Some people may find this hard to believe, but I began to buy wines that I did not like or understand based on the passion of three people who did not know each other but were really persuasive.
It was the early 1970s, and after chatting with these people several times, it was pretty evident that I was missing an opportunity if I didn’t buy a bunch of this stuff, and simply put them away in my “cellar.”
Since I had hollowed out a small cave under the house I bought in late 1973, and since I only had about three cases of wine at that point, I began buying young red Italian wines.
And relatively expensive wines at that. Even though the best California cabernet sauvignons were $7 at the time, I was paying $9 and $10 for some of these wines.
I honestly don’t know why I did this because I didn’t like or understand the wines. But the passion of the gentlemen I chatted with was such that I could see no real downside to this. They were insistent that I would figure out what the game was all about.
In a way, the pinnacle experience in this journey occurred last Thursday night when we went to an Italian café in Healdsburg and opened a bottle of 1986 Gaja Barbaresco, a monumentally great wine, which reminded me that our cellar still has a number of classic Italian wines from that era.
What makes this story so mystical is that I had been assured I would understand what was going on, and I was waiting for a moment of revelation. It never occurred, as far as I know, but as time went by I began to understand the passion for great, old, perfectly matured wines from Italian grapes.
In his book “Native Wine Grapes of Italy,” author Ian d’Agata doesn’t wax poetic about even the greatest of Italian wines, such as Barolo. He simply makes clear that he believes the greatest red wines in the world are made from them and that the pinnacle of wine greatness is in a perfectly stored bottle.
As such, the book ignores pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon, two of the best-known grapes that make age-worthy reds. This might surprise most wine lovers, but it is almost exactly what I had been told by the three gentlemen I knew in the 1970s, who I ultimately thanked for their perspicacity.
(One of them said a mere thank you wasn’t enough, so I opened for us a great bottle of a 12-year-old barbera from Giacomo Bologna.)
Many wine lovers know what the game is about: you buy some wine purely on faith, with no particular intention of opening it any time soon. Patience often is rewarded, and it’s usually unnecessary to wait 20 years to get to that point.
Take, for instance, high-quality Chianti. This is a wine that will fade at some point in the bottle. We still have some from the great 1985 vintage, and most are tired. Chianti is usually best between 10 and 15 years of age. What you get with time in the cellar is so much more than young Chianti delivers.
The richness of today’s cabernets with their higher alcohols and obvious oak, can be tasty as youngsters, but Chianti rarely is aged in new barrels, so it doesn’t have an additional flavor layer, and it’s alcohol typically is fairly low.