One can only hope to age gracefully, whether it is us or our wines.
Last fall, I flipped the calendar on the half-century mark, and I amuse myself by thinking I'm a little more mellow, maybe not quite so hot-headed and, dare I venture, even reaching some level of maturity that makes me a more productive member of society.
And just as I have earned the gray that is marching through in my beard, my appreciation for older wines has strengthened. In my relative youth, I preferred wines that were bolder, brasher, richer, stronger. Drink 'em young, cook 'em rare, as my dear friend Coke Roth likes to say.
Life wasn't nuanced then, and neither were my favorite wines.
Drinking young wine is easy. It's fresh, it's feisty, and you don't have to think too much about it. Pull the cork, pour, enjoy, repeat. It doesn’t have to be too thoughtful.
Drinking mature wines can bring a richer experience. They can reveal more layers of complexity and fascination with fewer ragged edges. But, just like people, sometimes they can just be old and tired.
Through the years, I've taken the rare opportunity to enjoy well-aged wines. They are often revelatory. On two occasions about a dozen years ago, I got to taste Cabernet Sauvignons from two different Washington producers that were amazing. Both were nearly 20 years old at the time, and that opened my eyes to the possibilities offered by Washington Cabs.
During a 2002 tasting that celebrated Columbia Winery's 40th anniversary, a 1967 Gewürztraminer was uncorked. Stunningly, it held its spicy varietal character for about 15 minutes before fading into oblivion.
And the two finest wines I've ever tasted were Ports, one from 1963 and the other from 1896 (!). Because of their high alcohol and residual sweetness, Ports are among the most age-worthy wines. I believe I can still taste these two wines.
Similar to Ports are Madeiras, made on the eponymous island off the northwest coast of Africa. The owners of the fabulous Herbfarm restaurant in Woodinville, Wash., have a passion for Madeira and own one of the most famous collections anywhere. In fact, if you're willing to pony up more than $300, you can enjoy an ounce of a Madeira from 1795 — a wine made when George Washington was U.S. president. I am tempted.
But all of these were merely precursors to my 50th birthday bash, which took place in October. After turning 40, I came up with an idea to celebrate the half-century mark: collect one wine from each year of my life.
To accomplish this, I turned to Doug Charles, owner of Compass Wines in Anacortes, a town north of Seattle. Charles evaluates and purchases entire cellars across the country and resells the wines to his clientele. Let's just say I'm pleased to be on his customer list. I also could not have done this without the help of my dear friends Hank and Nancy Sauer, who took care of carefully opening and pouring every wine during the party.
We started with a Charles Krug 1964 Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley. This was a wine made by the Mondavi family before brothers Peter and Robert got into a notorious fistfight that ultimately led to the founding of Robert Mondavi Winery and fundamentally changed the American wine industry.
I ended up with a problem for 1965, completely because of my mistake. I wrote in my database that I had a 1965 Bordeaux when, in fact, it was a 1966. We made up for it by kicking off the party with a 1959 Chateau Margaux, a great vintage that is overshadowed by the famed 1961 Bordeaux vintage.
Perhaps the most interesting wine was a bottle of Dom Perignon 1966 Champagne. While sparkling wines get really interesting with a few years of age, trying a 48-year-old bubbly is nothing short of risky. Charles said he wasn’t sure what to expect. But as luck would have it, there were a few bubbles left, and the wine’s aromas and flavors were a dead ringer for crème brûlée.
The oldest Northwest wines in this vertical were Associated Vintners Cabernet Sauvignons from 1969 and 1970 and a Ste. Michelle Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignons from 1971 and 1973. Though more than 40 years old, they showed just how special aged Washington wines can be.
I didn't want this particular tasting to focus on the Northwest, however, but rather to explore the world of wine. As such, we also opened wines from Italy, Portugal, Madeira, South Africa, Germany, Lebanon, California, Australia and Israel.
When you put together a collection of wines such as this, it should be shared with friends — particularly those who enjoy great wines. So about 40 friends and family members celebrated with me, and everyone enjoyed about a half-ounce of each wine through the course of six hours.
While there was no consensus favorite, one of the stars was the Woodward Canyon 1983 Cabernet Sauvignon, one of those first older wines I'd tasted years before.
While we had such an enjoyable time celebrating my 50th birthday, the event also led me to think more about opening older wines. I have a number of reds in my cellar going back 15 to 20 years, and I now look for occasions to open them. I'm also continuing to hunt for opportunities to collect older wines when they are made available. A few of my friends who were at the party have said the same thing.
Surely this is a sign of maturity.