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Older wine in restaurants? Not worth the risk

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Somm Journal executive editor David Gadd asks the pertinent question of what to do when you let a sommelier hand-sell you a glass of older wine, and when you taste it, it’s over the hill.

I say the question is pertinent, because we see this happening with greater frequency nowadays, what with these older vintages, especially of more obscure wines and regions, being readily available at affordable prices, and somms being notoriously into “cool”, offbeat wines that can be downright strange to more traditional tastes. The general public, which includes many professionals in the wine industry, still is mesmerized by older wines; even though many of us understand that the life-curve of most wines is short, and that, from the moment they are bottled they begin to die, the possibility of finding some transmogrified old treasure still haunts us, and is probably responsible for more money being spent on moribund wine than is generally acknowledged.

Such at any rate was evidently the case with David Gadd, who spent $25 each on two “fossils” that were “heavily oxidized” and finished “flat [and] funereal.”

That does not sound like a pleasant gastronomic experience!

I had a very similar time once in one of Carmel’s top restaurants, when I was persuaded by a somm (complete with silver tastevin around his neck) to invest in a 12-year old Spanish Albariño he guaranteed would be fantastic with my scallops sautéed in butter. The wine was completely dead and tasted frankly awful.

The reason these anecdotes, mine and David’s, matter is not because of their particulars, but because they raise questions of current interest. Today’s diner of fine food and wines is confronted with a looming question: whether to stick with what he or she knows and likes, which is usually Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon or one of the other major varieties, in a fresh and relatively young wine; or to go the route of adventure, which usually means an obscure variety, from a lesser-known country or region, and moreover, may—depending on the restaurant and sommelier—have acquired some bottle age, although it may still not cost much more than a younger bottling. One might be tempted to go the second route, in which case there are two possible ways of preventing catastrophe: asking for a free tasting sample of the wine before officially ordering it, or reaching an understanding with the server that, should you not care for the wine, you will have an unconditional money-back guarantee. Both of these are more or less standard practices in good restaurants, but both come with a certain level of risk: you, the diner, are out on the town for fun, and you don’t suddenly want to find yourself plunged into drama with a sommelier or server, particularly when the playlet is likely to be overheard by strangers at neighboring tables (not to mention potentially stressing your dining companions). The first alternative, asking for a free tasting sample, is less fraught with danger, but also less likely: a restaurant is not likely to offer a tasting sample of older wines (although the advent of the Coravin is making that more likely).

The diner, then, finds himself on the horns of a dilemma. We don’t want to be conservative and stuffy and trod only the well-worn paths of least resistance. We want to be open to surprise and delight, ends that cannot be achieved unless we’re willing to take risks. But the dining room floor is often not the best place to take those risks. As a former critic, I have come to the conclusion that older wines are generally more apt to disappoint than to please, which is why, except under strict circumstances, I wouldn’t take the chance, but would stick to young and fresh. There are exceptions, of course: if there’s a wine and winery you’re familiar with, and know has a good track record for aging, then go for it. (For example, I wouldn’t have any problem ordering a 12-year old Corison Kronos.) But old dry Loire whites, which is what caught David Gadd off-guard? Nope.

  1. Wine Guy says:

    Well, bring on the over priced, bottled 15 minutes ago Cabernets! Hot, tannic and nasty! There is a place between old, oxidized imports and cellar aged great wines. But today, I’m sure this is BYOB. Recently we brought a bottle of 2005 single vineyard Sonoma Cab into a top of the line wine country Italian restaurant. As usual, we offered a taste to our server. This wine is pouring at its peak. That person was stunned and impressed as she had never tasted Cabernet in that condition. Ever. Sad. However, still hit us for the corkage!

  2. Steve,

    Interesting piece. Here’s a question for you – what did you say or do about that Albarino that was ‘shot’? Did you bring it up to the Somm and explain that it was not as advertised or just ‘eat it’?

    I think we are at a point in the evolution of the wine biz that we must be prepared to stand behind what we ‘promise’. If someone like a somm says that a wine will be ‘vibrant and full of acidity’ and it is not, I feel that we as consumers need to ‘stand up’ and let him or her know that this was not the case – and get something else to replace it.

    Curious for your thoughts on how to ‘rectify’ this situation . . .

    Cheers.

  3. Mark C Johnson says:

    This is the “Francois Audouze” question. It is all a matter of taste. Some people love the tertiary qualities aged wines take on. It is a acquired taste. A somm should find out if the customer likes the kind of qualities aged wines acquire such as dropping fruit and becoming more herb scented. People who prefer up front fruit in their wine will undoubtedly not appreciate a 20 year old CA cab that lost fruit but gained spice nuanced aromas and flavors. Perhaps a small taste would be justified.

    Just my 2 cents.

  4. redmond barry says:

    Jadot Beaujolais Village goes with everything. Even their Macon Village 2014 is a major step up, though it can’t compete with Leflaive or Lafon, which is crazy goo at an MSRP of $20.
    It’s funny that a 10 year old cabernet is considered an old wine nowadays.

  5. redmond barry says:

    Crazy good that is.

  6. redmond barry says:

    Great /old wines should be enjoyed at home. Or at Connoisseur’s Guide’s offices.

  7. The other phenomenon I find interesting is that consumers normally feel that certain varieties ‘get better with age’ and are willing to pay for them – CA Cabs, Bordeaux, Burgundy – but when it comes to other domestic varieties, they just don’t see the same. Frustrating . . .

  8. To quote The Jerk…”Bring us some fresh wine! The freshest you’ve got – this year! No more of this old stuff.”

    Restaurant Storage Practices
    If I’m buying a 10 year old wine from a restaurant, I have to know the restaurant and the owner, not just the wine. I’d be happy to buy an older bottle of Ridge Cab, I wouldn’t think twice about the quality and potential of the wine, but if I don’t know the cellar condition that it was stored in, I wouldn’t take a chance on much of anything beyond 1 year past release. That has nothing to do with the quality of the wine, it has to do with the quality of the restaurant storage. Restaurants need to invest in quality storage or have a small, highly turned over list.

    I’ve been in too many restaurants with zero temperature controlled storage. In the Central Valley of CA, many a restaurant will have the thermostat set to 80 degrees at night (or shut it off completely) with probably 20 percent relative humidity. Not ideal for long-term (or shorter-term storage for that fact) storage. Many restaurants shut down in the Valley for a week or two, again, without leaving the air conditioning system on. Personally, I want my wines turned over as quickly as possible.

    Allocated Wines are Building Up on Lists
    During allocation season among the distributors, which is March and April, many very well known wineries sell allocated product to restaurants. If the restaurant chooses to forgo their allocation, they may not get a chance the following year. Many of these rarities sell for over $200 on restaurant wine lists, with verticals going back 5 to 10 years. Many restaurants build up their wine lists with these rarities, but can’t sell them BTB, but rather to get wine awards for a deep cellar.

    I’m not surprised that restaurants are soliciting selling these rarities BTG because they can’t sell them BTB. The vintages keep piling up and not everyone has $300 to risk for a special bottle of wine.

    Consumers/Collectors also have access to rare and allocated wines these days through auction and DTC and many collectors have their own temperature controlled storage which are better than a restaurant.

    Why pay a restaurant mark-up on a rare wine, question the restaurant storage practices and risk potential drama with the restaurant when I as the consumer/collector can bring in my own wine and pay between $15-50 for corkage and still make out better than the restaurant mark-up?

  9. Bob Henry says:

    There is an oft-recited statistic that only 5% of all wines are age-worthy. And the vast majority of those wines are (not surprisingly) red, as tannins are one of Mother Nature’s wine life extenders.

    As someone who organizes (and occasionally sells off) private wine cellars, I have ample experience drinking old wines. I can assure you, the “tincture of time” is an infrequent experience. Sure, a truly old (> 20 years) wine might be drinkable. But more often than not, you wish you had drunk it five or ten years earlier. Nothing wrong with enjoying fresh fruit aromas and flavors in your wine.

    (Here’s a challenge: when Wine Spectator conducts 10 and 20 and even 30 year retrospective California Cabernet tastings, do their ratings align with the original review prognostications? Quote: “Ratings are based on POTENTIAL quality, on how GOOD the wines will be when they are at their PEAKS.”)

    What my clients no longer want, they sell off — or “gift” to me.

    Who are they sold to?

    Some are consigned at auction (one-day live event or listed everyday at the house’s online store), or sold to third-party intermediaries who resell them to restaurants like The French Laundry and Spago.

    Provenance is key. Only the best “vetted” bottles go to auction or fine dining restaurants.

    Ask a restaurateur you patronize for a guided tour of his on-premises wine storage area. Generally speaking, you won’t be impressed. It’s dinky.

    In devising their blueprints for a new establishment, restaurateurs have to juggle the demand for maximum seating area with the demand for back room storage space for dry goods and beverages. The former generates sales revenue. The latter is an overhead expense.

    Which do you think trumps the other?

    With limited storage space for wines, restaurateurs adopt a “just-in-time delivery system.” Order one case today, and the distributor delivers it tomorrow, Or the day after.

    That necessitates buying only the current vintage in the market.

    A restaurateur might covet selling older wines procured from third-party intermediaries, but lacks back room storage space. Or is risk-averse about committing scarce working capital to more expensive wines that have a low projected stock-turn rate.

    The introduction of the Coravin device — while not a panacea — enables restaurateurs to offer older, more expensive wines by the glass and full-pour bottle.

    If a Somm recommends a wine that disappoints a dining patron, then the obvious “recovery” offer is to uncork a second same bottle, or replace with an entirely different wine.

    Okay Bill Haydon, we haven’t heard from you in a while. What’s the East Coast/upper Midwest wine market “take” on this subject?

  10. Bob Henry says:

    David writes:

    “I’ve been in too many restaurants with zero temperature controlled storage. In the Central Valley of CA, many a restaurant will have the thermostat set to 80 degrees at night (or shut it off completely) with probably 20 percent relative humidity. Not ideal for long-term (or shorter-term storage for that fact) storage. Many restaurants shut down in the Valley for a week or two, again, without leaving the air conditioning system on. …”

    What do you think happened to all those wines stored in fine dining establishments in New Orleans following the power outage caused by Hurricane Katrina?

    What do you think happened to all those wines stored in fine dining establishments in New Jersey and New York following the power outage caused by Hurricane Sandy?

    Yup — they got “cooked” inside high temperature storage areas.

    The best restaurants took insurance settlements and replenished their inventories.

    (And what did the insurance companies do with all those heat-damaged bottles they “inherited”? Wines I liken those bottles to “salvage-title” vehicle. The biggest fear: they sold them at auction. Caveat emptor.)

    From USA Today:

    “Wine Cellars Lost Millions to Katrina”

    http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/travel/destinations/2006-06-22-new-orleans-wine_x.htm

    Excerpt:

    “Diners who peruse the wine list at Commander’s Palace when it reopens this summer will find a testimonial about how the restaurant is coping with the Katrina fallout that still bedevils the region.

    “Co-owner Ti Martin plans to include a letter stating that some bottles on the list were stored in the wine cellar during and after the hurricane, which knocked out electricity and refrigeration units for more than three weeks while outside temperatures hovered in the 90s. The note will say that an expert panel sampled random selections from among the 10,000 bottles and found them to be sound but that the restaurant also will continue its POLICY OF REPLACING ANY BOTTLE THAT A DINER DOES NOT ENJOY.”

  11. Bob Henry says:

    “Heat Damage & Fine Wine”

    http://wineindustryadvisor.com/2016/07/11/heat-damage-fine-wine

    Excerpt:

    “… the [head exposure] damage is not always obvious. If the temperature spiked to 40°C [1040°F] and then dropped quickly, while the wine bottle might leak, and the cork might push a bit, the wine is not necessarily damaged. Conversely, the bottle might heat to 30°C [86°F] for a day or two and cook the wine, without the cork pushing or wine leaking. No one had studied this question in any detail.

    “In order to make a judgment about when a wine becomes ‘cooked’ we needed a scientific baseline. eProvenance conducted extensive research with industry renowned ETS Laboratories in St. Helena, California. They cooked five different wines at different temperatures and professional tasters noticed the DIFFERENCE IN THE TASTE AND THE AROMA of the wine after the wine had been subjected to just 30°C heat (86°F) for a total of just over TWO DAYS. …”

  12. Bob Henry says:

    Erratum.

    “… the [HEAT exposure] damage is not always obvious.”

  13. Bob Henry says:

    Sorry, second erratum.

    “… the [heatd exposure] damage is not always obvious. If the temperature spiked to 40°C [104°F] …”

  14. Bob Henry says:

    Okay, I give up correcting the typos.

    But let me thank Mark C Johnson for piquing my interest: “François who?”

    This guy:

    http://howtospendit.ft.com/drink/82721-franois-audouzes-wine-dinners-part-one

    (And there is a part deux.)

  15. Bob Henry says:

    If you wish to savor an older wine in a restaurant with complete confidence, then select Bern’s Steak House in Florida.

    181+ page spiral bound wine list comprising more than 6,500 different wines:

    http://www.bernsfinewines.com/r/products/bern-s-steak-house-wine-book

  16. Redmond Barry writes: “Great /old wines should be enjoyed at home. Or at Connoisseur’s Guide’s offices.”

    Thanks for the shoutout. When we do our retrospective reviews of older wines, those wines come from my cellar which is kept at 55 degrees. Bottles are on their sides, in the dark and do seem to last quite well.

    For those who would drink older wines, having a controlled cellar is absolutely necessary. But there are three reasons why I would not buy an older wine in a restaurant.

    1. Too pricey
    2. No way of knowing the life history of that wine
    3. I bring my own bottles and pay corkage–even at the French Laundry with its ridiculous corkage charge that greatly exceeds the amount of profit it makes on many of the wines on its list.

  17. Josh Moser says:

    Steve – great article. My $0.02 is that if you want to drink an older bottle of wine at a restaurant then bring one from your cellar and order a bottle or two of the list. Typically, the restaurant won’t make you pay corkage…Although don’t do this at the Village Pub in Woodside b/c they will charge you for corkage. On a personal note, I have recently had two 2001 Napa Valley Cabernets (Dariush and Culler) that have been excellent and an outstanding 2002 Lewis Cellars Napa Valley Merlot. Who says California red wine doesn’t age well. The Merlot from Lewis Cellars might have been the best bottle of California Merlot that I have ever had. But to your point, when I order wine at a restaurant, I always order recent releases.

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