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Some Wines Age More Gracefully than the Cork Dork

Finding old wines can be laborious and expensive but worth the effort, plus the Wine Pick of the Week.

By the time you read this I will have turned 40 years old. I will be celebrating four decades on earth this month, almost half of it drinking wine.

Do the math. I was born in 1972, not a particularly spectacular vintage anywhere in the wine world. Finding a wine from my birth year has been a struggle. With the aid of some friends I eventually found interesting wines from the 1972 vintage.

What if you don’t have friends in the wine industry? There are other alternatives. There are many local resources, including the many wineries in the state. It will require some research and advance preparation to find library wines. Wine databases such as Seattle-based Cellar Tracker can aid in the search.

First of all, it’s not too late to make friends in the wine industry. The Washington wine industry is highly populated with genuinely generous and gregarious personalities. I suspect wine puts them in a good mood.

One of the best ways to build a relationship with wineries is to volunteer, and sign up for wineries' wine clubs and mailing lists to ensure priority for tightly allocated wines every year. Most of the local wineries host private events for club members where you can meet the winery staff.

Cadence winemaker Benjamin Smith got his start in winemaking as a member of the Boeing Employees Wine and Beer Club and by volunteering during harvest at Andrew Will Winery on Vashon Island in 1993 with winemaker Chris Camarda. He has collected Andrew Will’s top-of-the-line red blend, Sorella, since its first release, the 1994 vintage.

“I have put away a magnum of Sorella every year,” Smith said. “I know Chris is a fabulous winemaker. I know there will be vintage variation but with a winemaker like Chris I am not worried about quality.”

Most wineries save cases of every vintage of wine they make for their library. Some will sell past vintages to regular customers, winery club members or mailing list members. Inquire at your favorite wineries, as many don’t sell past releases. All who sell previous vintages will charge a premium as it costs money to store wine properly.

Further, Arnie Millan of Esquin Wine Merchants warns, “The things that make wines ageable cost money.” Those factors include low yields requiring more vines, quality oak barrels and labor.

Caylee Betts received a complete vertical (vintages 2006-10) of Big Sissy Chardonnay as a house warming gift from winemaker Chris Gorman when she moved into her home in Bothell last year.

“It’s not super easy to find verticals these days,” Betts said. “I don’t see a lot of verticals at local retailers.”

She has also received wines from the 1988 vintage, her birth year, from friends and family, including her parents, and The Station Pizzeria owners Kent and Cindy Betts.

The gift wines include a 1988 Clos de Gamot Cahors, a 1988 Borgogno Barolo Riserva, a 1988 Felsina Berardenga “Rancia Riserva” Chianti Classico and a 1988 Bertani Amarone.

Another option is to store wines yourself in anticipation of a major celebration in the future, such as a son or daughter’s 21st birthday or wedding. Storing wine probably is costly, too. If you are on a budget, at the very minimum, store wine in a stable location that is cool, dark and humid. The basements in many of the homes built around the Puget Sound in the early 20th century are ideal for storing wine. Or you could spend hundreds or thousands of dollars in a wine cabinet or off-site wine storage rental. For tens of thousands of dollars you can build your own private cellar.  

Smith has collected a complete vertical of Andrew Will Sorella from the 1994 vintage through the current vintage of 2008. Smith recommends sticking to producers rather than shopping by scores or speculation on vintage quality.

“If I am going to buy verticals I buy by producers,” said the South Park-based winemaker. “Don’t worry about scores. Don’t worry about vintages. Shop producers. If you like that producer’s style you are always going to like it.

“The last few vintages (in Washington) have been either really cold or really hot. For me, vintage variation (in Washington) is alive and well, and welcomed. Otherwise, wines will become monochrome.”

Smith and his wife and business partner Gaye McNutt have bought and cellared plenty of wines from the 2001 vintage, the year their daughter was born, including their own wines. They are also cellaring some of their favorite Barolos and Barbarescos from Italy’s Piedmont region.

Smith says he receives calls from parents and grandparents who have children and grandchildren named Cadence and request wines from the vintage of their birth year.

Smith and McNutt make vineyard designated Bordeaux-style blends exclusively from vineyards on Red Mountain. It’s too early to tell if Washington wines will age as well as fine Bordeaux that can age for close to 100 years. As for Cadence, wines from their first vintage of 1998 are aging gracefully, Smith said.

“In the long run our state will have to make wines that go the distance if we are going to be considered one of the great wine regions of the world,” Smith said. “That’s just the marker of a great wine region.”

Eric LeVine started Cellar Tracker as a hobby in 2003. Since retiring from Microsoft in 2004 and devoting himself exclusively to Cellar Tracker, the online database has grown to 1.2 million unique wine labels entered by collectors tracking their wine collections at a volume of more than 30 million bottles. There are about 2.5 million wine descriptions. In other words, you are likely to find descriptions of wines from just about any vintage before you commit to buying it.

“I initially built (Cellar Tracker) because I wanted a nuanced database to keep track of what’s in my cellars,” LeVine recalled.

LeVine said there are now close to 200,000 registered users, plus many more not registered, on Cellar Tracker. He said during December there were upwards of 725,000 unique visitors to his site. Of the registered users, 80,000 are regular users and about half of those contribute wine descriptions.

“I’m not influential,” the modest LeVine said. “I think I built a platform that can be useful to the wine industry. I created a playground. I created a phenomenon.”

As for my birthday wines, years ago I found the perfect wine from my birth year at the recommendation of chef and restaurateur Joseba Jimenez de Jimenez. The Spanish chef recommended the 1972 Bodegas Toro Albala Don PX Gran Reserva Pedro Ximenez, a raisiny sherry made by drying the grapes under the hot Spanish sun and thus concentrating the flavors. I should have known Jimenez de Jimenez would recommend Pedro Ximenez.

Another dear friend, wine collector, wine wholesaler and philanthropist, Larry Symonds, gifted me a bottle of 1972 Cabernet Sauvignon from none other than Woodinville’s own , hinting of its age with a slightly torn label.

Patch readers, I haven’t known most of you for more than a year. I toast to you as if I’ve known you a lifetime.

Wine Pick of the Week: 2010 Trust Cellars Riesling, Columbia Valley

Television news producer-turned winemaker Steve Brooks strikes a harmonious balance in this off-dry Riesling. Stone fruit and citrus are backed by lithe acidity and pleasant minerality. Peach, apricot, pink grapefruit and lime burst on the nose. Lime zest, more peach and apricot echo on the palate along with river rock minerality. Bright acidity lingers on the finish.

The combination of fruit and acid make this the ideal wine for Ezell’s spicy white meat chicken. The fruitiness of the Riesling counters the spiciness of the dripping chicken. But make no mistake about it, this wine is driven by acidity and minerality. The acidity in the wine cuts through the deep fried goodness.

The wine is available at the Trust Cellars tasting room in Woodinville, open Fridays and Saturdays from 1 to 6 p.m. and Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m.

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