Wine Hall of Fame
By Jeff Morgan, West Coast editor
Why cry over spilled wine? Especially when it's been spilled into your glass and enjoyed. Sadly, some wine lovers believe the party's over when they've drained the last drop of a great wine. But I think empty bottles can occasionally be more interesting than full ones. The best examples are not really empty at all, but filled with memories. That's why I've reserved space in my home cellar for a select group called the "Wine Hall of Fame."
Sure, my wife laughs at me when I disappear for a half hour to survey my domain of full and empty bottles. But I don't care. Collecting shouldn't just be about acquisition. It should also inspire imagination and passion.
Each time I glance at my Wine Hall of Fame, for example, I notice a bottle of Gristina Cabernet Sauvignon 1988 from Long Island, New York. That bottle was the first vintage made at a small winery where I worked for several years, before joining Wine Spectator as West Coast editor. My empty Gristina bottle sets off memories of how the ceiling caved in on our new barrel room because the plumbers forgot to hook up a key pipeline. Then, as we tried to wash out the debris, we discovered that the general contractor had accidentally cemented shut our brand-new drains. We finished harvest with jackhammers blasting away at concrete in the cellar.
The nightmare was worth the trouble. That Cabernet received a rating of 90 points--outstanding--on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale. But even more important, my empty bottle reminds me of friendships developed and the lessons learned at that time--Murphy's Law being the most noteworthy.
While a few Bordeaux first growths--like Chateau Haut-Brion 1962 and 1982--do inhabit the hallowed shelves of my hollow-bodied Hall of Fame, most selections boast more humble, eclectic origins. The idea is to trigger memories of people and places as much as flavors.
Another favorite is Valliant Reserve California Muscatel, a semi-sweet, fortified non-vintage white wine made sometime in the 1950s at Martini & Prati Winery in the Russian River Valley. The Valliant label no longer exists, but Martini & Prati continues to function as a sort of working museum of pre-World War II winemaking techniques (see Wine Spectator, Upfront, March 31, 1997).
Martini & Prati winery manager Tom Martini recently rediscovered the old Valliant wine while rummaging around in his personal cellar. He offered to share the contents of the screw-top bottle with me.
To our surprise, the wine remained fresh, lively, complex and refined, packed with hazelnut, peach, pear and tropical fruit flavors. It probably cost no more than a few dollars upon release, and its now-empty bottle serves as a constant reminder that you can't always judge a wine by its label.
Speaking of label judging, Riesling seems to suffer most from stereotyping--regardless of whose name graces the label. While this noble grape still struggles to find an identity among United States vintners, two (empty) bottles from Europe line my Hall of Fame. They remind me of how good Riesling can be, and they also keep me searching for a West Coast equivalent.
One is a Prager Riesling Federspiel 1994 from Austria and the other is a Domaine Weinbach Riesling Grand Cru Schlossberg Cuvee Ste.-Catherine 1994 from Alsace. Both wines combine the freshness and fruitiness of Riesling with the weight, balance and complexity of great wine. The Prager was a gift from Alsace vintner Andre Ostertag, who makes terrific Riesling himself.
A San Francisco sommelier brought the Weinbach over for dinner one night. We cooked enormous Dungeness crabs that evening, and I'll always remember my 6-year-old daughter's shock as we placed the writhing creatures into boiling water. The meal was full of memorable moments, all captured with clarity inside my now air-filled bottle.
Pack rats beware, however, for a Wine Hall of Fame can soon overwhelm both cellar and collector, as a trail of drained bottles fills the room. Be selective and choose only those examples that truly mark a significant meal or event. Great-tasting wines should always line your cellar shelves, but the magic of a great wine moment can only be recaptured in memory--or an empty bottle.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a roster of Wine Spectator editors. This week we hear from West Coast editor Jeff Morgan. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.
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