The Long Goodbye

Ken Friedenreich, Wine Editor

If readers enter the search term "dead parrot" on Google, the first item retrieved is a video frame from Monty Python – as it should be. This remains one of those comic chestnuts like "Who's on First?" or the sounds rising from Jack Benny's cellar vault.

The Python bit revolves about a customer complaint to a pet shop counterman. "This parrot is dead." To this the pet proprietor retorts, "No it is just resting." And the euphemisms and denials go on until the customer insists, "This is an Ex-Parrot!"

My recent holiday season included its own dead parrot variant around a turkey and all the trimmings dinner. A cuckoo clock in the room sounded religiously, as if Harry Lyme was pouring the wines.

The experience was made stranger by the hoo-hooing over these once stellar burgundies from a reasonable vintage. I thought no one at the table would admit these Amazon Blues were, if not sincerely dead, than at least in critical condition.

Like the song says, you gotta know when to hold them and when to fold them. How long are we to hold onto wine and is there a too long, where the wine stalks the living like George Romero zombies?

The answer, "it all depends," may be suggested by several examples drawn from real life from which great comic bits above are reflections.

Consider first the numbers.

Wine trade groups have determined that about 8 percent of all wines purchased by US consumers is put down for future use. The rest--about 8.260 liters of a standard case of 12 bottles deplete as the dinner bell rings. Relatively little of wines we purchase stay around for breakfast.

Given my avocation, this writer moves through circles of people who are demographically challenged. They're relatively affluent if not indeed wealthy and were legal for drink when the US left Vietnam for good. Star Wars had yet to overtake popular culture. Nobody knew an AVA from the PTA. Many such folks could purchase wines for little at the time. Today, many wines have morphed into collectibles. 

Now reverenced these once cellar starters appear in lots put on the block at Christie's for acquisition by hedge fund bandits. The two problems posed by beginning a wine collection is that (a) collections grow and {b) the owners do not outlive their cellars. I really hate when that happens.

But the cellar can also outlive what's collected within. Dead parrots seem to be everywhere.

Assembling a collection or stocking a cellar usually grows over decades. So as these bottles age so do collectors; it's common for some wine to escape owners' notice for years. Since purchases may be secreted from one's domestic partner or spouse – acquisition is a surreptitious exercise – the odds favor losing wine that really is on premise. Collecting therefore will correlate with what vintages call out to be popped lest the parrot goes wheels up without a squawk.

Wine geeks practice one-upmanship with aplomb. It is less sophomoric than educated and helpful gossip. The when to drink exchange also follows onto the Web.

The standard wisdom percolating around the Web make recommendations like stock analysts. "Buy and hold." Or, noting "at peak." Recommend "drink now." On the other hand, as peak recedes, the recommendation will be to "sell" or otherwise dispose of the wine considered. "Bud. Make your best deal."

These considerations occur far from the vineyard. The vintage year is past. Winemakers produce wine based on its potential to age and show well in the future. This isn't crystal ball gazing but a reasonable inference based on experience with the fruit and its sources. Acidity, alcohol content, and residual sugars each auger in the aging potential of a well crafted wine. One over time reveals structure, the next holds the wine intact and the third offsets the other fundamentals and sooner or later contributes to the harmoniousness of the full expression of the varietals in the context of its terroir or point of origin.

For me Time past too long ago knocked the stuffing out of those Burgundy dollies--the idea of the cellar as a collection in toto takes precedence over the constituents of the collection. If one liberates a prize bottle for tonight's meal, an empty slot will call out for a replacement to maintain the symmetry. People who collect wine know they're a bit crazy, but make light of it.

On that rare occasion someone asks me how long to cellar a wine, I suggest they imagine looking in a mirror ten years from now. "If you like what you see in the mirror, maybe the wine is ready."

If you encounter a wine you enjoy and purchase one case, you may want to put a colored Avery label, thumbnail size, atop some of the hoard. One color may indicate two years. Another five. And another ten.

One color on a single cap will do to separate your arbitrary though reasonable divisions. The fun comes with the comparisons of other wines so classified and, of course, with the wine from the original case. The thing to avoid is forgetting what the color tabs mean so your cellar takes on the angst of a "Dark Shadows" re-run.

Some of my OMG cellar moments include:

  • 2009 Willakenzie Emery Block in 2015
  • 1988 Eyrie Vineyards Chardonnay in 2009
  • 1993 Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir in 2011
  • 2006 Kramer Vineyards Chardonnay in 2010-11
  • 1945 Chateau Haut-Brion in 1995 (Yes, and I can recall it as if it was today. A little luck helps; right place at the right time. Yay!)



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