Editor’s note: We’re thrilled to bring you the wine wisdom of Steven Kolpan, the chairman of wine studies at the Culinary Institute of America, who stops by regularly with words on what to drink.
Can anyone ever really “own” wine? Unless you get inordinate pleasure from stroking bottles, you own very little until they are opened, when you experience and internalize the rush of those precious sips. And so I think of owners of fine wines really as stewards, keeping our treasures until we offer them to moments that are worthy. But when are the moments worthy?
Recently, an old friend stopped by. We’ve been close for almost 40 years, but it had been some time since we had a chance just to talk, and I had almost forgotten how much magic there is in good and honest conversation.
As day turned to night we talked about dinner. I wanted to keep the momentum of this reunion flowing, so I suggested dining in from whatever I could scrape together: a rotisserie chicken I picked up that morning, Brussels sprouts, and a fresh salsa.
Such a simple dinner calls for a simple wine, maybe a crisp Sauvignon Blanc to play with the salsa and bring out the rich sweetness of the chicken and the earthiness of the Brussels sprouts. Dry Riesling would work, so would Viognier, or maybe a Tavel rosé or a Côte-du-Rhône. I had all these simple wines, and more, to choose from; any one of them would work with the food.
But then I realized that I was easily, almost mechanically, pairing the wine with the food, doing so in a vacuum, devoid of the meal’s context. This was, after all, a spontaneous but special occasion. I was welcoming my old friend at my table after a meaningful day, and all I could think about was wine-and-food dynamics? So I said, “Let’s drink a really great bottle of wine.”
I admit to having more than a few special bottles in my cellar, set aside for broad celebrations and intimate seductions. As I gazed at dozens of wonderful wines I began to realize that any time true friends, new or old, and family, beloved or merely tolerated, break bread in my home, these treasured bottles should grace the table. Some of these wines are rare, many irreplaceable, but not nearly as rare or irreplaceable as the important people in my life.
I found what I hoped would be the ideal wine: a magnum of 1990 Louis Michel Chablis Grand Cru “Les Clos,” a very fine, very expensive white Burgundy from a great vintage. This is 20-year-old Chardonnay without even a whisper of oak, preserved in all its glory by minerality and acidity, and the nose was superb: green apples, fresh cut grass, pear, white peach, all wafting from the glass in a singular, sexy and harmonious perfume. The wine was pure nectar: smooth and full-bodied in its attack with a rich vein of grapefruit/lemon acidity for balance, and a finish that seemed to never end. Perfect.
We agreed that the pairing with the food really was amazing, almost a force of nature, but what was so much more important was that sharing this irreplaceable wine together enhanced our conversation during dinner and tied anew the strong bonds of a lifelong friendship. What started out as a day to just hang out became an important and memorable one.
To be sure, fine wines are treasures, and I sometimes wonder if even the most wine-stained among us realizes how truly rare is the opportunity to taste great wine. Ninety-six percent of the wine produced in the world is made to be consumed within one year of its harvest vintage; 99 percent within two years. No more than one-tenth of 1 percent of the wine produced in the world is destined to be among the treasured classics, and the rich and powerful can always get to them first.
We the many, who are neither so rich nor so powerful, may occasionally enjoy one of life’s Little Luxuries, a fine wine to be shared with the right people at the right time. But with how fleeting life can be, we might want to reexamine the definition of “special occasion” to make it more inclusive, more elastic, more fun. Get those bottles out, stand them up in the light of day, and bring them to your table to enjoy. Opening and sharing a rare and wonderful wine makes the food taste better, the conversation more sophisticated (or at least the same old stories become bearable), your dining companions more attractive. Make tonight’s dinner special for the one you love more than any other; special for your kids home from college; special for the friends who you rely on and who rely on you; special for the folks who don’t always feel so special, but you know they are. Sharing your finest wines makes the table a place for celebration and meditation.
With our first look, our first smell, our first sip, we are transported to a place where riches and power run a distant second to pure pleasure, and for that brief moment we are as rich as the richest person, as happy as the happiest, and power just doesn’t matter.