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Rites of Spring in Thy Cellar

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Feb 16, 2007 12:15pm ET

Spring weather arrived in Northern California this week. Today the temperature will reach 70 degrees in Napa Valley, and it’s bright, clear and sunny, with no wind. While I know folks in Baltimore, Buffalo and Billings, Mont., are shivering, we’re not.

Tonight I’m heading to Sonoma for dinner with some friends, and instead of pruning my dormant roses, I’m pruning my cellar and taking a few older wines that need drinking.

One bottle I’m eyeing is the 1985 Château Margaux that I purchased several years ago in a freaky episode at Liquor Barn, the long-gone wine, beer and spirits chain that was one of California's first mass discounters. For those who need a contemporary reference point, think of Beverages & More.

I was shopping in the Napa store in 1988 and found some Margaux marked for $64.95 a bottle. When I passed through the checkout stand with three bottles of Margaux, and many other wines, I became distracted when my son, then three years old, fumbled his Nerf football. The clerk was distracted, too, apparently—he only changed me $6.49 a bottle!

I brought the mistake to his attention, but rather than ringing the bottles up again with the correct price, he simply shrugged his shoulders and said, “Forget it.” I guess Liquor Barn’s profit margins were sufficient enough then that they didn't have to worry about a $180 error, though they eventually went out of business ...

The last time I tried a bottle, two years ago, I had an amazing experience. The sommelier at Terra, in St. Helena, opened it and decanted it. When he showed me the cork, I was horrified. The middle third was completely moldy. But the wine wasn’t. It was excellent, elegant and stylish, still fruity, soft and delicate and it drank well for nearly two hours. (I can only guess that somehow the mold developed after the cork was in the bottle, and luckily it didn't come into contact with the wine.)

Here’s to pruning your cellar this weekend, wherever you are.

Claude Pope
Raleigh, NC —  February 16, 2007 2:53pm ET
James, I'll be pruning mine of two bottles - an 1986 Chateau Gloria and a 1976 Chateau Fourcas Hosten. I had also staged (stood upright for a couple of weeks) a 1986 Margaux, but after looking up its value, decided to let it rest for a little longer. It's my daughter's 21st birthday so we'll celebrate with the 86 Gloria, and give her "10 to grow on" with the '76. We'll save the 86 Margaux for another birthday. But James, which birthday - her 25th, 30th or 40th? Do you think the Margaux will last that long given your recent experiences with the older stuff?
Jeff Yates
Napa, CA —  February 16, 2007 3:47pm ET
Opening a couple of nice older bottles sounds more fun then what I will be doing this weekend. I will be pruning my roses. I am sure I will pick out a nice wine to drink after I finish and still have time to enjoy the nice weather.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  February 16, 2007 4:37pm ET
Claude, The 1986 Margaux has long been one of my favorites (hard to think of a modern Margaux that I haven't liked!), but I'd recommend the earlier the better. That way if it's good and she really loves it you might be able to track down more bottles...Lucky daughter...
Ola Vedin
Uppsala, Sweden —  February 17, 2007 5:09pm ET
James, I too did som pruning last night. Not from my own cellar though. Had dinner with a friend who's not very big on wine but he inherited a few bottles from his grandfather and pulled out a 1967 Ch Margaux around midnight. Not a great vintage by any means I learned after looking it up but I must say that I was happily surprised. Still had som very nice sublime fruit and smooth lingering tannins even though it had been stored on top of his fridge for a couple of years!! Have you had any great experiences with "off" vintages like this one, especially Margaux?? Or is it just my inexperienced palate..?

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