I come from a family of beer drinkers, firmly rooted in the blue-collar heritage of my grandfather’s construction and carpentry business. My father likes to say that it was his own skill at unskilled labor that paid his way through college. He wholeheartedly embraced the craft beer movement, never passing up the chance to try the local offerings in his travels across the U.S. and abroad. My brothers share his taste for the malt, but my passion, until recently, has been for wine.
Sure, there was pretension in my burgeoning interest, but cooking brought me naturally to wine, both as an ingredient and an accompaniment. Jacques Pepin’s boeuf bourgoyne, risotto enriched with dry white wine: these were only the beginning. Selecting the perfect bottle to pair with the meal? Now there was a challenge.
But moving frequently has made collecting a challenge — in addition to the normal limits of budget and storage space, managing the key elements of temperature, humidity, and light exposure make large holdings all but impossible. Long periods overseas, extended transit of shipped household goods through tropical and desert climes — these make for trying conditions under which to shelter a prized bottle.
I subjected a ’92 Silver Oak cabernet sauvignon to those tortures. The Silver Oak was a stretch purchase for me, but it was my first attempt at aging a decent wine. I did everything wrong. At a special dinner in 2005, I watched with dismay as the cork crumbled in the sommelier’s hands. A hushed conference between the somm and the manager ensued. The manager assured me this was not too unusual as the somm ushered the patient into the back to perform a more delicate CPR (cork pulling routine). Filtered of cork and decanted, the cab was brought out. The wine was the faded ghost of the big Napa cab the vintner intended, the color of brick and devoid of the bold nose for which Silver Oak is known. Some of the tobacco, plum and earth remained, but I couldn’t help but think that I had cooked it.
Opening a bottle of wine exposes it not only to your tastebuds, but also to the depredations of oxidation. No problem, if you are planning to kill the bottle, but what if you only want a glass? And if you were interested in seeing how time affected a wine, sampling its arc from youth to maturity? Until recently, your window for enjoying the bottle was regrettably short, and forget sampling over months or years.
That’s where the Coravin ($299) comes in, providing access to a small portion of a bottle that would have otherwise been opened and consumed in toto. The patented Wine Access System uses a thin needle to non-destructively punch through the cork and gain access to the bottle’s contents. After pressurizing with inert argon gas ($30 for three replacement argon cartridges) through the same needle, your wine will pour freely, as much or as little as desired.
I vowed not to make the same mistake again and stayed away from collecting anything myself, reserving forays into the higher end wines for restaurants and special occasions. Three military deployments in the intervening years kept me in check, but shortly after retiring in 2009, relative stability tempted me back into the game. ZD’s Abacus X, a blend of young and older vintages of cabernet sauvignon, seemed the best of possibilities. The older juice meant the wine would be mellow and velvety versus a harsh tannin bomb, while the latest pressings would contribute bright fruit if opened soon. Experts suggested a range of drinkability of almost 20 years — surely the right occasion would come up during that time. I tended to the bottle with almost as much care and attention as one of my children — perhaps more, because that bottle never got sent outside to play in the snow. No, temperature was kept at as close to 52 degrees as I could. Humidity was closely monitored, as well. During the three moves I made subsequent to buying it, the wine was forward staged in friends’ wine fridges until I could get my wine cellar set up.
If not for the Coravin, a system that allows access to wine without removing the cork, I would still be playing the same guessing game I was with the Silver Oak. With a hypodermic-like needle to pierce the cork and inert argon gas to pressurize the bottle, I was able to sample the Abacus without exposing it to ruinous oxidation. The wine tasted big and earthy, slightly tannic, but rich with red fruit and leather. There are still many years of aging left, but it’s very drinkable now. Really, I’m waiting to use it for a special occasion — and the wife has a significant birthday coming up (no numbers will be mentioned for sake of self-preservation). The wine will pair nicely with the grass-fed NY strip for which she’s fond.
The Abacus is certainly the pinnacle of my small collection, but certainly not the only one I’m looking forward to opening in the future. Things trend heavily towards California reds — the Chinese rampage through Burgundy and Bordeaux has put much of those regions out of my reach. A case of 2006 Beaulieu Vineyards George de Latour Private Reserve is going to be the guest star for quite a few dinners with friends over the next few years. A bottle of 2007 Nickel & Nickel Dragon Valley Cab awaits a good friend’s return from an overseas tour. There’s a horizontal of 2006 Derenoncourt Cab Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cab Franc that I’m dying to try side by side by side. A couple bottles of Arrieta were supposed to celebrate my brother’s 50th birthday, but plans fell through. Next year?
And yet some of the best have been bottles that don’t stick around long — good selections, more moderately priced, that come out for the impromptu occasion. Add in my fondness for sweet dessert wines, vintage port and Sauternes, and I think I’m going to need a bigger cellar. Or drink more.