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Tuesday Tributes
Choosing The Wine For Tonight’s Anniversary Dinner

By Charles Olken

You might think that the several thousand bottles resting quietly in my wine cellar would make the choice easy. I have a better wine list than most restaurants, and that is only the half of it.

It is big number anniversary tonight, and Mrs. Olken deserves the best so we are off to Chez Panisse. We have not eaten downstairs at Alice Water’s gastronomic emporium for decades. Somehow, we could not get reservations whenever we tried. This time, despite having to eat a little later than these old bones prefer, we are on our way to Berkeley. Just need to shine my shoes and choose a special bottle.

Here’s the rub. I went out to the cellar the other day and found dozens of wines I want to drink tonight. The problem is that some are too old, some are too young, some, like 1961 Haut Brion, are so rare that I have never been able to bring myself to drink it and some are such old friends, like the 1970 Beaulieu Private Reserve, that despite age and incredible performance over forty years, they are almost too familiar.

And then there is this problem. Decades ago, when heading off to such events, I would plan on consuming two full bottles—a white of some kind and an aged red, and those worthies would be preceded by a glass of bubbly and followed by a glass of Port or Sauternes. I don’t try that now for all kinds of good reasons, including a heightened sense of personal safety and a very high degree of respect for my continuing right to possess a driver’s license. The obvious solution is to bring one special bottle and buy something by the glass to fill in.

Okay, but now I am stuck. I have some lovely, gracefully aging Champagne. If we were eating at home, it would be getting ready to be chilled down, but we are only going to bring one bottle and what about those forty year old reds that I have so lovingly kept in the dark, cold recesses of the cellar? The main course tonight is described on the website as grilled lamb. No hints as to seasoning or cut, but Chez Panisse has always played things pretty close to the classic line so I do know that an aged red, one that has not grown toothless over time, is going to work.

I have worked my way back to the 1961 Haut Brion as first choice for reasons of grand potential, and I have worked my way in the other direction when I think of that lone bottle and the chance that it simply has not survived. Oh well, choose something safer but special.

The choice is narrowed down now to two bottles—1974 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard and 1984 Ridge Monte Bello. I will check ullage and overall looks of the wines, and will choose one for dinner and one for a backup in case the first one has met its maker. I have learned that lesson the hard way. Don’t rely on one old bottle because it may not perform the way I would want given the ravages of time.

I must admit that working my way through the range of possibilities offered by my cellar has been fun. I have too many old bottles to ever enjoy them all, and it is clear that I need to find a setting to try wines that are nearing the back side of the hill. Perhaps, that is the next step. Invite the gang in, lineup some old friends and bid them farewell in the time honored tradition—by pulling the corks and finding out what they have been hiding all these years.

Happy Anniversary, Mrs. Olken.


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Congratulations To You Both
by Jim Caudill
Posted on:6/19/2012 6:46:38 PM

Congratulations to you both, and very good plan to have a back-up.  Monday was an important birthday for my wife, and she always wanted to go on a balloon ride, so it was all arranged.  We attended the US Open, basked in the glow of the unusual weather (for SF) and Sunday evening, as I was wondering what time we'd be getting up for the great adventure, the dreaded call came:  sleep in, fog is grounding us.  Unlike you, I had no real back-up plan...and I'm still paying the price and expect to until I leave the ground untethered.

Happy anniversary to you both, and best wishes that every pulled cork reveals an old welcomed friend.


The Wine
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:6/19/2012 6:51:13 PM

After a long search of the cellar, I found the wine I was really after but was not sure if it would show up.

It is 1977 Heitz Martha's Vineyard.

Anyone care to guess why that vintage?

No Subject
by Dennis Winter
Posted on:6/19/2012 7:08:23 PM

77 Heitz? Because its freakin marvelous??

Actually I never had a 77 Heitz, so no clue. Its great that you still have an 84 Ridge Monte Bello. My wine cellar has never been big enough to keep wine that old, and all my Monte Bello is long gone. Since my cellar size has always been limited and I drink lots of wine, its hard for me to keep anything that old. Congrats on the anniversary, mine was near the end of last month. We had a bottle of 2008 Mica Cab.

by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:6/19/2012 7:56:21 PM

Just slipping in to wish a very Happy Anniversary to you and your beautiful, sweet Mrs. I hope you kids have a wonderful dinner. Hugs and kisses to you both.

Anniversary Wine
by Mike Dunne
Posted on:6/20/2012 9:27:47 AM

Congratulations, Charlie. Our anniversary also is the 19th, but we kept it low key - dinner at home with Roederer Estate Brut and the same toast we've shared for the past 47 years. The only sour notes were the results of the NBA game and the Giants game. Why the 1977 Martha's Vineyard? Was that the year Connoisseur's Guide was founded?

MarTha's 1977
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:6/20/2012 11:24:05 AM

Hi Mike.

Congrats to you as well.

The 1977 Martha's was the right wine because we were married in 1977. It was not, as you will recall, a particularly good vintage--draught year with rain and very few superb wines.

The Martha's was perhaps the best of a not very good lot, and when it dawned on me that I had a bottle, it became the wine of choice.

Admittedly, it was a bit of a crap shoot. Both the 74 Martha's and the 84 Monte Bello were, I knew, in good shape. I settled an a very safe backup bottle, the 98 Etude which was among the best of that often overlooked and underrated vintage.

The Martha's had virtually no ullage, and when the cork was pulled by the somm at Chez Pannise, it was easy to see why. Despite having lain on its side for three decades, the wine had not worked its way more than about halfway up the cork.

But, of course, corks and labels are not wine. When it was decanted and poured, its aromas were breathtakingly lovely--layered notes of currants, slgiht but minimal cedar, a whiff o mint, hints of cola.

I was a little worried about decanting it and letting it sit around for an hour through two courses, but no worries. The wine simply got better, opened up and was amazingly rewarding for a wine of 35 years from an iffy vintage.

The ABV was listed at 13.5 but was not detectable, as it should not be in a good wine, and the texture was firm yet suipple with just enough tannin for grip against the med-rare lamb loin and chop.

The next time that someone tells me that CA wines cannot age because they are too ripe, I will suggest that they are too young to have tried older wines with ripeness levels that they would have found too high decades ago becazuse they worship French numbers as if they were some form of divine commandment.

We are still riding the joy of the evening this morning even though we ostensibly are back to work.

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