New Year Resolutions – Bruce Schoenfeld on why, when it comes to wine, less is more…

After years of wine club dinners with starry bottles, our columnist has come to realise that it's better to know one lesser wine intimately than have a glancing familiarity with a dozen exalted cuvées

Words by Bruce Schoenfeld

Bruce Schoenfeld
Illustration: Stuart Patience

Some years ago, to commemorate one of those birthdays that end in zero, I organised a tasting. The theme was Cos d’Estournel, my favorite Bordeaux.

In those days, I belonged to a monthly group with the evocative name of Lagniappe, a French Cajun word that describes an extra benefit or gift, an added touch of sweetness. The Lagniappe tastings added sweetness to our lives through the likes of a retrospective of 1990 Côte Rôtie, a definitive Diamond Creek vertical, a snapshot of several vintages of white Burgundy, and occasionally creative concepts such as the lesser-known wines of renowned producers (Château Margaux blanc, that sort of thing.) We’d take turns providing the bottles for dinners at one of the local restaurants that would let us bring them in (something that’s technically illegal in my state of Colorado, as preposterous as that sounds.) Then we’d drink and eat, and rate and debate, deep into the night.

Not only did we not have a second or third glass – we didn’t really even have a first glass

I had gathered the bottles for the Cos d’Estournel tasting over a number of years. I started buying the wine in the late 1980s, so I had the ’88, the superb ’89, and the equally brilliant ’90. I added the ’94, ’95 and ’96 en primeur. I found a reasonably priced ’61 and ’62 at auction, and someone gave me a ’70. It was easy enough to fill out the lineup with some lesser examples. I ended up with 18 vintages.

As it turned out, the tasting was a huge hit. That ’61, made from grapes harvested in my birth year, remained vibrant, though the ’62 had turned lifeless under a cork that crumbled into sand. The ’89, so fragrant and evocative, was my favourite. The ’85 was nearly as delicious. But nearly a dozen wines that, on any other night, would have ranked among the most exciting I’d drink all year went almost unnoticed, by me and everyone else, because they lacked the lustre of the very best. I should point out that the judgements we made were based on one-fourteenth of a bottle — or less than that, actually, because of sediment. So not only did we not have a second or third glass to experience how the wine evolved over the course of the meal, we didn’t really even have a first glass.

The 1989 was Schoenfeld’s favourite

I’m no longer a member of Lagniappe, or any other wine group for that matter. I appreciate that those tastings gave me an opportunity to sip more Romanée-Conti, first-growth Bordeaux and cult Cabernets than I ever could have done in a lifetime. But I’ve also come to believe that it’s better to have a more intimate relationship with one bottle, even one less exalted, than a glancing familiarity with a dozen.

Do I feel a pang of regret when I hear about the tastings still being staged by the group that Lagniappe has morphed into? Of course. Twenty-four vintages of La Landonne? A comparison of 1996 and 1999 cru Barolo? Who could possibly have something better to do on those nights?

But then I remember those 20 bottles of Cos d’Estournel. I imagine what it would have been like to have savoured them over the course of a month… a year… even several years. Each would have been the centrepiece of a dinner, perhaps with a friend or two. We’d have had the first half-glass on its own while I was finishing cooking, a second and a third during the meal, and then finished the bottle before dessert. By the end, we’d have become intimately familiar with the wine’s nuances, the qualities that emerge from a glass as the minutes pass, or are there all along but that we only notice after we take the time to look beyond the obvious.

Bordeaux second growth Cos d'Estournel: "Each wine would have been the centrepiece of any dinner"

By the end of a meal, we can come to understand and appreciate even wines of a lesser reputation: Cos d’Estournel’s underrated 1994 or the easily dismissed 1987. After all, not every dinner companion can be our best friend.

I stopped buying Cos d’Estournel with the 2004 vintage, when the price jumped precipitously, but I do have a few bottles left from the 1990s. For new year, I’m going to drink my last 1996. I’ll open it as I start to cook – medium-rare lamb, probably, with green beans and wild rice. I’ll pour glasses for me and my wife. Then we’ll sit down without any hurry and find out what it’s been doing all these years.