Thursday, January 1, 2015

We will serve no wine past its time

When I finally rolled out of bed just past 11 a.m. PST on this first day of 2015 I found quite an array of stuff scattered about the floor:
  • An empty bottle that once contained José Michel & Fils Pinot Meunier Brut
  • The remnants of a 2014 New York Times crossword-a-day calendar
  • The empty box from the 2015 New York Times crossword-a-day calendar
  • Three astronomy magazines
  • My reading and crossword cheater specs
  • A copy of Food and Booze: A Tin House Literary Feast
  • A trail of hastily discarded clothing that extended out the room, down the stairs, and into the main-level hallway below
All of this said to me that Weisenheimer and my Sweetie, the Official Scorer are definitely not old fuddy-duddies for staying home, cooking in, and watching old movies on New Year's Eve, but rather that our approach to ringing in the new year was a rip-roaring, if somewhat untidy, success. It was also the capper of a really interesting week of observations about food, wine, and how they all play together. Henceforth, my takeaways from the last eight days of 2014.

The Weisenheimer table set for the New Year's Eve feast,
including three bottles of wine, just in case.
In our January 1 analysis of the previous day's culinary adventure, we thought that we must have saved the José Michel for last in an inspired WWJD moment. The bubbles were one of eight or ten really nice bottles that we'd purchased at a grower champagne tasting at West Seattle Cellars a few weeks ago. This wine was clearly the favorite tipple of our long, celebratory day—and we opened five bottles in all. Biblical accounts of the wedding at Cana say that when Jesus averted a riot by turning water into wine, the resulting juice was the best served at that celebration. This would be just the opposite of the reported local tradition of the time, one of serving a good bottle for the first round or two, then breaking out the cheap, second-rate stuff when the guests were already adequately inebriated. Personally, I suspect the savior never settled for plonk.

Yes. Five bottles of wine. I thought I might be able to slip that one by you. We started mid afternoon (this being a festival day, after all) with a bottle of our house bubbles, Veuve Devienne, a tasty and moderately priced sparkler that we lay in by the case, just in case. Sipping on the house champagne cocktail (a splash of simple syrup, a couple of dashes lavender bitters, top with bubbles, add lemon twist) while preparing the evening feast and baking brioche, we found that a bottle of the Veuve yields exactly six such libations. Three each seemed about right.

Around mid-day on New Year's Eve we had taken a leisurely stroll up to The Swinery, West Seattle's "Temple of Porcine Love," to see if they had any animal flesh worthy of our celebration of the past 12 months. We came away with a lovely and rather ginormous bone-in ribeye that fit the bill most handsomely. Also on the menu: my Sweetie, the Official Scorer's amazing Brussels sprouts, with bacon, cream, shallots, and gruyere; some pan-roasted potato wedges; and the aforementioned Weisenheimer brioche.

The four holiday wine stars: Christmas Eve with the '93 La
Ca'Nova Barbaresco, and New Year's Eve selections of '95
Peterson Petit Sirah, '00 Lionnet Côtes du Rhône, and '05
Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant. A good party, indeed.
As official house sommelier, it was also my gig to descend into the wine cellar and find a bottle or two suited to a big-ol' beefsteak and appropriate for such a celebration. At times like this I head first to the section of grand and age-worthy wines in the cellar. Most of these were purchased through the West Seattle Cellars collector club, through which we get a half-dozen selections each month. When I bring them home I cellar the bottles and mark them with a tag that includes info about when it was purchased, possible food pairings, and, if the monthly notes identify it as a saver, how long it might be aged. The "don't drink for X years" stuff goes way to the bottom of the racks, only to be moved up when X years approaches.

Yesterday my eye was drawn to a dusty bottle that was mysteriously untagged: A 1995 Peterson Petit Sirah. Without a tag, I had no idea of the lineage of this one, but as the calendar was about to turn over to 2015, it meant the wine was approaching its 20th birthday. It seemed like as good a time as any to crack it open. Better a year too early than a day too late, as they say.

I decided, though, to hedge my bets a little and also brought up a bottle of 2000 Lionnet Côtes du Rhône, a wine made entirely with syrah that had been a club selection in 2004 and was tagged "not 'til '09." This became plan B.

Man does not live by wine alone! Sweetie,  the Official Scorer,
gave Weisenheimer some mini brioche tins for Christmas. He
tested them out for the New Year's feast. As yes, he notices that
Sweetie, the Official Scorer, often gives gifts that are as much
for herself as the recipient. And we don't mind a bit!
Weisenheimer sensed trouble upon opening the Peterson, when the first turn of the corkscrew merely broke off a chunk of cork. Each subsequent twist only crumbled the cork further. Even the butler's friend opener was of no help, and I was left with shoving a zillion little cork fragments down into the bottle as my only way of getting it unstopped.

Fortunately, we have a Vinturi wine aerator, one of the features of which is a screen that will catch bits of cork and largish hunks of sediment that might be lurking in the wine. So I poured the Peterson into its decanter through the Vinturi, filtering out the flotsam and at the same time giving the wine its first gulp of fresh air in twenty years. Curious, I poured a small glass and gave it a taste. My reaction—too late. There wasn't much happening there at all, in the nose or on the palate. Dang. So, I popped open the Lionnet and gave it a taste. Reaction: Meh. Maybe too late with this one, also.

I went back to the cellar and brought up a sure winner for plan C: A 2005 Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant. Always great, totally age-worthy, and I liked the concept of having all of the wines for this meal being from years divisible by five. Plus the Doon has a screw-cap; no corks to pulverize.

At this point, I decided to put all three bottles on the table and just see how they developed. We probably had an hour or so before dinner, so everyone could breathe a little and we'd find out what we had when dinner arrived. The table looked like one of our dinners with our dear friends, the Schillings, at Marywood Manor in Orange, California. Wine lovers all, we often open two or three bottles at a meal, their identities kept secret, and give everyone a glass for each. Everyone gets to guess what each wine is, and rate them. The game wouldn't be quite as good for our New Year's Eve feast, as I knew which wine was which, and my Sweetie, the Official Scorer, also had tasted the Peterson in advance, and made the same sort of face she makes when I suggest putting ketchup on hot dogs or adding "Christmas With the Chipmunks" to our holiday music playlist. It made me think she would surely recognize the Petit Sirah come dinner time.

When the feast was served, we dug in and gave the three wines a taste. Over an hour or so, a miracle had occurred. We both rated the Peterson as emphatically the best of the trio! My Sweetie, the Official Scorer, thought at first that it was the Le Cigare Volant. I would have made the same guess on tasting it again, except I knew which was the Peterson. I admit that I had to pour another glass—I knew it was the one in the decanter—to double check, just in case I'd mixed them up. Sure enough, the Peterson had completely changed and was actually a fantastic wine. Probably two things happened. An extra hour to breathe was most beneficial, and, like many wines, it was a different and wonderful thing consumed with food compared to a sip on its own. We drank up the Peterson and about half of the Cigare. We more or less left the Lionnet alone; half the bottle is re-corked, and a couple of mostly untouched glasses are still on the dining room table.

After dinner we popped open the José Michel and had our first sips before watching To Have and Have Not (in salute to the great Lauren Bacall, who passed away during 2014). We recognized that the Michel is better than the house stuff. It's also about four times its price. Is it four times better? Well, probably. Steve, Slim, and Eddie headed off to the boat at about five minutes to midnight, we toasted the New Year, and retired for the evening.

Come morning—OK, I guess it was probably more like early afternoon—I did a little digging to learn something about the Peterson. We keep all of the notes from our wine clubs in three-ring binders in the cellar. Sure enough, I found the Peterson listed in the West Seattle Cellars collector club from December of 1997, so it turns out we'd had that bottle on hand for 17 years and one month. Here's what the notes said, in part:

"Robust, with lots of tannin, this wine has the stuffings to age for 15-20 years if you want it to... The palate has a lot of power, and it will be a good accompaniment some day for a hearty winter meal."

OK, we nailed that one. I like to imagine that the tag for this bottle, misplaced somewhere along the last 17 years, reads "drink this with a pan-seared ribeye on New Year's Eve, 2014." Prescience.

We pulled another ancient bottle out way back on Christmas Eve for our traditional feast of game hens and other yummies. This one was a 1993 La Ca'Nova Barbaresco that was in the wine club of July 1998. Notes for this one said, "Try to keep your hands off of it until at least 2005." We did. There was no mystery to this; a delightful wine from first sip that was still drinking marvelously twenty-one years after being plucked from the vine and stomped.

So, a tip of the Santa hat to Matt Mabus, who was the founder of West Seattle Cellars and its proprietor when our two star wines of the holiday season were included in the collector club, and to Jan Martindale and Tom DiStefano, current operators of the shop, who continue stocking our cellar with wonderful treats today that we'll be enjoying in 2030. It's great to have folks who know their stuff in our local wine store, and we're fortunate that we have a good cellar in which to age wines that need it and will delight us when they're really ready to drink.

One of my traditional tasks for the first days of the new year is to go through the cellar and move the "don't touch" wines that have reached their save-until dates into the section of bottles that are ready to drink. Maybe I'll purposely lose the tag on one or two. Could make for a good story some day.

Happy New Year; 2015 is off to a great start!