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Trophy wines as living rooms


I read yesterday’s opinion piece in the New York Times on the topic of living rooms and went immediately back in my mind to The Bronx of my childhood, when we lived at 760 Grand Concourse and our neighbors in 6L were Dave and Elsie Buch.

Elsie had a living room, only nobody was allowed in. In fact, it was separated from the rest of their 4-room apartment by one of those movie theatre thingies where a red velvet rope hangs between upright brass posts. I was in that apartment a lot because the Buch’s daughter, Ellen, was one of my best friends, but God help you if you crossed that rope line and ventured into the Sanctum Sanctorum of Elsie’s living room, where the white sofa was encased in clear plastic, and the side tables had alabaster statues of Michaelangelo’s David for lamps.

In the Times article, the author, Joan DeJean, writes of rooms meant “to serve as proof of status and wealth…formal display spaces,” as opposed to “less grand rooms…intended for everyday life.” DeJean traces the evolution, in Europe, of formal display spaces and finds that they began to disappear in homes by the time of the French Revolution. But she notes that “Even today in some homes…[m]any living rooms are still display spaces — designed to showcase, for example, a collection of architect-designed furniture that is hardly intended for casual use.” I doubt if DeJean knew Elsie Buch, but she sounds like she did when she asks, “Why is it that the one room whose name honors everyday life is so often a place where we do as little living as possible?”

Which brings me, of course, to the topic of wine, and specifically to trophy bottles. Go on, admit it, you’ve owned the wine equivalent of Elsie’s roped off living room. What was it? A cult Cabernet? A Bordeaux with some age? Vintage Champagne? You know what I’m talking about. No matter how democratic (with a small “d”) and egalitarian you claim to be, you too have possessed a bottle so special, so fancy, you never would have dared to open it for an everyday occasion, a casual meal.

The funny thing about Elsie’s living room is that in all the years they lived there, I can’t remember a time when it was actually used. Elsie didn’t throw clever little cocktail parties — this was The Bronx, friends, not the Upper West Side; the closest the Buches got to throwing parties was when the menfolk, my father included, gathered, on Friday nights, for gin rummy games, and those certainly were not played in the living room. Perhaps Elsie formally entertained someone, sometime, in it, but never to my knowledge. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that for years on end nobody went into Elsie’s living room, except maybe to dust it.

Certain wines are like that, or, rather, certain people have that attitude about certain wines. That display bottle in your cellar — when are you finally going to open it? The longer you wait, the harder it gets, because there’s more at stake as it gets older and older. Could you possibly just open it any old night with your significant other, and drink it with Chinese or pizza while watching Mad Men? You could — just as Elsie might have let us kids play in her living room. But she wouldn’t. She couldn’t. Something in her psyche didn’t permit her. That living room made her feel special, better than she was — as if she weren’t just a housewife in The Bronx, but the chatelaine of a grand mansion.

Don’t we all feel like that? A part of us wants to be more — more elevated in status,  more worthy, more associated with greatness than our ordinary lives permit us to be. That explains a lot of the quirks of human behavior — including why we have trophy wines we keep roped off from ordinary life, waiting for an extraordinary moment to open them, a moment that, sometimes, never comes.

  1. Thank you for your wise words today and yesterday.

  2. My couches are stained, my side tables have scuffs and rings from glassware water damage and when I get a special wine I freaking drink it. I get a case of wine each year for Christmas; a box full of older vintage Domaine de Montille Burgundy, Dagueneau, Clos Rougeard….stuff like that. I always plan on saving them but when a wine friend calls and wants to hit up a Cuban spot or Chinese place….I grab one. They last less than six months each and every year. I guess I am just too curious, to amorous or just worried that I might die before I get a chance to taste it!

  3. OMG…I just realized that all of my “trophy wines” were made by Helen Turley;-)

  4. I admit to having too much wine. It is an occupational hazard, I guess. I taste something I love and I want to have it. And, at least in the early days of my collecting, when wine was not so expensive, I had to have “it” in multiple bottles. Hence, a wine collection that is too big, has grown old before I have and will never get fully drunk up. As I like to say about my 1970-era reds (and whites, of which there are still a few Chalones and Stony Hills left), they are just eight bucks and a some electricity.

    I have never sold off a bottle of wine, but I don’t worship the stuff either. And, I do not drag out my best Ridge Geyservilles for pizza. One does not have to drink up one’s best bottles first to be drinking very good wine. Indeed, if one did not want to have all those fancy special occasion wines, there are plenty of alternatives to three-digit Cabernet Sauvignon or $75 Pinot Noir.

    It is easy to find great wine at high prices. The trick is to find great and very near great wine for reasonable prices. For that, we have Steve Heimoff–and me, if I do say so myself. We taste thousands of wines per year so that folks can find alternatives to trophy wines.

    But, folks, there is nothing wrong with laying away a few special occasion wines. Special occasions do arise. The trick is to avoid being so in love with the possession of those bottles that we forget to drink them.

  5. kelkeagy says:

    The trick is to not waste your love on possessions of any kind….

  6. Great piece of writing. I can still remember my best friend’s mom yelling at us for setting foot in the “front room”. Literally a foot print in the carpet would set off a firestorm.

    I try not to keep trophy bottles but often I wait to open a special bottle until I’m with people that will appreciate it.

  7. Rest assured thst even in SE MO these rooms existed. After a long day of hoeing in the cotton fields under the summer sun we were NEVER allowed in the ‘living room’. So Steve, it doesn’t mattter if you are from the Bronx or not, mothers and aunts are different. God bless them.

  8. Your writing is always so extraordinary… What a punch line.

  9. While I have a certain Saumur rouge that Samantha mentioned waiting in the wings, I’m just holding for practical purposes to give the wine the age it supposedly needs. OK, so I’m not going to open it on a Tuesday night–it’ll require some attention and proper food pairing. When the time is right, though, the cork will be popped.

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