I don’t own a lot of collectible wines, but I just opened the finest bottle I’ve ever personally possessed—a 1996 Domaine Jean Grivot Nuits-St-Georges—and I got an object lesson in the attention such a wine demands. I opened the bottle, in part, because of the danger of holding onto great bottles for too long. I’m not talking about the risk that they will fade out—my Burgundy was nowhere near that point. I’m talking about the very real fear that, in waiting for too special an occasion, a person might load too much significance into a bottle and diminish its power to please. A great bottle, in my view, should wait only until you have the proper environment for savoring it. And savoring, at least for me, has very little to do with how special an occasion I’m celebrating. It has everything to do with the combined effects of food, setting, company, and my own mood, and whether all four have primed me to receive the gifts a wine has to offer.

But anyway, back to my Nuits-St-Georges. The trigger point emerged like this: I’m within two or three recipes of having cooked everything in Paul Bertolli’s fantastic book Chez Panisse Cooking. (Paul Bertolli was Alice Waters’s head chef at the time; if you don’t know this book, run out and buy it—it’s Chez Panisse in an earthy, mystical, northern Italian mode.) Among the remaining recipes was a lamb tartare. My wife, L, has no interest in eating—or even seeing—raw lamb, so I’d been putting it off. But I finally bought a big, ultrafresh, organic lamb shoulder from Prather Ranch, sliced off a chunk, and discovered that great raw lamb makes a divine topping for toast: mild, clean, not remotely gross. As an accompaniment, I drank a terrific Gigondas rosé.

I wasn’t about to eat three pounds of raw lamb, however, so I found myself with a lamb shoulder the next morning. Eager to get rolling on the next cookbook I want to devour, Richard Olney’s classic Simple French Food, I looked up his braised lamb shoulder recipe, and ran out and bought some tomatoes and an eggplant and got to work. As it happened, the dish was about an hour from finished when I got a call from Mario, my brother-in-law and favorite wine-tasting buddy. He and my sister and their two-year-old and their newborn were stuck in horrific traffic, en route to a dinner party they’d just realized wasn’t scheduled for that night at all, but for the following week. When I have an unexpectedly large and special meal braising in the oven, I love this kind of phone call: Guests! Fellow eaters! I especially love these phone calls from Mario, because he’s a man who knows how to savor. So I begged them to change course and come to my table instead.

An hour later still, with their arrival imminent, I was running back up from the basement with two bottles: the aforementioned Nuits-St-Georges (Mario’s coming! And I’ve made a great braised lamb! What could be more appropriate!) and a 2004 Chalone Monterey Pinot Noir. With very theatrical nods to Mario, I indicated that he and I should focus on the Burgundy while offering the Chalone to L and my sister, K. Not very nice, I admit, but L and K don’t freak for the good stuff the way we do. Also, they’re not huge fans of either tannic old-world reds or lamb, no matter how good. The first few sips of the Burgundy put Mario and I both back on our heels—not that it was so staggeringly delicious, but that it was so unusual. Neither of us gets to drink a lot of aged, high-quality Burgundy (have you looked at the prices recently?), and the impact of these wines is so profoundly different from California Pinot Noir: with so much forest-floor earth and faint animal musk and soft, integrated tannins and fruit weaving through the other flavors as accents rather than the central thesis. It’s as if you’ve discovered wine made by a completely alien culture—using the exact same ingredients and methods, but with a very different dream in mind.

But then a curious thing happened: It didn’t go very well with my lamb dish. I couldn’t even bring myself to admit this, at first. But it was true: The tomato-eggplant braise was too bright and sweet, I think. But whatever it was, there was no symphonic symbiosis. The food was one thing, the wine was another. Both were good, although the wine seemed almost to be making the food look bad. I found myself thinking, “Did I blow it by cooking tomatoes and eggplant before the height of their season? It is a little early in the summer, after all, and I did buy them at the local organic grocery instead of from the farmers’ market … blah, blah, blah.” And then, just for laughs, I poured myself a glass of the Chalone. By comparison, the Chalone—which is an excellent wine—has very ripe, dark new-world fruit, leaning toward being raisinlike, and yet, and yet … it was a vastly better pairing for my braised lamb.

I looked across the table, feeling a little furtive and confused, and I noticed that Mario had figured out the same thing. So just like that, I declared the Burgundy done for the night. I hit it with the argon gas blanket, corked it tight, put it in the fridge to fight another day, and settled into polishing off the Chalone and the lamb and the night’s conversation. And with every synergistic gulp and bite after that, the wine and the food now in perfect harmony, I felt a little chastised by life, as if I were being reminded, yet again, of just how difficult it is to open those great bottles. From the first few sips, you sense that a true food-wine fugue state is attainable—that this wine can offer up the authentic spell—if only you can get the ingredients right. And then you have to get them right. The good news is that, a few nights later, with the wine still perfectly alive in the bottle, I did. But that’ll be my next post.

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