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Finding Happiness In Wine Country—Two True Tales

By Charles Olken

The stories you are about to hear are true. The identities of the participants have been changed to protect the innocent.

A Happy Visit To The Doctor
Well, to tell you the truth it did not start out all that happily when our subscriber, a Mr. John Smith, aged 93, visited his doctor not so long ago. Mr. Smith was advised by his doctor that if he wanted to live a long, healthy life, he would have to give up winedrinking. He called the Connoisseurs’ Guide office and explained that he would not be renewing his subscription and he wanted us to know that it was nothing that we had done. We, of course, thanked him for many, many years of support and wished him a long, healthy and happy life.

Well, “happy” possibly got Mr. Smith to thinking, because he took himself off to a different doctor. You could probably take the story from here—the second doctor told Mr. Smith that he had done just fine so far and that it was unlikely that drinking a little more wine from here on out would do him any harm. Mr. Smith called yesterday to tell us the good news. There were smiles all around, and we are proud to say that Mr. Smith renewed his subscription.

We intend to let that be lesson by which we will intend to live.

A Happy Visit To The Wine Cellar
You may have heard me say it before. I have too much wine. It is an occupational hazard. Taste a great wine and have to have some of it in the cellar. My collecting days began in the years prior to the creation of Connoisseurs’ Guide, and, in fact, are almost certainly responsible for the urge to write about the California wines I was collecting but were being mostly ignored by the wine press of the time.

The other day a friend called to invite the Olkens out to dinner with him and his wife on their passage this way from wine country and on their way to the airport to jet off to Hawaii the following morning. A better idea, it occurred to me, was to have Mr. and Mrs. Reddy in for dinner instead so that we could open some of that older wine that has been sitting in the cold, dark of my wine cellar for some several decades.

For the first course of sautéed scallops, out came the 1998 Robert Mondavi Reserve Fumé from the To Kalon Vineyard and the 2003 Grgich Hills Fumé. Both were quite good, and if the nod goes to the Grgich, it not by much. We have found Grgich Fumés to be wonderfully long-aged wines in past vintages, and we had collected the 2003 because it seemed to promise to follow the same rewarding path. It did.

The stars of the night, as you might expect, were supposed to be the red wines. I admittedly have more Cabernet-based wines in my cellar than Pinots or other reds even though these days, the Olkens do tend to drink more Pinot than Cabernet Sauvignon.

But, there are precious few Pinots or Zins from California that hail from my early collecting days, and so it had to Bordeaux and California Cabernet. With wines that are forty and even fifty years old, the best that can be said for choosing to serve them is that they represent a gamble of major proportions. That is one reason why drinking them at home is better than lugging them off to a restaurant. If a bottle or two needs replacing, there are plenty of others where those came from.

Ultimately, after a long and fun search among the many possibilities, I decided to first take a chance with a bottle of 1966 Leoville Las Cases. I learned this wine in its youth at a superb restaurant called Narsai’s, run by the man who now dispenses food and wine wisdom on San Francisco’s leading radio station. Back then, Mrs. Olken and I liked to visit on Monday’s nights for the more affordable set dinners and accompanying wines. That was where I first tasted the 1966 Las Cases. When my collecting soon became a driven hobby, that wine was among the first to go into the cellar. I don’t have any California wines of that vintage, and while I have a bevy of 1970s, which I have tasted more or less regularly, I decided to try something different and at first considered, and then abandoned the idea of the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet, the wine that won the Paris tasting. In this, the year of the fortieth anniversary of that singular event, the Stag’s Leap is being seen fairly frequently, so not the answer I wanted.

I found a forgotten stash of 1975 Caymus Cabernet in a corner of the cellar, and it was one of our earliest three-star rated bottlings. The several bottles remaining all had decent fills, and I chose the best. To match it, I found a wine I had forgotten I even owned as there was only one bottle in the cellar. It was the 1975 Joseph Phelps Eisele Vineyard. The backup bottles, Dunn Howell Mountain and Ridge Montebello from the eighties never needed opening since each of the older wines turned out to be in quite good fettle for its age—and then some in the case of the Phelps.

The Las Cases had begun to fade some years ago. Its cork fell apart in mid-opening but the wine itself seemed to have plateaued and had held on to its character for the last thirty years without becoming decrepit. Older wines are to be admired for their longevity and the memories they supply. The Las Cases was so on-point and drinkable that it created a new set of memories.

The Caymus surprised by being as full of gusto as it had been, and, if anything, it had somehow magically maintained some of it early baby fat and richness. At forty years old, none of us would have believed it possible.

And then came the Phelps Eisele. The Caymus was rewarding but not all that surprising because it had shown well at other times in the interim. The Phelps was bound to be a surprise one way or the other, and it stole the show. It had all the complexity that a good Cabernet Sauvignon can develop, and, in that, it was closer to the Las Cases than it was to the Caymus. And it had retained a level of energy that was remarkable. It was one of those wines that passes into the memory and will stay there along with other heroic bottlings from the past.

There are times when older wines come out of my cellar and disappoint. I don’t talk about them much. This set of wines, at or near the half-century mark, did not disappoint, and they remind again of the reason why putting some good and great wines away in a cold dark place is worth the effort.


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