Education comes in many forms—literature, film, etc. And often education comes in a predictable format or setting, such as the classroom, whereby you know what to expect.
But for me, the best education is more than just seeing or hearing. It's more tactile, along with smell and taste. And when the delivery of information in that manner is combined with a surprise, rather than an expected setting, the education becomes more ingrained and more effective (at least for me, as everyone learns in different ways).
When I was a sommelier many years ago at a Manhattan restaurant, I had a few favorite customers, ones who were really into wine and who educated me as much as I might have educated them. One of those regulars once left a year-end thank-you present for me, a box of wine left with the maître d’ one night at the end of my shift. It was an unexpected bit of education since within the box were some great benchmark wines, like the 1988 Soldera Brunello di Montalcino Case Basse Riserva, 1989 Château Rayas Chateauneuf-du-Pape, 1981 Cune Rioja Imperial Gran Reserva, 1978 Diamond Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Volcanic Hill and more. I worked through them one bottle at a time, over meals and with family and friends and have never forgotten how they tasted. The box was a surprise and each wine a great tactile, smell and taste sensation—the best form of education.
I couldn’t help but think of that early experience in my wine education as I was greeted with another surprise set of wines last week while on our editorial retreat. As my colleagues James Suckling and James Laube have written about, the wines came from the Wine Spectator library and were served blind. Not all the wines were in pristine condition, but some were, and my tasting notes are listed below.
Some of the wines I have had before, others were totally new to me, which only enhanced the surprise factor and made the tasting that much more memorable. At the end of the tasting I couldn’t help but think that: One, no wine is too old to educate. And two, I hope I never get too old to learn.
1961 Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Vintage Selection: Not entirely gone, with fading strawberry and tea notes. This has clearly seen better days but isn't undrinkable. 83 points.
1975 Sterling Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley: Gorgeous maturity, with tea, flambéed chanterelle, cedar and dried currant notes. Long and tangy finish. Supple and gorgeous. Terrific showing. Made by Ric Forman, according to Laube. 93 points.
1966 Beaulieu Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Georges de Latour Special Reserve: Superripe and a touch hot, with tarry, dense braised beef, dill and charcoal notes. Still plenty grippy too, with cinder and black tea notes on the finish. 94 points.
1968 Chateau Souverain Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley: Roasted, with sassafras, currant paste, fruit cake and black tea notes. Slightly rugged in feel with a long, raisiny finish. Chunky but very likeable. 91 points.
1974 Ridge Zinfandel California Fiddletown: Roasted, with coffee, sopresatta and cedar notes. Long and expansive, this delivers more on the palate than the nose, with a lingering date and caramel finish. Fruit sourced from the Eschen Ranch in Amador County (before it was granted AVA status) and labeled at 14.5 percent alcohol. 14.5 (!) in 1974 —go figure. 91 points.
1974 Hanzell Pinot Noir Sonoma Valley: Shows dill, cedar, cigar smoke notes on a slightly rigid frame. Lacks some midpalate density and is really showing its age. Not a sound bottle, so judgment withheld.
1974 Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Mountain: A touch meaty, with a roasted feel to the dried currant fruit. Shows a smoldering undertow of incense and mineral, along with date and tar hints. Shows some muscle still too and puts on weight as it airs in the glass. 95 points.
1978 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley: Very mature but remarkably supple, with dill, date, dried cherry, sandalwood, brown bread and an underlying bramble edge that emerges more on the olive-tinged finish. Like an old, traditional-style Rioja. 92 points.
1974 Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon California Mountain Special Selection: Faint musty note stays stubborn throughout, with dried date, prune and cigar ash notes. Not a healthy bottle. Judgment withheld.
1966 Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Cask F-29: Shows a touch better on palate than nose, but a note of roasted beef pan drippings indicates this is in trouble. Judgment withheld.
1974 Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Martha’s Vineyard: Richly aromatic with mint, incense, warm currant confiture. Incredibly supple and suave, with additional plum sauce, musk, warm chocolate brioche, briar patch and licorice root notes. Dense finish still, too. Has been holding here for a long time and doesn’t seem to be fading yet. 4,544 cases made. I wonder how many are left today? 98 points.
1978 Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon California: Quite juicy with dark currant, fig, date, pepper, cedar and shaved vanilla notes. The most purely Cabernet-like of the entire tasting and still quite youthful in some ways. Long, fine-grained finish. 94 points.