Is Wine Alive?


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The Debate Over Ripeness

The first glass of wine that I liked was a White Zinfandel.  As hard as that is to admit, many people come to love this beverage (and yes, it is just a beverage) by starting at the bottom.  That glass of White Zinfandel appealed to me at a young age because it was sweet and fruity.  Nowadays I can't even put the stuff in my mouth without gagging.  The lesson here is that as we drink more wine, the more our palates mature. And yes, that's a fantastic excuse to drink more wine!

I have a friend, let's call him Scott, who has been collecting wine for the past 20 years.  Scott became interested in wine in the early 90's, and he used to pick my brain a lot about what wines he should start collecting in his cellar.  He had plenty of disposable income and wanted to build, in his words, "an amazing collection."  But as Scott began to learn more and more (and drink more and more), he sought my advice less and less.  The only problem is that he turned towards the 100-point system and the wine trade journals for advice, and began collecting wines that scored above 95 points, or had some kind of cult reputation.

I went to visit Scott over the Christmas holidays this year, 20-plus years after he started his collection.  He could hardly wait to pop the corks on some of these old bottles he had been cellaring, to show off some of his prize bottles with old friends.  I was excited, too.  After all, many of these bottles were ones I had never tasted, because when a wine gets a high score like that, it tends to sell out quickly.  I brought along a few of Lane Tanner's old Pinots and Syrahs for comparison's sake, just for kicks.

We sat down at the dining room table over a nice meal, and Scott brought one treasure after another out of his cellar for all of us to swirl and appreciate.  At this moment things became increasingly tense for me.  Scott wanted my opinion on how the wines were tasting, and was hoping to hear how great I thought they were, but here was the rub: I didn't like a single one of them.  The wines were awful.  These wines that Scott had spent a small fortune collecting - that were fat, silky and lush in their youth - had become flabby, oxidized and uninteresting in their older age.  To top it off, they weren't even that old.  I was shocked, and struggled for something nice to say about the swill in my glass.

Lane's wines ended up stealing the show.  The reason is simple: Lane doesn't like making wine from overripe fruit.  So many Pinot Noirs these days taste like Syrah or some other varietal, because they are over extracted and made from extremely ripe fruit.  When I asked Lane why she likes to pick earlier than everyone else, she said. "because it makes the wine taste more alive."  At Scott's house, after tasting one of her Pinots that had more than 25 years of age, I was convinced.  Not only was the wine still tasting young, it had developed layers of complexity that were not present in some of her younger wines.  (And even better, this wine was from Sierra Madre Vineyard, our favorite).  Here was a wine that tasted lively and fresh when young, and still was alive and kicking after 25 years in the bottle.  It also was a perfect complement to our meal.

One of the greatest things about Lane Tanner is that she never changed her winemaking style to suit the critics.  She stuck to making Pinot the way she liked to drink Pinot - tasting fresh and alive - and because of that her wines have stood the test of time.  Now her style of winemaking has come back into vogue, and I (like many other wine fanatics) couldn't be happier.

Just last week I received a phone call from my friend Scott.  He told me that he didn't think he chose wisely when he bought wine in the 90's, and seemed a bit embarrassed about our tasting over the holidays.  "It's a learning experience," I told him.  "No one really knew back then that these big, high alcohol wines wouldn't end up aging very well."  Then Scott paid me a huge complement: he ordered Lumen.

- Will Henry