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On the pleasures of old wine


A friend had kindly given me a bottle of 1979 Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir in advance of my get-together with Richard Sanford last week. He and I might have shared it, but we didn’t do a lot of serious tasting on that cool, early morning; my motive was primarily to talk with Richard and learn what he’s up to, not to drink. So I brought the bottle home to have it in a more proper setting where I, and others, could appreciate it the way wine is meant to be had: with food, over the pleasures of the table.

An old bottle of wine is the complete opposite of a young bottle. Assuming it’s still sound (and you never know until you pop the cork), an old wine is like an old person: meant to be treated with respect and courtesy. You don’t go out for a 5-mile run with an old bottle, the way you might with a young friend; instead, you sit around the living room, talking quietly and letting the old wine reminisce. Young wines shout; old wines have conversations.

I brought it to Maxine and Keith’s for dinner, down in San Mateo. The first decision was whether or not it would go with her paella, which she made in the classic Spanish style, with clams, shrimp, chicken and chorizo and, of course, a dash of saffron. I figured the match would be fine.


To decant or not? I wished Richard had been there; he would have known. In the event, I waited until about 30 minutes before Maxine put the paella pot on the table. But first the bottle had to be opened. With a 31-year old cork, you never know. I used a waiter’s screwtop, probably not the best idea (an Ah-So would have been better). The cork broke in half, with the top impaled on the screw and the bottom stuck deep down in the neck. But the cork smelled clean. Sometimes old corks break; it’s not the worst thing in the world. Since I couldn’t extract the bottom half, I just shoved it down into the wine. A proper sommelier, I expect, would have filtered and decanted the wine. I did neither.

The color was pale, of course; a heavy sediment clearly had gathered into the bottom of the bottle. The wine wasn’t quite brown, but a sort of russet, the color the maple leaves turn in November just before they fall to the sidewalk in front of my house. A good, rich, natural color, but fading. Then the all-important act of sniffing. Ahhh. Clean, sound, attractive. Just a bit maderized — like a fino sherry. Not unusual in so old a wine. Not a problem. Inviting; not a trace of senescence. Gave it a few quick swirls, and out came the cherries, shy at first, like a little girl in her first ballet costume. Pretty and demure.

Before I could sip Keith asked for the glass. I normally don’t like to tell others what I’m experiencing because I know it can color their own expectations, but I did say, “The fruit’s pretty much gone. But it’s really nice.” As Keith sniffed I could see a certain disappointment. He likes young wines, like most people, because he’s used to young wines. So I went into teacher mode and told him something like this:

With wines this old, you look for different things than fruit. You ask the wine to give you its best, but you in turn must give it yours. Begin with respect. This wine is nearly 31 years old. It is still vibrant — still alive — more than alive. Alert, intelligent, with much to say. (It’s impossible not to anthropomorphize such wines.) There is no sickness unto death here. There is a halting quality; the wine is a shadow of its former self, but it is not a feeble shadow. A noble one, proud of its past. (I tried, unsuccessfully, to make an analogy with the aging Willie Mays, but gave up.) By then I had tasted the wine, and fallen in love. Through the maderization, still some sweet, refined fruit and spice. The more you think about such wines, the more you discover in them. It’s as if they are telling you their long autobiography, one memory at a time. There is a memory of climate. “This fresh acidity you appreciate,” the wine says, “is from the wind and the fog that loved me when I was grapes on vines.” Although the label on the bottle says, in those pre-AVA days, “Lompoc, California,” this was after all the same Santa Rita Hills that today is windswept and foggy; the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard still spills down the slopes to Santa Rosa Road (and Richard Sanford’s La Encantada Vineyard is right next door).

With the paella the wine was a dream. For comparison’s sake I opened a 2006 Siduri Cargasacchi Pinot. (If I’d had a recent Sanford & Benedict that would have been better but I didn’t.). You can see Cargasacchi right across Santa Rosa Road, so the two wines shared the same, or nearly the same, terroir. The Siduri is a wonderful wine — I scored it 92 points for Wine Enthusiast — but the minute Keith tried it, right after the old S&B, he pouted and said, “It tastes horrible!” No, it wasn’t horrible, it is a very good Pinot Noir, but everything is relative; and perhaps nothing in our sensory experience is as relative as when, and under what circumstances, you taste wine. The 3-1/2 year old tannins in the Siduri were hard as nails, after the silk of the S&B. The Siduri’s fruit was too bold, too aggressive, compared to the older wine’s discretion; it was like (and I’ve made this analogy before) the late Tammy Faye Bakker’s makeup: garish. The S&B by contrast was evanescent as a ghost. Not a scary, chain-rattling ghost, but a friendly familiar. A spirit. An angel.

All of which, of course, leads to the big question: Will today’s Pinot Noirs, which routinely top 14% of alcohol and frequently are more than 15%, age like that ‘79 S&B? Its alcohol was 13.2% (and there’s no reason at all to think that number was not accurate, the way I routinely doubt today’s official alcohol readings on labels). I have no way of knowing. Keith asked why a higher alcohol Pinot might not age as well and, once more, I wished Richard had been there, for he would have given us the answer. I murmured something about balance. In complex systems, the slightest inherent imbalance, no matter how barely noticeable early on, may sometimes lead to gigantic consequences, like a space satellite spinning out of orbit. Maybe the winemakers who craft these modern-style Pinot Noirs will weigh in with their opinions. Will these 2007s and 2008s be as beautiful in 31 years as that old S&B?

And this just in:

The case of the mysterious mailing list deaths

This is a true story about one of the most terrible and horrendous events in the history of the wine industry. It is a tale of murder, greed and covetuousness — and the lengths to which humans will go in order to satisfy their unnatural lusts.

It began on a dark, stormy night in December, 2008, in the Hollywood Hills, where the well-known movie producer (“Cheaper by the Dozen 2,” “All About Steve”), James Schnorrer, was found dead at the bottom of his swimming pool. His body was discovered by his housekeeper, who called police. The Los Angeles coroner eventually determined that the cause of death was accidental drowning. Schnorrer’s blood was found to contain traces of marijuana, alcohol, cocaine and prescription drugs. The presumption was that he had gotten high, gone for a swim, and passed out in the water. Case closed.

Two weeks later, in Boca Raton, Florida, in the upscale Highland Beach neighborhood, Jay Silverbring, a wealthy importer of East Asian antiques, similarly was found dead in his home. His wife, Lisa, had been shopping. On her return, she discovered Silverbring face-down on the livingroom floor. There were no signs of violence, no marks on the body, nothing to indicate that a crime had been committed. The coroner determined that Silverbring had died from a massive coronary thrombosis, although he had been in excellent health. His age at the time of his death was 54.

Over the next six months, which is to say through the summer of 2009, more than sixty men and women, all in upper income brackets, were found dead, of various causes: heart attacks. Strokes. Drownings. Car accidents. Falls down staircases and off cliffs. Nine were determined to have committed suicide: five by hanging, three by slicing their wrists, and one by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. By the beginning of 2010, the number has grown to 111. That is when a private detective by the name of Maury Saperstein became involved, and eventually solved the mystery.

Saperstein had been hired by the widow of one of the dead men, a Silicon Valley millionaire who had developed a new high-speed processor, whose patent he had sold to Cisco for $45 million. Claude Recluser — that was his name — had taken his fortune and decided to live a Larry Ellison-type lifestyle. He climbed mountains, including K-2. He sailed a 32-foot schooner from La Jolla to Melbourne, alone. He practiced hang-gliding, flew his own small jet, and kayacked whitewater rivers from New Zealand to Ireland. It was Recluser who had jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. He was only 37 years old at the time, was 5 feet 11 inches tall, weighed 150 pounds, and had 2.4% bodyfat. His overall health, including his mental health, had been perfect. His widow described him as “as happy as a man could be, living his dream.” He had had no reason to kill himself, which is why the widow — Katherine Recluser — hired Saperstein. She wanted to know why her husband had killed himself, or rather, she wanted to know why someone had pushed him off the Golden Gate Bridge, making it appear that he had killed himself. For she knew, in her heart, that he hadn’t.

Saperstein worked all the usual angles. Was there another woman? Multiple women? Nothing. Claude had been, seemingly, the perfect family man, devoted to Katherine and to their two young children. Had Recluser been involved in anything shady that might have cost him his life? No; there was no evidence of anything like that at all. Did he have enemies? Had he cheated someone out of a fortune, stolen an idea, caused an enemy to be fired, wrecked someone’s business? Again, nothing. Could he have been suffering from a deep depression that not even his wife had noted? Possibly, but Saperstein interviewed all Recluser’s friends — and he had hundreds of friends — and all testified to his happiness, his balance, his overall joy in life. He had accomplished everything he had set out to do, and now was enjoying the fruits of his labors. In fact, several of his friends noted, Claude had some new ideas about technology, and was even considering getting back into the business.

Saperstein was at a dead end when one of those serendipitous things happened that so often opens a door when all options seem shut. A wine fan himself, Saperstein happened to overhear a conversation at a wine bar in downtown San Francisco. It seemed that the owner of a famous cult winery, Babbling Buzzard, which had received a 100 point review from Robert Parker, had been complaining that his mailing list — the people to whom his coveted wine was offered, on a first-come, first-serve basis each year — had diminished rapidly and mysteriously. Even granted the effects of the recession, hundreds of his mailing list customers had allowed their subscriptions to run out, and simply disappeared.

Saperstein called Mrs. Recluser. Had Claude been on the Babbling Buzzard mailing list? Why yes, Mrs. Recluser replied; he had. In fact, she had just sold off a consignment of older vintages, since she, herself, was not a fan of wine.

Saperstein did his research. He obtained from the owner of Babbling Buzzard a list of the names of former members who had allowed their subscriptions to lapse over the previous 18 months. There was a total of 177 names. Saperstein further ascertained that, of that 177, 123, or nearly 70 percent — including Claude Recluser — had died under mysterious circumstances. The victims included James Schnorrer and Jay Silverbring. All were wealthy, all lived in good neighborhoods, and all had died tragically (or allegedly had killed themselves). This was an important enough discovery by Saperstein, the kind a private detective might work through an entire career without stumbling across, but what is even more amazing is how Saperstein determined that there was a single killer, a woman who had waited for more than 5 years to get onto Babbling Buzzard’s mailing list, unsuccessfully, and who then had determined that, rather than wait for the actual mailing list customers to die or voluntarily quit so that she could be admitted, she would help them along, by killing them, one by one. How Saperstein eventually discovered the killer will be the subject of a future blog.

  1. Come on… really? Is this for real or are you testing the storyline of your first novel?

  2. Hi Kelly, not for real, just feeling zany over the weekend.

  3. kelkeagy says:

    Well if you made the women a vampire and had her then fall in love with the winemaker… then you might have a chance at your fortune!

  4. Steve,

    Love this! Finally something super creative that is not about blogging! I was interviewed by Saperstein a few years ago when the Shofar of the local synagouge was stolen and later auctioned on eBay as a biodynamic preparation, he is quite an astute investigator.

    On a more serious note, I believe it is too simplistic to concentrate on alcohol level alone when trying to assess the ageability of current Pinots. After all, thre are about 5000 different compunds that make up the totallity of a wine. While there is no doubt in my mind that extremely high alcohol, I’ve measured 16.5% on wines labeled as 14.2% (names witheld..), will result in old fire-water. I believe that what may detract more from ageability is the presence of raisiny notes, which will only get magnified with time. A well balanced, even moderately alcoholic, Pinot – will still age well. And by the way, if you have never done so: most EXPERIENCED tasters have a very hard time telling the alcohol levels of wine . At UCD, we did a blind tasting starting with a non-alcoholic wine that was doctored to levels up to 16% and it was nearly impossible to tell the 0% from the 11% wine!

  5. Oded, great points. I agree that alcohol in itself may not inhibit aging — it is indeed those pesky raisiny notes. That always suggests to me that the vintner has problems at the sorting table. I freely admit to not always being able to detect high alcohol. Sometimes yes; sometimes no. It all depends on balance.

  6. Most wines are drunk too young. Quality wine continues to live and develop in the bottle and take on a different character. As you said, they converse instead of shout. Unfortunately, we don’t allow wines to become their true selfs. I attended a Mosel Riesling tasting last December with wines dating back to 1921. It was fascinating to see how wonderfully these wines had developed over time.

    You make a good point: we drink them young because we are used to that. We need to change this habit if we really want to get to know the wines we love. I wonder if your friend is willing to give his Pinots a little more time after this dinner.

  7. that is a good way to get high end wines rolling again!!


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