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When Is The Right Time To Open A Wine?

Gil Kulers

Gil Kulers

2010.04.08 OTBNDear Gil,

Some time ago, I received a 1990 Château Latour as a gift.  I’ve kept it in a wine cooler the whole time. Is it ready to drink and should I finally pull the cork?

—Mark in Marietta

Dear Mark,

You must have been a very good boy to have received such a magnificent gift. I think the question here really is: Are YOU ready to drink it? No doubt you have an idea of the monetary value of this wine. Depending on which auction you refer to, this famous Bordeaux wine typically goes for $700 to $1,000 a bottle. Furthermore, as you may know, it has the distinction (along with a very small handful of wines) of being hailed “a perfect wine” by wine critics and collectors.

Despite living in a polarized, if-you’re-not-with-us-you’re-against-us world, I’m disinclined to offer definitive black-and-white answers to such questions. I am, however, prepared to give you a few things to think about.

Once upon a time, I poured the 1990 Latour on several occasions as a sommelier at the Cherokee Town and Country Club, a wonderful private club in Atlanta with one boffo wine collection. This was around the year 2000. In my humble opinion, it was far too early to drink this wine. To my taste, it was rather rough, even after decanting. On the other hand, the folks who ordered it seemed to have enjoyed it immensely.

That’s the funny thing about wine. Perception is clouded by so many factors. I tasted the wine more as a scientist, deconstructing its components and estimating their development and decline over time. My guests were there to enjoy each other’s company, be dazzled by inspired cuisine and be thrilled to taste a 100-point wine. I’m pretty sure if the same group gathered in a stark room with no food, just the bottle of Latour and a few glasses, there would be much less joy.

Regardless of a wine’s providence, it can’t manufacture the convivial warmth of friends and family brought together around the table.

Or can it?

It is exciting to taste incredibly expensive wines that generate so much hoopla. Inevitably, good-natured conjecture over the wine’s readiness, price and whether or not it truly is great provides for lively dinner conversation.

But is engaging chit-chat worth seven or eight hundred bucks? That is a question writ large looming over anyone’s decision to open such a bottle. Budgets and good times are not exclusive topics…at least not for most of us.

OK, enough preamble, right? Is the 1990 Latour safe to open? To loosely quote Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man:

“Oh, yes, it is very safe.”

“Really?”

“No, it is not very safe at all.”

There are two schools of thought on the readiness of a wine: 1. Who knows? And 2. Who cares?

You can never really be sure a wine is ready to open until you open it. Even dweebs like me, who can suck all the enjoyment out of a wine by swishing it around and dismantling it piece by piece, can only offer an opinion. And that’s a subjective opinion. What’s ready for me, might be young and harsh or old and faded to you. So, who knows?

The last time I tried the 1990 Latour was four years ago. It was smoother than when I had it in 2000 and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I can only assume it is smoother yet. Take that for what it is worth.

As for the School of Who Cares? Unless you are a dweeb who occasionally gets paid to have an opinion about such a wine (And, God help you, I hope you are not), it doesn’t really matter to the wine when you open it. A fabulous wine like the 1990 Latour will give you great pleasure now, in five years, and quite likely in 20 years or beyond. The question of when is the “best” moment to open it is like asking a parent which moment of your child’s life was more significant? Her first steps? Her first soccer goal? Or her graduation day? They’re really quite different events, but they are all nonetheless special.

The shame of it all would be if you never open it up. And big-time collectors, I’m talking to you now, too. So much wine is wasted by folks who collect wine. They just sit on it, trade it or otherwise keep it trapped forever in that bottle. If you’re not going to open a bottle, it hardly matters how it tastes or even how it’s stored.

We’d all do well to take a cue from a fellow Marietta-ite, Chris Allen, who wrote in to tell me about his Open That Bottle Night story (O.T.B.N. is the holiday founded by the former Wall Street Journal wine columnists, John Brecher and Dorothy J. Gaiter, to help people avoid wasting wine by not drinking it).

“When I was in the Air Force in Montgomery, Ala., in the early 70’s, I went to New Orleans where I got two old bottles of wine at Martin’s Wine Cellar—one for me and one for a friend,” Allen wrote. “He shared his bottle with us while we were in Alabama, and I saved my bottle in order to reciprocate some day, the wine being a 1949 Gruaud-Larose. I was finally able to locate him last year and suggested that I bring or ship the wine to New York City, where we could share it.”

A quick perusal of a few auction houses told me the wine would likely fetch between $400 and $1,100. “The 61-year-old wine was very nice in its mature fashion, a taste I like,” Allen reported. He absolutely could have sold it, but he was glad to reunite with his Air Force buddy now in New York, open that bottle and share some laughs about old times.

More than anything, Allen was relieved to have finally cracked open the wine, he told me over the phone. Allen would have been saddened if his friend had passed away or was otherwise incapacitated and could not share the Gruaud-Larose him. Rather than obsess about the health and life of a wine, maybe we should concern ourselves more about our time here.

Perhaps the answer you seek is this: Drink up while you still can.

15 comments Add your comment

Lisa

April 8th, 2010
6:36 pm

Thanks for this article.

bevino

April 9th, 2010
2:17 pm

Mark in Marietta. I would be happy to share that bottle. I dream of Latour

Sugar

April 9th, 2010
3:07 pm

$1,000 for a SMALL bottle of wine…….Ummmmm NO THANK YOU!!!!!!

Sugar

April 9th, 2010
3:07 pm

That’s a month and a half of mortgage payments……

Lisa

April 9th, 2010
3:10 pm

even a sniff of it would be nice…

Denise

April 9th, 2010
3:32 pm

Does it come in a box?

crackbaby

April 9th, 2010
3:36 pm

To Mark in Marietta,

Open it, baby! Have it with a nice meal. Perhaps with friends and/or family. Have a another bottle or two of juice you really like as backups in case it disappoints (which it won’t).

Good food, good friends, good drink. Life is short. To H#LL with the “experts.”

Gil Kulers

April 9th, 2010
3:45 pm

Hey, Sugar. It was a gift. If someone gave you an Escalade, would you sell it, buy a Prius and pocket the difference?

Kevin Glowacki

April 10th, 2010
1:04 pm

First off, I love the OTBN story. One of the better ones I’ve read.

As for the wine, I completely agree that Mark should gather a couple close friends, cook some nice food, have some other bottles for the meal and drink that wine.

kp

April 11th, 2010
11:36 am

I say smuggle it into the nearest McDonald’s and drink it from a styrofoam cup along with some McNuggets.

mathwonk

April 11th, 2010
12:40 pm

That was great, honest advice in that article on drinking the latour. much better than one gets from r. parker.

parker in 1992: “Unquestionably the 1990 is the finest, most archetypal Latour since 1982…potentially the wine of the vintage. A triumph! ” (98+)

parker in 2000: “This is a beauty, but not the awesome blockbuster I remembered.” (96).

parker in 2009:” It is not the sure-fire winner I thought it was in its youth”, (95).

more opinions are available on cellartracker, from many recent drinkers of most wines.

1) (in fall 2009) “This was my first Latour and, without a doubt, was the finest wine I have ever tasted.” (98)

2) (in 2010) “Opened and decanted 4hrs before drinking. Deep red color that shows age on the rim. Classic Bordeaux nose. Closed, monolithic, high acidity. Improving but not coming close to the quality it is supposed to possess.” (92)

the truth is, as gil said, it is impossible to predict what a wine will taste like. But you will probably enjoy it more with good friends. sharing and discussing is part of the fun. I took the first and best latour i ever had (1970) to a hamburger cookout in 1981, with three wine- naive friends, and still recall the pleasure of my one glass, and the pleasure of sharing something fine. one suggestion: decant and taste. and be patient.

mathwonk

April 11th, 2010
12:46 pm

you might also want to read michael broadbent’s little booklet: wine tasting, if you have not done so. they have it at the library.

Gil Kulers

April 11th, 2010
4:20 pm

Doh! I should have mentioned CellarTracker.com, a great resource for deciding whether “it’s time!” or not. Decanting 1 to 2 hours prior to serving will amplify the yumminess. Thanks MathWonk!

TowerATL

April 12th, 2010
1:34 pm

Hi Gil!

Did you know the Sommelier at CT&C, Susan if I recall correctly?
She taught me well … along with the fabulous wine Cellar,
John Jordan, the great Maître d’ there and Chef Tom Catherall: yes the was some time ago.

I wish someone would have taught me what I was looking for in what a wine like this is supposed to taste like. I was such a novice when I first experienced this magnificent wine and did not understand how to appreciate it. If you have one to share, I am ready to learn!

Gil Kulers

April 12th, 2010
5:04 pm

I believe you are referring to Lisa Taylor. She hired me and has since moved on from Cherokee. If I had a ‘90 Ch. Latour, I would gladly share it with you!
And to your other point, you can never enjoy a wine from a different place in your life. There’s something to be said to not have an experienced palate and then POW! you try this great wine and your wine life is different. The more you taste, the more you tend to lose that youthful enthusiasm.