The first true wine collector I knew was my father’s best friend, Denis. He had been to France many times as a young man—back in the 1960s, when both the currency markets and the adjusted prices of wine were profoundly different. French wine was, in those days, relatively cheap; Denis began buying by the case, stashing his collection in the basement of another friend of his and my father’s.
I was always aware of this collection, even in high school, because I knew the son of the man with the basement. We were pals, and he was always joking about sneaking down and stealing a bottle of Denis’s French wine, for us to get drunk. In truth, I can’t remember if he ever did. If so, it can’t have been often.
Anyway, that was ages ago—20-plus years. And just recently, I overheard Denis lamenting that he’d held onto some of those wines far too long, that many were over the hill. His great love had always been grand cru Chablis—at some point in my 20s, I tasted some with him and got my first sense of the word steely as it pertains to wine. But his Chablis, he said, had begun to fall apart. To make matters worse, in his opinion, Chablis is no longer made in that old steely style.
“Well, don’t pour it out,” I told him. “Give the stuff to me and I’ll make vinegar with it and give it back to you. You can make the salad dressing of a lifetime.” I keep vinegar crocks of both white and red wine, and I told him how it worked.
Denis takes notes in daily conversation, writing down small thoughts he wants not to forget; pulling out his little paper pad and pencil, he scrawled a reminder to himself.
A few weeks later, while I was visiting my parents, my father said that Denis had left something for me.
It was a big paper grocery bag holding two bottles of grand cru Chablis from the 1980s, two Sauternes from the same period, and a Mouton Rothschild red Bordeaux from 1970 with a Chagall painting on the label. Curiously, the ullage—that little air gap below the cork—looked normal on every bottle. I’m not an expert in the aging of wine, but I have come to understand that this can be a promising sign. For that reason, I decided to open the bottles with company and let them breathe and taste them before I submitted them to the vinegar crock.
Last night was the big moment, as I invited two of my best friends over for our semiregular “meat night,” a gathering in which I make lots of steak, and we eat it. In my next post, I’ll tell you what happened.