The Lecture

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Visited my friend Steve in the Bay Area over the weekend, and when I arrived he was opening a bottle of Ridge Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon from 1983. He had just pulled it out of his cellar. “I was in the mood for something old,” he said. “It’s probably gone over the hill, but what the hell.” The wine smelled like wet grapes in a cardboard box, and while there was some evidence of fruit and body, they were mostly departed. Steve grimaced and went downstairs for another bottle.

This time he brought up a Chalk Hill Cab from 1987. The red plums and cherries the wine once had were gone, leaving nothing but a liquid, acidic version of green bell pepper. Back downstairs. Steve selected a 1980 Jordan Cabernet from Alexander Valley. I saw a 1998 Jordan Cab and advised Steve to bring that one, too.

The 1980 Jordan smelled like a wet dog that had been eating blackberries, and tasted like the vinous equivalent of a men’s chorus made up entirely of baritones: everything was in the same low range. No high notes, couldn’t hear the harmonies. The 1998 was worse, even with more than an hour of decanting, which stumped Steve. How could a wine almost 20 years younger have so little fruit left?

I pointed out that the 1998 was made when Jordan’s own vineyards were being replanted and the winery was buying fruit. Steve read the source of the grapes on the label (information that’s required by law) and laughed ruefully: “Who ever made ‘Sonoma Coast Cabernet Sauvignon’ on purpose?!”

So we whiffed on that bottle, too. Four old wines, four disappointments.

Now, if you read the popular wine press you’re probably expecting me to give you The Lecture now. This is the sober, wise-old-guy essay that comes down to the old adage that “It’s better to drink a wine a year too early than a week too late.” The latest version of The Lecture was in the December 1 Wine Enthusiast, given at least an entertaining spin by Jeff Morgan. Jim Laube does it every couple of years in his Wine Spectator column. You see it other places, too.

I understand The Lecture up to a point – Steve and I went 0 for the eighties on Friday night – but I also disagree with it strongly in certain aspects.

It just seems too convenient to have “thought leaders” in the wine industry urging us to stop keeping wines and start drinking them up. Morgan himself is a vintner, with a whole load of new wine every year to sell. I’m sure Jeff would tell you to hold his wines, particularly Covenant, as long as you want, but the conflict of interest is built in.

In fact, I find that the The Lecture is completely misleading for young wines, those that have just been released into commercial distribution. These wines are not released because they are ready to enjoy, in my view. They are released because of other considerations, such as cellar space and cash flow.

As a result, I cannot enjoy most young red wines, particularly from California. That’s because the oak’s too strong for the fruit. I want those elements in balance with each other and the wine’s acidity. That takes more time than most wineries can afford to give their red wines before release.

As a result I almost never drink American Pinot Noir until it’s six years past vintage. Most Rhone reds and Zinfandels have to be at least five years old for me to enjoy them. Most Cabs and Merlots I give five to ten years. Brunello, Barolo, Bordeaux? Ten years is a nice round number, isn’t it? Heck, I even cellar high-ticket Chardonnay up to a decade.

But then I drink up.

I don’t go look up what Parker said about 1995 Pontet Canet (a red Bordeaux from the Paulliac region) when he reviewed it as an infant way back then. I don’t care about his (or anyone’s) predictions of 20 or 30 years of bottle age. I crack open a bottle and enjoy the hell out of it. The fruit’s fresh, the body’s plump, the wonderfully mature flavors open out as if they’re overjoyed to be released into the air, and everyone has a damn fine time.

No lecture required.

- Thom Elkjer
Check out my regular wine coverage at www.winecountry.com.

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