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james laube's wine flights

To Open or Hold New Wines: The Drinker's Dilemma

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Aug 29, 2008 1:57am ET

Have we become the most impatient wine drinkers in the world?

I ask this in view of the fact that more fine wine gets drunk earlier than ever before.

That’s no big surprise, since more fine wine gets released earlier than ever before. I have friends who buy new vintages, say 2005 Cabernets or 2006 Syrahs or 2006 Merlots, and they’ve complained to me that the wines aren’t showing well. What gives?

Probably because the wines are too young. Sure, decanting helps. But our wine culture has evolved. Wineries release their wines earlier; they typically need both revenue and can’t afford to lose a restaurant wine list placement or retail shelf space. And once the wines are sold we’re anxious to assess our purchases. I’m among those who always opens new wines I’ve bought the day they arrive, or soon thereafter.

But I noticed that "older" wine drinkers, those with what I’d call the collector mindset, have a hands-off approach to new releases. They perhaps better understand and appreciate what a little time in the bottle will do for a wine. They too grew up in a time when wineries held their wines for four to five years after the vintage. An old-school Cabernet might have been aged in oak for two-plus years and then held in bottle for another two-plus years. No more. Young Cabernets are bottled and sold, often within months of being bottled and corked.

What’s interesting about this scenario is this: Winemakers typically know their wines the best. They taste them frequently, particularly when they’re young, looking for development or defects or potential problems. And they know that wines undergo bottle shock when bottled and that it typically takes months for the wines to recover from that. Winemakers also know that once a young wine, a 2006 Chardonnay or 2005 Cabernet for example, has three years in bottle, it will show more predictably than in the first few months after its been bottled. But many of us can’t wait that long and the wines will be long gone before they’re at their most stable and predictable state.

I noticed this the other night after opening a 2004 Chasseur Sylvia’s Pinot Noir from Russian River (95 points, $52). It remains a remarkably elegant, delicate wine, but it has even more finesse and polish than it did when I bought a half-dozen bottles two years ago. I loved the wine when I bought it (and of course I tried a bottle the moment it arrived, that impatient thing). But the past two times I’ve opened it, it has been more elegant and refined, having shed a little of the baby fat fruitiness of its infancy. It’s still young, but has offered wonderful complexity and delicacy on all occasions. At this age I know more of what to expect than I did earlier on. So on this wine color me two ways: anxious to try it young, and patient enough to let a few bottles age (the benefit of having a few more bottles to try over time).

It’s much more frustrating when you only have one bottle and have to fight the temptation to find out what it tastes like the minute it arrives. I'm not sure I'll change my ways. But many of these youngsters need six months to a year from the day you buy them. That's worth considering, at least for the long weekend.

Mark Owens
Cincinnati, Oh. —  August 29, 2008 12:15pm ET
I agree completely, it is a shame that wineries must release their wines earlier and I understand. However, it places many consumers and restaurants in an awkward position of being unable to properly store wine so they must drink it. I have always respected and appreciated David Heitz (Heitz Vineyards) for releasing his wines ready to drink, at Five to Ten years of age. Fortunately, I have a cellar and have been collecting wines for over Twenty years. I subscribe to the hands off until wines are hopefully, at there best. It seems to me that the Napa Cabs seem to hit between Five to Ten Years. I have so much wine that is of age to drink, I don't mind waiting. It gives me a chance to appreciate the time and effort I have put in to researching and procuring the wines and look forward to enjoying them.All the best,Mark
Jim Mccusker
Okemos, MI —  August 29, 2008 1:48pm ET
Although I'm still relatively young (40's) and have only been seriously collecting for about 10 years, I guess I'm in the older camp in that I like to let wines integrate a bit before trying them. I never open a bottle that I receive through the various mailing lists that I'm on for several months (mainly to avoid bottle shock, as you said). That's for whites, and even then only varietals such as Pinot Grigio or Friulanos that I tend to prefer when they're younger. Most of the whites in my collection are unoaked (e.g., Brewer-Clifton, Diatom, etc.) whose acidity lets them really develop wonderfully over several years. Same thing goes for rhones (e.g., John Alban's roussannes, which take on a wonderful nutty character after resting for a few years). With reds, I can't recall the last time I opened a bottle inside of a year after receipt of the wine. I tend to order at least three bottles of a given wine so that I can sample it at various stages of development. For me, part of the fun is seeing how the wines evolve. (The only exception to this rule are wines like Harlan or Abreu, for which my checkbook only allows for one or two bottles at most!)
Jason Thompson
Foster City, CA —  August 29, 2008 1:55pm ET
If at all possible, I never buy only one bottle of any wine. That is just painful. If I really like it, I search endlessly for another bottle only to find an inflated price tag. Buy 2-4 bottles of anything so you can judge it over time. Especially if you think you will enjoy it. And wait. If you are going to spend $80-$100 for a single bottle of wine, you must have the resources to:

a) Own a storage unit to keep wines in.

and

b) Own other bottles of wine that you can drink in the meantime while you wait for maturity.
Chris Haag
August 29, 2008 2:34pm ET
Mark brings up an interesting proposition, he is "fortunate" to have a cellar in his house. For many young collectors, the concept of owning a home with the requisite space to cellar your wine is simply not in the cards. I try to age my wine, but with my refrigeration providing capacity of 200 bottles, as new vintages comes in, something has got to give as my townhouse does not have a basement with a cellar. This means, some wine that I would prefer to age, I can't, and end up drinking it earlier than I would like........
B James Leman
Bermuda —  August 29, 2008 3:08pm ET
Hi James,James from Bermuda here.This blog I feel speaks to a number of important points...1) Like you, I think we should always buy more than one bottle of any wine we purchase for a variety of reasons. The best one probably is to compare drinkability at various stages.2)Depending on the grape varietal, most new wines are in fact showing very well (as you know) at a very young age so the need for patience has declined.3) Impatience as a mindset is at an all time high across the globe. The pace at which we live now is doubling every year. Instant messaging, video conferencing and other technolgies have all played a part in the decreasing size of how we view the world. Why should wine making and drinking be any different? We want good wine in good time by george and with the prices some are charging we dont want to wait for 5-10 years to appreciate the expenditure.4) I have to admit I am one of the impatient drinkers as well. After a hard day, most evenings spent with a half decent pinot are a special occasion to me, so I look forward to the sound I hear in the opening of every video blog on this site.5) Patience may be a virtue but it is sometimes overated.
Aidan Campbell
Calgary, AB, Canada —  August 29, 2008 3:20pm ET
I'm with you in that when I buy multiple bottles, I usually like to open a bottle, not so much out of impatience, but to see how the wine drinks early (occasionally you get something great right out of the gate). However, I've found that even with just one year of bottle time almost everything will show some improvement. And unless you are buying serious Bordeaux or the like, after 3 years I find most things are drinking very well. All generalizations of course. The tough spot is buying one bottle, which I generally try to avoid. Especially if you can stand to lay it down then find yourself drinking it in 3 years and kicking yourself for only buying one!
Dave Reuther
Deerfield, Illinois —  August 29, 2008 4:13pm ET
When I select a wine for my cellar, I buy six bottles. I try one soon after purchase, record my notes and decide if I want more bottles for social occasions. The other five are held and tried again at yearly intervals with additional notes recorded. I enjoy observing how a wine evolves and often improves. A couple weeks ago I retasted the 2005 Ridge Santa Cruz Mountain Estate chardonnay. I was even more amazed than when I tasted it 14 months earlier. I agree with your now and later approach.
Jeff Yates
Napa, CA —  August 29, 2008 5:53pm ET
I have purchased several 2006 Cabernets for my store. I have tasted these wines, and they are from well known wineries, and in my opinion they are not near ready to drink. In order to obtain these wines I need to buy them now as they will not be available later, but I almost feel I need to tell potential buyers that the wines need more time. I understand about cash flow, etc., but also feel that a wine should be ready to drink when its released. If I didn't have the experience of tasting younger wines and understand how they will evolve, many would not make it onto my shelves.
James Peterson
San Antonio, Texas —  August 29, 2008 7:31pm ET
It can be hard, but I have 11-12 cases of 2000 Bordeaux, and I've opened exactly three bottles. Each time I've done it, I've grimaced at the injustice of opening it too soon. It's become more apparent how important it is as I've opened a few 1995 and 1996 Bordeaux I have. They are so much more ready to drink. Bravo to patience. It pays off in the end...
Eugene Kim
Houston, TX —  August 29, 2008 9:15pm ET
All excellent points here on the blog. I, too, have adopted a policy of purchasing at least three bottles - one for drinking sooner (which I do not always do), one for 5 years later, one for 5 years after that. It may be difficult to wait on some wines, but after you experience the moment of that magical first taste, it makes all of that effort worth the while!
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  August 29, 2008 10:16pm ET
Ah yes, the 2004 Chasseur Sylvia's. I know it well and I have one last bottle. It is good to hear that time has shone gracefully upon it. I have it sitting next to my 2004 Foxen Sea Smoke PN, a wine I found to be its equal of the vintage. I plan to hold Pinot N-Wars in December and pit these two against each other. James, I believe you have engendered a "drink it now" mentality and you must accept responsibility for that. It's nice that you put the caveat in your blog today that you only do so when you have multiple bottles. However, per my recollection you have made numerous statements in the recent past exalting the merits of drinking wines in their youth, particularly the so-called "New World" types. Of course, only a novice fails to take bottle shock in to account, so you can't be blamed for that. To be fair, I do agree that many New World wines are meant to be enjoyed within about 6-12 months after arrival. Just in case I always consult CellarTracker to see how my fellow wine enthusiasts perceive the development of a given wine. If at least 50 percent of the posts within the last twelve months encourage a youthful drink then I will go for it! FYI, we'll be up your way in the middle of September. Maybe we'll come knocking at your "new" downtown digs.
Timothy L Oneal
Kansas City, Missouri —  August 30, 2008 9:45pm ET
Question:Is it the responsibility then, for wine oriented restaurants to purchase and hold wines until they mature? If it is, how can I, and other Wine Directors/Sommeliers propose to ownership the advantages of long term investment in wine? How can I convey the advantages of building inventory over time in the interest of quality? Any commentary or suggested readings would be greatly appreciated for this is a very sore subject at the restaurant in which I work.
Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  August 31, 2008 1:49am ET
It's an interesting topic you bring up, but not the same results I've expected. When you mention aging, I didn't think you meant only 4 years in the example you gave. What about the benefits of waiting for the tannins to fully resolve? That usually doesn't happen until the 6-8+ year mark for cabs.
John Nelson
Dallas, Texas —  August 31, 2008 12:43pm ET
Timothy brings up am important thought about restaurants and the development of their cellars. It would seem that for a new restaurant to have an award worthy list, it would have to acquire more mature vintages of certain wines (reserve list perhaps) and have additional wines which are drinking well but will improve with age. This way a customer can appreciate (and pay for) more mature vintages and still have access to younger wines that are ready when young. Also, I always buy 3 of my 'special' wines (ie Dominus, Blankiet, Ornellaia) one to sample within 6 months of acquisition, one for drinking at a dinner party, and one more to have available after the first was finished. I also, due to limited fridge space, only age them when merited/recommended. I also look at Cellar Tracker to gauge other drinker's opinions of a wines' progression.
Christopher Myers
Copley, Ohio —  September 1, 2008 10:50am ET
I agree with Jeff Yates. Wine should be released ready to drink. I get all the arguments about cash flow. I just don't care. There are costs to doing any business. I also don't disagree about time improving some wine. And, I do the same things many of the other posts do, buying multiple bottles, watching Cellar Tracker comments, etc. What else do we, as consumers, purchase and have to sit aside for years before it is ready for use? Patience is a fine thing, and I am generally patient about most things in life. There is a difference, however, between being patient and being taken advantage of. I consider a ten-year-old Bordeaux not yet ready to drink a defective product, no matter how good it might be someday.
Jack Stoakes
Colorado —  September 1, 2008 4:58pm ET
It is a myopic viewpoint that mentions only the "older" wine drinkers as those who can manage to drink wine near its peak. You'll find a very large segment of people in the wine business who understand the value and pleasure of properly aged wine; many are relatively young, and many have well-kept cellars. It is not a prerequisite to grow up "in a time when wineries held their wines for four to five years after the vintage" to be informed enough to cellar wines that deserve to be cellared - willing patience is not some conditioned disease of the old, as James makes it sound. Buy a few bottles worthy of being aged in proper storage conditions, have some patience, and prove it to yourself.
Quek Li Fei
Singapore —  September 1, 2008 8:54pm ET
That's why I always try to buy in half cases or at least buy 3 bottles of each wine. For a 3 bottle purchase, I'd open one within a month or two of purchase (being in Singapore where we have no native wine, every wine bottle on our store shelves is imported) to let the bottle settle down after its journey here, the second in about three years' time (depending on the type of wine) after the first bottle and the last in five to eight years'time after the first. I figured that in this way, I would be able to experience a wine in its different stages of maturity. For a six bottle case, the tasting time lines become more generous and I'm trying (with considerable difficulty most times!) to extend the opening the bottle timeline to about 10 or 12 years.
Anthony Clapcich
new york —  September 3, 2008 1:19pm ET
James: As an expert in big cabs with a huge mental inventory of thousands of wineries at various stages of development, I'm a little surprised by your impatience. Cali Cabs need at least 5 years in the bottle, and most Bordeaux don't hit stride until 10 years. Wine infanticide is a terrible crime that must be prevented!
Anthony Clapcich
new york —  September 3, 2008 5:17pm ET
To Chris in Ohio: The fact that certain wines need 10+ years to shine is NOT a defect. Michael Phelps won 8 gold medals at age 23--not age 11! A regular Joe sees Phelps swim at age 11 and walks away unimpressed, but an olympic coach sees the same kid and understands the potential of a lifetime! You and I are the regular Joes of the world, but fortunately there are folks in this world who have dedicated their lives to making, tasting, and reporting on the greatest grapes in the world. Use their experience to help guide your tastes toward well aged wines and you will have an epiphany. Every varietal is beautiful in its own way and requires its own standards of aging ,but man, there's nothing like drinking a 15-20 year old bordeaux that expresses an enormous flavor profile while maintaining a sustain on your palate for minutes! Only time can produce that sort of magic--that's why age worthy wines are so expensive, if it was easy, WalMart would offer it for $2/gallon!
James Laube
Napa, CA —  September 3, 2008 5:49pm ET
Troy, you're correct that I use narrow drink windows (as in drink now through 2011 or 2012) for most whites and a few reds and frankly for wines that I don't think are worth cellaring. That advice is directly particularly at people who have less experience or might need advice on when to pull the cork. Most Pinots are ready and mature by age six, and Cabernets by four to eight years. But that certainly doesn't mean they can't age longer (and many will) provided they're properly cellared.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  September 3, 2008 5:52pm ET
Jeffrey, you're correct about the tannins "softening" and that's one of the major themes in modern vinification methods -- avoiding hard or green or astringent tannins and making the wine's textures softer and fleshier, and therefore easier to drink on release. We do know that wines with very hard tannins will always be tannic, so the risk in aging these wines too long is you miss the fruit.

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