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12.30.2010

Playing Wine Consultant and Treasure Hunter

"So, uh, would you mind coming over here and taking a look at our wine rack?" they said, after we had spent an hour catching up over bagels on a rainy day. And so I wandered around the corner into their dining room to find a couple small wine racks and a small wine fridge and an expectant and somewhat embarrassed silence as they waited for me to offer a verdict.

This sort of thing happens all the time to me, as it likely does to most anyone who is known amongst their friends as "the guy/gal that knows about wine." And especially when close friends are asking, it's something I take pleasure in.

Though along the same lines, it's definitely much more fulfilling than answering the e-mails I get every month saying "I found this bottle of _________ in my attic. Is it worth anything?" To those people I can almost always only say: "probably not, just open it up and drink it." But when friends lead me to their stash and ask me to tell them what I think, it's a much more intimate experience, and can be a lot of fun, especially because they usually don't harbor some fantasy of the wine version of Antiques Roadshow where they suddenly discover themselves the proud owner of a $30,000 bottle of wine.

This past week was a particularly great example of this kind of request, and what fun it can be helping someone root through their "collection." In the case of our friends, whose house I was at for the first time, their collection consisted mostly of wine that their aging parents had given to them without ceremony or information other than that they thought the wine would have a better chance of being drunk at their kids' place than in their own cellar, where it would likely go completely untouched.

Basically, our friends wanted to know of the fifty or so bottles that they had the sorts of things that most people want to know when they ask me this sort of question:

1. Did they have anything particularly good or special, or anything that happened to be worth a lot of money?
2. Was there anything they ought to just throw out?
3. What the hell was some of this stuff?

While some of my more illustrious friends in the wine industry actually get paid to answer such questions in huge, dark, dusty cellars (either before the wine gets sold at auction or for insurance claims after some sort of disaster like a flood) I am content (and probably only competent) to play consultant and treasure hunter on a smaller scale such as with the motley crew of wine bottles I found before me on Wednesday.

The Good Stuff
There were a couple of really great wines. In fact, the best wines I have ever encountered in the house and collection of folks who professed to know very little about what they had on their hands. I think there were six or seven bottles of 1993 Dom Perignon, and a pristine bottle of 1983 Krug Clos de Mesnil Champagne, which sells at auction these days for around $800. We all had a good laugh when the couple sheepishly recalled that they might have drunk one of the '83 Krugs unknowingly last Chirstmas, but remembered thinking that it was awful good at the time. I told them they ought to just repeat that performance sometime soon!

Someone had also gone on a little spree and purchased most of a case of a 2000 Bordeaux Cru Bourgeois whose name has slipped my mind at the moment. I told them that provided it hadn't been cooked at some time in the past by bad storage, these 9 or so remaining bottles were likely to be tasty and could be drunk periodically starting now with anything from frozen pizza to a nice steak dinner out on the town the next time they had a date night away from the kids.

Interestingly they also had a couple bottles of 1989 Huet Vouvray Moulleux, which I told them were probably near indestructible and would be fun to open if they wanted something a little sweet to drink before or after dinner sometime, or with some spicier Chinese food.

There were one or two assorted Rieslings, a couple of nice looking 2001 Louis Latour Puligny-Montrachets, and some 1996 Beringer Private Reserve Cabernets, which also looked quite tasty.

The Bad Stuff:
Then there were the eight bottles of 1990 Stony Hill Chardonnay, and the six or so bottles of another mid-90s California Chardonnay that were looking quite deep golden in color through their glass. My advice on these wines was to definitely open one and try it, and if it tasted good, then start drinking them at every possible occasion. If it tasted bad, then well, consider trashing the lot, as these were inexpensive wines that weren't necessarily built to age.

The I Certainly Have No Clue Stuff
A couple bottles of mid 90's Sauternes from some producer I had never heard of. Five or six individual, random bottles of American wine from elsewhere: Riesling from Michigan, a white blend from Virginia, something from North Carolina, I think. Stuff I had never heard of, for sure, and wouldn't know the first thing about. And the only advice on these was simply to try them, and celebrate if it was something good or open a different bottle if it tasted like crap.

As I rooted around in the wine fridge and pulled things off the wire racks, my hosts gave nervous chuckles and exclamations of surprise and amazement when I told them about some of the good finds there. Mostly, they expressed a frustration at not knowing what they had or really what they ought to do with it.

I see this sort of analysis paralysis all the time with wine lovers, especially those that have inherited wine, or simply built up random collections over time without paying much attention to it. Folks seem to have this fear of opening bottles -- a fear that is some multi-faceted combination of not wanting to open up a treasure, not knowing when things are supposedly "ready" to drink, and not really wanting to learn that bottles are spoiled or dead.

I do my best, as I did with my friends, to always emphasize to people in these situations that wine is meant to be drunk, not treated like art or jewels. With a collection like theirs, under the kinds of circumstances they got it (in particular without knowing exactly how it had been stored for its entire life) there was little hope of selling even the really good bottles to anyone. Without good provenance (and with only a few bottles) the effort to unload them and the uncertain prospects of much return means that such wines just need to be opened and consumed.

By the time we wandered back out into the rain, I think I had them convinced to open the Krug on Friday night with their parents. I hope it tastes fabulous.

Comments (5)

1WineDude wrote:
12.31.10 at 5:35 AM

Great that you emphasized the enjoyment of those wines, over the dollar value. Personally, I'm really getting sick & tired of wines being treated like baseball cards, only without the enjoyment!

12.31.10 at 8:27 AM

Stony Hill Chardonnay is the rare Cal. Chard. built to age; but a quick glance at CellarTracker is telling me the 1990 is perhaps one of their poorest vintages. (Although, not enough data.)

Tom Barras wrote:
12.31.10 at 3:38 PM

I experienced something like that—-except, IT WAS OVER THE PHONE!

This guy had received a mixed case of reds and whites and wanted to know their relative quality.

I asked him to 1) read to me, in detail, all the printing on the front label, and 2) do the same for the back label, and 3) advise me as to bottle fill, sediment, and apparent wine color.

And get this: The guy served them ALL the very next day at a back yard barbecue!

rs wrote:
01.02.11 at 5:14 PM

Perfect time for nostalgia. Have done this a number of times, for the above reasons and for donations to a charity. FUN!! for me. Some I would have to research, but most were obvious. And occas the purpose of the exercise was for me to pick out a present for myself without knowing that I was doing that. Thanks Alder.

Sean Spratt wrote:
01.04.11 at 12:19 PM

Great writeup, Alder. Us winemakers (usually) are making wine so that people will drink and enjoy them. At times it's heartbreaking to hear how terrified people can be to open a bottle of wine even if they have a full case of it. The oft heard inner-monologue of many people runs something like, "it's too good, it's not a special enough occasion, maybe it will be worth more later!" Of course the biggest debate for many people is, "Am I opening this bottle too soon?" I think the best advice (as you aptly pointed out), is, "Open a bottle and see if you like it!"

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