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Sorting Through the Old Bottles for a Taste of Those Vintage Years

February 16, 1989|DAN BERGER | Times Wine Writer

Just because a wine is old is no reason to revere it. On the other hand, some old wine, carefully nurtured, can be a treasure worth cooing over.

All this came to mind two weeks ago when, within a 24-hour period, I had a chance to taste four dozen old treasures dating back to the early 1970s. Doesn't sound particularly old? If you had been there for about 40 of the wines, you would realize how wizened some of them had become.

The first event was put together in San Francisco by the Hotel Sofitel chain in San Francisco, which had bought a collection of wine from the Beverly Wilshire Hotel's wine cellar. Well, perhaps it wasn't a "cellar." It appeared that most of the wines had been stored in the trunk of an Oldsmobile.

4,000 Bottles of Wine

Sofitel bought about 4,000 bottles of wine dating back to the 1960s. Most of the imports appeared to be in good shape. Executives were worried, however, about the California wines, fearing some bottles were not stored properly while in Beverly Hills.

Rather than take any chances that the wines were good, the Sofitel asked a dozen wine experts to evaluate the bulk of the California collection. Red wines only. Among those brought in to taste were Andrew Lawlor of Dexter, Mich., and Haskell Norman of Marin County, two of the most knowledgeable wine collectors in the country.

The experience was near disaster. After going through six flights of wine, the conclusion was obvious: the wines all tasted as if they had been kept in erratic storage conditions, in which temperatures were allowed to rise and fall. Most of the wines tasted cooked.

In the first flight of four Merlots, only the 1979 Keenan seemed to be going strong. A '75 Bynum and '76 Chateau St. Jean were "maderized." In a flight of Zinfandels, a '76 Caymus was fine, but 1977s from Tulocay, Estrella River and Montevina were shot.

It got worse. In the Pinot Noir flight, we discovered Hanzell wines from 1976, 1977 and 1978 to be dull and oxidized; '77 Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard was so tannic as to be undrinkable; '77 Trefethen and '78 Mt. Eden were flat. Only the '77 School House and '78 Chalone showed signs of life.

And even the Chalone was suffering a bit, prompting one evaluator to shake his head and ruefully note, "It's so hard for California to make a great Pinot Noir, and then when they finally make one, to have someone cook it for you, well, that's a crime."

The Cabernets were in better shape, but all clearly had seen better days. Among the sad experiences were 1972 Heitz Martha's Vineyard; 1974s Beaulieu Private Reserve, Mondavi Reserve, and Gemello; a handful of 1976s (of which the Caymus showed best) and 1977s.

In general, all the wines had brownish edges, and some were downright prune/brown in color. Oxidized odors filled the room.

Hotel Commended

The hotel chain is to be commended for dealing with this situation before a knowledgeable consumer got a bottle at dinner and created a stir.

The hotel is now debating what to do with the wines. One option is to put them into a wine-by-the-glass program and charge modest prices for them.

The following evening, Bob Andrews of Santa Rosa, an inveterate wine collector, staged a birthday party for 50 friends. The wines served were 15 magnums. All the 50-ounce bottles had been stored perfectly in a cellar in which the temperature varies no more than a few degrees year-round.

The wines were impeccable. Not only were they well-chosen, but the perfect storage conditions had made them smell and taste fresh and lively--and the experience was all the more exciting for me because I had just come from the sadness of the hotel evaluation a day earlier.

Highlights of that dinner were the 1978 Mt. Eden Chardonnay (deep yellow color, very rich, layered taste with crisp finish); 1975 Joseph Swan Zinfandel (intense cherry-ish fruit and deep, rich flavors), and 1971 Ridge Eisele Cabernet (marvelous complexity, like a classic Bordeaux, with deep, rewarding fruit in the taste).

Storage conditions were so perfect for these wines that they could easily have taken another few years before pulling the cork.

The message here is clear: wines that were made to be aged, given perfect storage, will retain their fruit flavors and liveliness for a long time. Wine given less than optimum conditions ought to be consumed sooner, and bottles stored badly will be a dicey situation.

Moreover, tannic red wines that do not get optimum storage conditions begin to lose their fruity qualities sooner than they should, but the tannins stay around, making the wines taste worse than mere oxidative qualities. They remain astringent and bitter.

Stash Best Wines

This is why wine collectors are known to be cave dwellers, why they stash their best wines in remote and cold locations, bury underground their booty. Because that is the surest way to protect the investment, to permit the exotic flavors of an older bottle of red wine to reach their zenith and to provide their maximum enjoyment.

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