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Is Cellaring Wine a Fading Notion?

Wine Geek has had a couple of good weeks: in the past 20 days or so Geek has tasted (drank) a 1953 Château Margaux, a 1990 Gaja Sorì Tildìn and a 1985 Comte Armand Pommard ‘Clos des Epeneaux’. All were gorgeous, ‘correct’ and in great condition (the Gaja was extraordinary!).  When ruminating about how wonderful these wines were yesterday, Geek realized that all three wines shared that extra dimension that can only come with age. Since Geek is almost as old as that Chateau Margaux, he has had the pleasure of drinking many, many well-aged wines over the years, and remembers a time when many retailers offered a wide selection of older vintages and even recalls that top restaurants would buy high quality wines to lay down, i.e., buy wines and store them for several years, only to put them on their lists when they reached ‘optimum’ drinking age. Those days are pretty much gone. A combination of factors is the reason for this, some of which are laid out below.

First & foremost is likely cost: Geek still remembers one of his older wine mentors and his penchant for leaving price tags on the wines in his cellar, so we would drink First Growth Bordeaux from the late 50’s and early 60’s with $2.99 price tags on them. Or 1970 Grand Cru Burgundies—Bonnes Mares and Clos St. Denis—$3.99 a bottle (likely with a case discount offered). Even as recently as the 1982 Bordeaux wines, when released in 1984 or so, First Growths retailed in Michigan for $350 a case—and we’re talking 12 packs here (so yes, that’s $29.16 a bottle for 1982 Lafite Rothschild). Enter Robert Parker & The Wine Spectator, and we then had millions of new people chasing those same wines, hence…no more Lafite has found its way to Geek’s cellar recently—current price on the 2010 is around $800 a bottle!).

Space/Proper Storage is another consideration: though you can still buy an old farm house with a great, naturally cool & humid basement in Michigan’s rural areas for a song, most of us live in cities & suburbs now, where if we do have a basement, it’s finished & heated. Or, if we live in a loft or a condo, the option is a stand-alone wine cellar—which are very costly, even if you do have the room for one (often not the case).

The two considerations above however likely miss a bigger point: our instant gratification/do it now culture. Millennials start to twitch if their laptops take more than ten seconds to boot up, and we are all used to ordering something on-line from somewhere, and having it delivered the next day. So buying a wine to stick in a closet for 10 or 20 years before you can drink it? You’ve got to be kidding! We’ve seen reports that contend that 95% of the wine consumed in America was purchased less than 24 hours before it was drunk. Cellar-Schmellar.

The wine industry has responded to this paradigm shift by making wines that are in balance upon release. Indeed, the norm now is to produce ripe, fruit-driven wines that are in balance upon release, and though some of this group still can improve with moderate ageing, there are very few ‘ugly duckling’ wines that need 10 or 20 years to shed their tannins and show well. Of course, there are still lots of ‘classic’ wines produced that improve dramatically when properly aged, and even the more modern-styled wines in some cases still grow and improve in the bottle, though they are in the minority—the vast majority of wines sold today don’t improve in the bottle; it’s completely fine to buy a bottle at 5:00 and drink it at 5:15!

It should be noted also that Geek’s proclamations about a wine being properly aged, and when it shows best are opinions: when to drink a wine—even one that inarguably will grow and improve as it ages (say Château Margaux)—is completely subjective. The Brits are famous for liking their wines on the far side of the growth curve (vinous necrophilia to some). Those of us in the wine trade tend to have the opposite preference; conditioned to robust, tannic, still-developing wines since that is what we taste as we spend our days showing/sampling the latest releases from the wineries we represent (not too many wineries—zero actually—ask us to wait and sell the wines when they are in full bloom; they make the stuff every year). Some like steak medium-rare, some like it medium-well; this is why Baskin Robbins has 31 flavors.

Of course, one can enjoy the wonders of properly matured wines without a cellar: there are still retailers that offer a big range of older wines—usually sourced from private cellars they’ve purchased…and sometimes from library releases from the wineries themselves. In both cases, expect to pay a significant premium (money costs money, so if a winery sits on a wine for 20 years, the meter has been running). If coming from a winery, it’s typically worth it, and the condition of the wine is beyond question; if it’s from a private cellar, buyer beware—provenance is everything, and if the original owner of the wine made any missteps in its storage, you’ll pay a premium for a not-so-premium wine. We have several Napa wineries that are very active in making older vintages available, with Far Niente and Heitz having the most.  And of course, one can buy things like older Gran Reserva Rioja that are aged and arguably at their best upon release (5+ years in barrel, and another 3-5 in bottle at the winery will do that).

All of this said, there truly is nothing that is the equal of a grand wine that has been in one’s cellar since release for 20, 30, 40 years or more; not only in terms of the taste, but there’s an emotional investment in a bottle you’ve owned that long. If this appeals to you, and you do not have the wherewithal to do this, you might want to follow advice once given to Wine Geek when he mentioned he wanted a sailboat: “you don’t want a sailboat; you want a friend with a sailboat”. So if you can, buy great wine, stock your cellar, and you’ll be amazed how many friends you’ll make.

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