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When to Pull the Cork on That Last Bottle

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Dec 15, 2008 10:28am ET

Wine can be a love-hate relationship. And that’s part of what makes wine so great.

I’ve recently been on a campaign to drink up the last lone bottles of particular wines I have in the cellar. You know, those single bottles that mark the end of the six or 12 bottles that you initially bought. Each bottle along the way always delivered on its promise and it was great fun watching the wine evolve and change over the years.

But now you’re partly hoping the last one will deliver one last big bang, and so you’re hanging on out of love. But in the back of your mind, that last bottle is nagging at you because you know the wine may not be what it once was. I hate that nagging feeling—you know you’re going to have to deal with it at some point, no matter how long you put off the inevitable. The longer you wait, the longer the gamble on that last bottle. You love the wine; you hate to see it go.

When it comes to these last bottles, I'm happy knowing it’s the end. Being the last of its kind, so to speak, it takes on extra significance when I drink it. Though it might not show as well as it did throughout its prime, I know that drinking it will bring back all the memories of its evolution, as it progressed from a young, rich wine to a graceful, elegant, mature one.

But at the same time, I hate that I'm down to just one bottle. After I drink that last one, it’s gone, likely never to be tasted again. Even if it's past peak, a wine that’s only part of what it once was is still better than no wine at all. Should I hold out a little bit longer? I hate being indecisive like this.

This weekend, it was my last bottle of 1996 Etude Pinot Noir Carneros Heirloom that brought up these emotions. I looked at my past tasting notes and the dates they were drunk—summer dates where I was on the back porch with friends. Winter dates where I was inside, with a fire going and a lamb shank in front of me.

The last bottle was hanging on, with supple black fruit, spice and earth notes. I was happy it still had some life. Still, the acidity had started to fade, and the wine, while still good, was probably best drunk up a year or two earlier. And so by trying to hold out, I let that last bottle slide ever so slightly past peak. I was a little mad at myself for letting it go. But I was happy that I learned yet another lesson with wine.

And that's part of the love-hate relationship I have with wine. I wouldn't want it any other way.

Stewart Lancaster
beaver,pa —  December 15, 2008 12:20pm ET
So true, I allways struggle with that last bottle. I try to decide who I should share it with. Never east to part with a prisoner. If I bring it to my wine group, I'll put handcuffs on it and then release it
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  December 15, 2008 1:54pm ET
James, I always try to dignify my last bottles with a great meal. Like James Laube, when I get 6 bottles of something I open one right away even if it's way too early. I just need to know what's in store for the future. Each bottle consumed gets a separate tasting note linked to each one prior, and it's fascinating to track the progress of the wine over the years. But that last tasting note, that's a special one.
Dennis D Bishop
Shelby Twp., MI, USA —  December 16, 2008 6:38pm ET
It is even worse when you buy only three or four bottles - the last one comes up ... and if you let it slide, you have affected 1/4 to 1/3 of your inventory of that particular wine. what a shame to let the bottle go past its prime.
Tim Sinniger
Bend, Oregon —  January 2, 2009 1:27am ET
James: Yes it is a tough choice to make. My angst is usually over verticals of wines like the Chateau Ste Michelle Cold Creek Cabernet we recently enjoyed. We opened the last bottles of 1995 and 1996, the only ones left of what was then a 11 year vertical. The 95 was outstanding and could have probably lasted a few more years. The 96 was good but was clearly past its prime.I look forward to opening many more "last bottles" this year. Life after all is an adventure...eh?

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