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robert camuto: letter from europe

My 'Drinking Problem'

Too much wine and not enough time
Journalist and book author Robert Camuto

Posted: Jan 9, 2017 12:00pm ET

Friends, I’ve got a drinking problem. I am not drinking enough wine to keep my wine cellar current.

You see, almost 16 years ago, when I moved to Europe, I began collecting wine. Not really collecting wine so much as amassing.

Collecting implies a strategy. I’ve been much more random than that. For years, as I traveled through France, Italy and beyond, I bought wines—the more obscure the better.

Whether it was rare French grapes (Prunelart or Chatus, anyone?) or unknown producers, my wine adventures usually led to more bottles. Sure, I’ve got some ageworthy collectibles like late-harvest whites from Alsace (where I once harvested) and reds from Bordeaux to Barolo, Burgundy to Brunello di Montalcino.

But in general, as I’ve gathered more wines, I haven’t dealt with one obvious fact: Most of the wines in my cellar weren’t meant to last decades.

I might have seen the warnings. From the start, friends and family gave me gifts to help manage my wine cellar, such as journals (with cellar software).

I never touched any of it.

Why? I was a wine romantic. I didn’t want to run my cellar like an accountant. Where’s the fun in that? I can’t even tell you how many bottles of wine I own. I thought of my cellar as a storehouse of memories. And who wants to drain their memories?

In 2006, the situation got worse when I started making wine in my garage with a friend, using our own grapes and grapes we purchased in Provence. What we didn’t drink of our micro-production piled up in the cellar.

Well, now all I can I can say is “oops.”

In December, I chose a bottle to make an evening meal a little more special, Gilles Barge Côte-Rôtie Cuvée du Plessy 2001, which was part of a case I’d bought from Barge himself more than a decade ago.

I opened the bottle in the kitchen and poured glasses for my wife and myself. We toasted and tasted.

Aside from a somewhat stinky nose and a fresh finish, the wine tasted half dead. The whole middle part—the heart—was gone.

I ran down to the cellar for another bottle—the last of the case. Same thing. The wine was a shadow of what it had once been.

I’d simply made the mistake of waiting too long to drink it.

How many more bottles do I have that are past their prime? No idea.

How did this happen? The answer is complex. In addition to sentimental ideas of not wanting to “part” with certain bottles, my drinking tastes have changed—and are still changing.

I can’t remember the last time I had a thirst for a Savennières white, though I have several in my cellar. The same is true for Malbec-dominated Cahors.

Making matters worse, our friends don’t drink as much as they used to. In younger days, I couldn’t open bottles of wine fast enough. A couple of holiday dinners with pals used to mean a spike in local glass recycling.

Now everyone—even the French and Italians—seems to have become more “reasonable.”

(I am sure there is no correlation, but why is it that, in addition to drinking less, more people we know have food allergies? What is up with that?)

Now, I have no choice but to find hope in the next generation.

Our son, now 22 years old, grew up in Europe around wine. (His first tasting from tanks was at a winery run by a family of Corsican separatists when he was 10 years old.) Yet as an adult he is a very occasional wine drinker.

This year, he will complete his engineering masters in London. And while I have admired the energy he’s put into his studies, I haven’t pushed the idea of his wine education—until now.

It’s important. After all, he will one day inherit my cellar that includes some classic bottles from his birth year, 1994 (not the best vintage from a wine standpoint), including Mouton-Rothschild, Yquem, other Bordeaux, Barolos and Rhône reds.

Over the holiday break, I launched the father-son dialogue.

“I like some whiskeys, some wine, some cocktails,” he said.

Wines?

“Oh, from France, Italy, some Argentina Malbecs,” he said. “What I don’t like are wines that are sweet or taste like fertilizer.”

Now that’s a start I can work with. For now, excuse me, our son is here, and we’re heading down to the cellar for another talk.

Thomas Molitor
New Mexico —  January 9, 2017 1:08pm ET
Hi Robert. Loved your book, "Palmento," a Sicilian Wine Odyssey. Last October visited many of the wineries profiled in your book. One complaint: Finding a Nerello Mascalese in New Mexico. Cheers!
Robert Camuto
France —  January 9, 2017 2:15pm ET
Dear Thomas: Nerello Mascalese reds from Etna are one of the wines I can't manage to keep around in my cellar. They get finished off pretty quickly! My theory is that's good. I am not sure can really age for a long time....more on that later...
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  January 9, 2017 4:01pm ET
One piece of advice: When you realize you've lost interest in a wine type or style, find someone who likes it and just give them a few bottles. Believe me, karma will work its magic.

My colleague Jim Laube taught me that a "bottle massacre" can be a lot of fun. Line up a counter full of iffy older wines, invite a few friends, make some food, and just keep opening the bottles until you find the inevitable star (or stars). Consume the food ones, dump the rest. You weren't going to drink them anyway.

Robert Camuto
France —  January 10, 2017 6:06am ET
Thank you Harvey for the good suggestions. I love the idea of the bottle massacre in particular....I'm gonna try that. Though Saturday we were eight for dinner...and drained only four bottles....including the apero sparkler...Gotta work on the math!
Domaine Drouhin Oregon
Dundee Hills, Oregon —  January 10, 2017 12:26pm ET
Hi Robert,
I think this is a malady that many of us share. I suppose as long as every bottle has a story attached (either coming or going), then perhaps the sentiment survives even if the wine does not? How's that for positive thinking? Alternatively: every day is a new opportunity to make a dent!
Kindly, David.

Jeremy Matouk
Port of Spain, Trinidad —  January 12, 2017 8:43pm ET
Poor you. My sincere condolences. Stay in touch with your cellar my good man. While I admire your non-commercial approach this seems a matter of carelessness more than profligacy. Good luck with what's left, though you could have told us about it. I'm sure there are gems waiting to be savoured, so it cannot be all bad.

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