DEAD or ALIVE?
Yes, sometimes our most prized cellar pieces (bottles of wine so special, we can’t quite bring ourselves to drink them) not only go over the hill, they sometimes die while waiting to be drunk.
A friend mentioned that he and wine geek friends get together frequently and drag out extremely old wines from their cellars to see if they are dead or alive. Unlike most wine clubs that critically evaluate and rank wines on points, medals, stars and so forth, this group simply rates the wines “dead or alive”. Just a few days ago, as Alice and I opened a couple of really old bottles of wine from a deceased friend’s wine cellar the thought occurred to me that this concept might make a fun ongoing blog piece when Alice exclaimed upon tasting the first wine “not dead yet”. Having no aversion to stealing someone else’s idea or benefiting from someone else’s creative thinking (yes, both Michigan Vintner ** and Rude Tasters are stolen identities) the only credit I can take is in the popularizing of them. The fact that I’ve never been invited to a meeting of the Dead or Alive club, further prompted me to exploit the name for my own blog.
So, this blog column, will not be static. Every time Alice and I open a bottle of wine that based on age or storage conditions is likely to not just be over the hill but quite possibly dead, I will post it to this column. I will make all additions to the top of the column rather than adding it to the end. I will start adding all new entries to “Great Wines from Places You may have Never Heard Of” to the top of that column too so that you don’t have to scroll all through the old stuff to get to the newest entries. At some point when the column’s intent and purpose are obvious, I will reposition, shorten or eliminate this introduction too. Just a reminder, all of the still wines are decanted in order to capture the brilliant clarity, pure bouquet and elegant texture of these old wines. See “Decanting is Essential to Enjoy Older Wines” below.
2005 Simi Landslide Vineyard, Alexander Valley, Sonoma, CA
This wine may not really be a candidate for “dead or alive” because I was 99% certain that it would be alive. However, it does fit with the theme of great old wine of remarkable quality. Geologically, it is actually grown on a chunk of Napa Valley atop Mt. St. Helena (in Napa Valley) that in ancient times blew off the mountain and landed clear into Alexander Valley (Sonoma County). Notice that when you are standing on the valley floor in Napa valley and looking north, that Mt. St. Helena has a flat top. It used to be a volcano and the peak is what exploded and landed in the next county. Anyway, long story short, the remarkable minerals and unique well drained volcanic soils of this vineyard had been used to make the famed Simi Reserve for many decades. In spite of its almost legendary reputation, the marketing folks at Constellation figured that because the word “reserve” is pretty meaningless, it would be better to market this wine based on terroir than age or winemaking practices. Hence, the “Landslide” designation. I’m not certain that the origins in the current bottlings are still this unique vineyard (they seem to make an endless supply these days) but, certainly, in 2005, it was authentic and quite limited. This wine is stunningly good. I know that I may have already said this earlier this year, but, I don’t ever remember tasting a finer example of Cabernet based wine. It smells and tastes like what I can remember of BV Georges de La Tour Private Reserve from the late 60’s and mid 70’s. The instant that it hit my palate a rich, all consuming, blanket of cedar, pine needles and black currant brought back memorys of all the greatest wines I’ve ever tasted. Though the tannin is very soft, it thoroughly coats the entire mouth with a velvety fat, soft feeling. Alice and I successfully bid on a trio of Simi Landslide from 2005,6 and 7 at last year’s AWS convention in Buffalo. It pays to closely observe what is being auctioned off. I don’t recall what we paid, but, whatever it was, the opportunity to taste one of the greatest wines ever is priceless. I’ll have to try a newer rendition to see if it is still a major cut above the “regular” Simi Cab and if still shows the impeccable breed and hedonistic joy offered by this bottle. Of course, ALIVE!!
1976 Chateau Grand Puy Lacoste Pauillac Grand Cru Classe, Bordeaux FRANCE
Although the deep burnt Sienna glow in the glass promised more (I believe my most recently tasted ‘76 Bordeaux was a Lafite a few years back that was still rather plump and rich), the dusty musty nose did air out with nice condensed fruit smells, menthol and roasted meat coming through. The palate was more of the same with surprisingly rich chewy texture. Certainly the wine has enough structure to hold for a while, but, the fruit scents are near the end; just barely ALIVE.
1978 MIRASSOU Monterey County Zinfandel unfiltered CALIFORNIA
We are on a run! According to the back label of this 40+ year old Zin, “In Monterey County, the vines produce long-lived, full-bodied vintages, intense in varietal character, hinting of raspberry aromas and flavors. This Zinfandel is well rounded and complementary to haearty meals. Additional aging will see a much more elegant style of wine.” I’m sure the fifth generation Mirassou folks weren’t thinking 40 years when they stated a claim of “long-lived” or “additional aging”. However, this wine did just what they promised. Back when moderately priced wines still hailed from the state’s best vineyard locations, these appellation specific wines did hold up well and actually developed remarkable quality with age. Wow, the nose can only be described as EXPLOSIVE! It reminds me of JL Chave’s Northern Rhones. Yes, even with a $1000 nose, the palate is definitely fading toward bitter and old though still very drinkable. The spectacular nose of exotic roasted herbs, fennel, cedar, pine, mint leaf and concentrated black grape essence does not fully translate onto the palate, but, with a bit of air the edge really smoothes out and frames the phenomenal experience of simply smelling it. We visited the Mirassou Winery back in 1981 and they still offered library selections dating back into the 1960’s at very affordable prices. We purchased several bottles, perhaps the favorite being a 1968 Harvest Selection Monterey County Cabernet Sauvignon. I’m not sure if it is just a severe case of nostalgia kicking in or if I am actually enjoying a hint of that wine here. Thank you John and Sue Beadle. What else can an old guy like me say other than, “they just don’t make ‘em like they used to.” ALIVE, of course.
Notice the photo shows unopened bottles of ‘80 Monterey County Zin and NV Central Coast Cab* from Mirassou as well as a 1985 Almaden Monterey County Cab. Don’t laugh; remember what I’ve been saying about yester-year’s inexpensive appellation specific wines. I can’t wait! ABC
*We opened the Mirassou NV Central Coast Cuvee Cabernet Sauvignon which probably goes back to 1980 or so on 3/14/2019 to find many of the memories of the ‘68 Harvest Selection Cab still alive in the nose but the very old and dusty palate wasn’t quite up to expectations. It did improve with airing, but, alas, never lived up to expectations. I guess that makes it pretty much DEAD.
On 4/15/2019 I opened the Mirassou 1980 Monterey County Zinfandel. While decanting it, whafts of ripe decadent prune-like smells rose from the cascading deep burnt siena liquid. Upon the first sip, a slightly iodine-like smell emerged and a somewhat bitter impression coated my palate. Though disappointed at the lack of fat and supple juicy ripe Zin fruit that once was, I’m still impressed by the finesse, fruit purity (albeit lean) and exotic green herb nuances. For some odd reason it makes me think of Burgundy of all things. It is not nearly as impressive as the 1978 unfiltered, yet, it is still hanging in there. Though not vibrant, it is still barely ALIVE and still quite interesting.
1983 SYLLA SEBASTE Barolo Riserva Bussia DOCG Piedmont ITALY
Back when this was originally purchased by John Beadle, $16.95 was a lot of dough. Today, this would be something like $50 or more. The color is a little “bricky” with a bit of yellowing at the meniscus. This is typical of any Nebbiolo* based wine after about 8-10 years, and this beauty is 36 so, no surprise there. After double decanting, the wine’s aroma really opens up with surprising power and depth of fruit with classic Barolo terroir resembling the meaty earthy scents of the lamb stew with which we served it. On the palate, sweet, ripe, dried persimmon/tomato jelly flavors dominate. The tannin is smooth yet gripping. I’m sure this wine was bolder and chunkier at one time, but, I’m not sure it was ever any more enjoyable. Yes, it is stunningly ALIVE!
*Nebbiolo is a distant relative of France’s Pinot Noir and though it looks about the same, the body and structure is more like Cabernet or Merlot.
1982 GAJA 1982 Darmagi Cabernet Sauvignon Langhe (Piedmont) ITALY
Our friends, Joe and Linda Czarnik recently hosted a wine tasting party for Joe’s clients and asked me to decant a bottle of wine that he had purchased from me some 30+ years ago when I was the Cellarmaster at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. This was the first vintage of Angelo Gaja’s Darmagi Cabernet Sauvignon imported then by the impeccable Paul Mann Vintage Wine Company. A current vintage of this wine sells for about $200 but, this bottle in spite of it’s age, is valued at over $400 because of it’s collectable status being the inaugural vintage of this great wine. I demonstrated proper decanting technique and asked Tony “steady hands” Senna to pour it for the group. Though clearly well past it’s prime, it was not oxidised and actually still had a solid dose of currant-like fruit and velvety plump mouth filling texture. The earth shows up but in a pleasant alluring way, not at all dusty or corky. Speaking of corks, this motha’ must have been all of 3” long and came out in one piece using an ah-so cork puller. If you have one of these in your cellar, I would suggest selling it. Having four hundred bucks in your pocket will likely offer you an opportunity for a lot more fun than drinking a first rate souvenir. To no one’s surprise, ALIVE.
CHEAP RED WINE (by Vin Ordinaire Ltd.) CALIFORNIA
Many years ago, Kathy Piersma’s now deceased father, told a joke with the punch line “you’ve got to be shitting me”! Well, that was exactly my response to Alice when I tasted this wine. Though the wine is a bit brown around the edges, the color after decanting is nonetheless brilliantly clear, deep and concentrated. I’m guessing that this might have been a cult blockbuster second wine from grapes grown in or around the Morgan Hill region near Santa Cruz. I think this bottle probably goes back to the 1980’s or 90’s but I believe this label still exists in the market place. If anyone has tasted a current bottling, please let me know what you think of it. The web site says it is Charbono, Carignane, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petite Sirah. No longer a blockbuster, but, still showing lots of depth and solid texture with layers of very ripe prune and baked cherries throughout. This is another gem from the Beadle Collection that leaves me scratching my head asking, “why on earth didn’t John drink this wine 20 years ago”? Can you believe it? ALIVE
1979 Chateau La Lagune Haut Medoc, Grand Cru Classe, Bordeaux FRANCE
1979 is one of those forgotten vintages. When I was the Cellarmaster at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, we had a boat load of 1979 Bordeaux offerings. I arrived in 1983, just in time to fill the cellar with 1982’s but too late to get in on many of the 1978’s. Fortunately, my supervisor had already stashed away a bevy of 78’s, so that is what we served. Back in those days, Bordeaux was king. Everyone drank French wine! So, with ‘82’s saftely cellard and the last of the 78’s being devoured like freshly shucked oysters, the 79’s became our mainstay for a year or two. I’m sure I’ve had my share of 79’s in my own cellar, but, those had been long gone. Alice and I purchased a cellar from Sue Beadle, widow of John Beadle, a couple of years ago. Can you believe it, he still had several bottles of 1979 Bordeaux in his cellar. The first ‘79 we enjoyed was a really nice bottle of 1979 Chateau Lynch Moussas, Pauillac, Grand Cru Classe that we just loved. It was hardly a significant wine in any respect other than it was not only still alive but quintessential Bordeaux with lots of class but pretty short on body and substance, typical of a good but not great vintage at 40 years. So, we’ve been trying to work our way through our cellar these days; we’re not getting an younger and some of the wines are really old if not near death. So, tonight, with braised short ribs, we opened the ‘79 La Lagune. Like the Lynch Moussas, it embodies picture perfect Bordeaux. By no means is it a big powerful wine anymore if it ever was, but, it has that pedigree and familiarity that just makes you say “oh yea”. It brings back so many memories of drinking really old Bordeaux with a mutual friend of John Beadle, Alice and I who had a cellar full of great wines. He was just enough older and had started collecting just enough before we did, that going to his house for a wine tasting was always a huge treat. Besides the wine iteself that brought back many fond memories, was the trigger on the label; NICOLAS RESERVE. Our old friend, now deceased, Jake Rohe represented these wines back then and generously poured these for anyone who cared to appreciate them. Maybe that’s the best part of enjoying old wines is remembering the people who you once enjoyed them with. ALIVE, ALIVE!!
1989 Roederer Estate L’Ermitage Brut, Anderson Valley, CA
Our friend Jack Wainer dusted off this old soldier yesterday at his “class in a glass” Champagne wine dinner. The most recent review I could find was ten years old, so, we were not terribly optimistic that this wine would still be alive. However, after a nice pop, the wine was positively frothy with a fine mousse rising in the glass when poured. The nose is fine, clean and complex while the bubbles simply dance on the tounge offering up yeasty, fruity flavors. I can’t imagine that this almost 30 year old sparkling wine was ever better than it is right now! ALIVE!!!!
1994 Domaine Raspail-Ay Gigondas, Rhone Valley, France
I’m not sure how this once lovely Gigondas got lost among wines that clearly needed drinking a decade ago. Perhaps the half-bottle format accounts for never having an occcaision for just two glasses of wine at a meal significant enough to open a Gigondas. Whatever the reason for the lapse, I immediately noticed a slight browning in color and as soon as I decanded it directly into our wine glasses, Alice proclaimed it DEAD! Besides subtle earthiness mingled with dead leaves and a faint memory of tomato/carrot-like fruit there really was nothing that brought to mind Gigondas, the Rhone or even Grenache for that matter. I’m much more age tollerent than Alice, but, considering the expectation of a great Gigondas, I’ll agree with her. DEAD!
1981 Redwood Coast Napa Valley Zinfandel
Here we go again. This is clearly a closeout of some overstock from a winery which remains anonymous. There is no such winery as “Redwood Coast”. Yet, the grape source is Napa Valley, so, we can assume that in today’s dollars, this wine is probably a $30 wine selling at a distressed price of maybe $12-15. Back when purchased in 1983, it was certainly under $4 maybe under $2.
Any good? Well, it isn’t dead yet. In spite of the modest 12.5% alcohol, the flavor is very ripe and prune-like with distinct dried fruit (apricot?) overtones not unlike a late harvest Riesling might have. Balance and acid structure is good too. If there is anything that makes the “alive or dead” decision even contemplated is the lack of body and grip. The mouth feel seems to have evaporated decades ago along with whatever tannins were present in the 1980’s. Hardly robust, but, still ALIVE!.
1973 Ridge California Gamay York Creek (Spring Mountain, Napa County)
Well, this one is just barely holding on by its fingernails, but, alive for sure. The somewhat corky, musty bouquet still has hints of strawberry and lightly floral fruit aromas lurking. Though the tastes center around compost, cedar and forest floor, fleeting nuances of beets, carrots and dried berries still show through. Yes, this description may sound dreadful, but, it has perfect balance, very silky tannin and, in general, feels good on the palate and going down the throat. What’s not to like?
Still ALIVE after 45 years. This wine came from a cellar purchased from a divorcee of a prominent local lawyer by a friend of ours (now deceased). Storage has been ideal from the beginning. Once again, a great appellation trumps our expectations of a common grape such as California Gamay known also as Valdiguie or Gros Auxerrois (not to be confused with Gamay Beaujolais).
1980 Beringer Napa Valley Estate Bottled Zinfandel
They just don’t make ‘em like they used to. Back in 1980, brands like Beringer, Inglenook, CK Mondavi and most other wineries of the day, made their wines from the best vineyards of the best appellations managed by the top horticulturists of that era. Today, all of the affordable wines have been dumbed down by using whatever grapes can be purchased cheapest on the open market from mostly Central Valley vineyards that are cropped well in excess of the ideal 4 tons per acre. Here is yet another example of appellation trumping “humble” grape variety.
No question about this one: big prune-like ripe concentrated passion fruit and apricot nuances with an almost Moscatel like complexity invite and stimulate the senses. Lush, still holding on to traces of citrus-like acidity and long soft tannins. Who’d a’ thunk it?
ALIVE after 38 years!
Enjoy in Good Health,
Brian Cain, the Michigan Vintner
PS Just an explanation about the picture: An old friend of ours, Bob Long (now deceased) used to signal his host that he had run out of wine by holding his glass up to his ear. Like blind people whose other senses are acute and help compensate for loss of vision, since losing my left ear to cancer, I now find it more satisfying in the metaphysical and psychic sense to hear the wine. When I used to have a perfectly good ear, I really couldn’t hear what it is saying.
**At a Michigan Congressional Subcommittee meeting formed in the 1980’s to promote Michigan Wines, there was a motion to change the name of MSU’s publication “Vintner and Vineyard” to “The Michigan Vintner”. The motion was voted down, but, I loved the name Michigan Vintner and the name kept ringing in my ears for days and I actually started picturing myself as the Michigan Vintner. Finally, I registered the name as a DBA and decided to embrace my own persona as the embodiment of the Michigan Vintner.