to wait its turn, even if that means younger wines get drunk first. I can hear the protests as I drink, say, a 1995 or 2000 Margaux before my own two bottles of the 1986. (Or even, if you want to know the truth, before the 1975 Pichon-Lalande that May-Eliane de Lencquesaing, the former proprietor, gave me years ago that I still haven’t opened.) But for me, that’s the way to optimise the quality of my consumption.
Only a third of the enjoyment I get from the wine in my cellar comes from actually drinking it. Half comes from the anticipation
Long ago, I worked out that only about a third of the enjoyment I get from the wine in my cellar comes from actually drinking it. Probably half comes from the anticipation. The rest is remembering what it was like, and the occasion when I had it. And if I finally do open May-Eliane’s 1975 and it turns out to be disappointing or even corked? Well, I certainly won’t feel foolish for waiting 20 or 30 years. In fact, I’ll be thrilled that I managed to get so much pleasure out of a bottle that turned out to be quite ordinary.
Years ago, I explained all this to Gil Nickel, who founded Far Niente, one of Napa Valley’s most reliable producers. Gil nodded, said he understood. But he stressed that our time on Earth is short. ‘You’ve got to drink your treasures,’ he said. He advised me to visit my cellar every New Year’s, choose a case worth of wines that aren’t going to get much better, and then make a point of opening at least one every month.
A few months later, Gil passed away. To honour his memory, I always do just as he suggested. The first week of every year, I carefully select 12 different bottles that I’ve owned for a while. This year, I’ve included a 1987 Pesquera, from Ribera del Duero, and a bottle from the first vintage of Mendel’s Finca Remota, my favourite Argentinian Malbec, that the owner of the estate, Anabelle Sielecki, gave me. I’ve put them in the corner of the cellar that I’ve dedicated for that purpose. And then, over the months that follow, I’ll find an occasion to drink them. Most of them, anyway.
Postscript, from Bruce, holed up in Colorado: ‘As I write in mid-April, I can happily report that this year’s collection of treasures in the corner is almost gone.’