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A Change in the Wines I Celebrate With

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jul 10, 2007 1:47pm ET

Two meals in the last week made me realize how the wines I celebrate with have changed dramatically in just the last few years.

One dinner was to celebrate my wife’s birthday, the other meal was to celebrate a successful day on the golf course. Both celebrations were major ones but for the sake of a happy marriage, I will state that my wife’s birthday was clearly the more important occasion.

I took her to Lever House in New York City for dinner, and as we perused the wine list, I asked her if she wanted her usual Burgundy (she’s a Burgundy nut). She nodded yes, but as I looked at the choices, I was disappointed to see many of them listed at $200 or more—and those under $200 really didn’t light my fire.

So instead we ordered bottles of 2006 Domaine St.-Préfert Châteauneuf-du-Pape White and 2000 La Poderina Brunello di Montalcino. Combined, they cost less than most of the Burgundies. The white Châteauneuf was lush, round and creamy, with lots of melon and mango flavors, and the Poderina was rich and velvety, with smoke, black tea, currant and mineral notes. Both drank really well and went well with the food—a double home run.

When I asked Nancy if she missed having a nice Burgundy, she sort of shrugged and said, “Not if the other choices are that good.”

Then there was last night’s celebration. It’s an annual thing I do with three of my buddies—a 36-hole day of golf replete with some, um, wagers. We do it every summer (and every summer we seem to wind up scheduling it on the hottest day of the year), followed by a dinner out where the victors order the wine.

This year my partner and I came out on top and avenged a bitter defeat last year on the 36th hole. Despite the sweltering heat, a quick shower after the second round had me dreaming of a steak and a great bottle of Bordeaux.

Arriving at the The Willett House after nearly 10 hours of golfing, I sat down with their solid wine list and perused the Bordeaux section. Lots of big names and good vintages, but nothing that I felt like forking out for—even with my easy winnings. Instead I chose a bottle of the 2003 Boekenhoutskloof Cabernet Sauvignon Franschhoek. “What? Who?” asked my victorious teammate.

“Trust me,” I told him. “You’ll like this.” I gave him the rundown on the winery and winemaker, and as he tasted the wine and put the glass back down on the table, he paused before saying, “Wow, that’s really good. And it’s how much?”

Just $75 on the list, and it couldn’t have been a better match with our bone-in rib eyes (though everything tastes better in victory, I’m sure).

A few years ago, I wouldn’t have thought twice about ordering anything other than a Burgundy or Bordeaux to celebrate with in a restaurant. But recently their prices have gotten way too overheated. And in the process they’re losing the allure of being something special for me. That’s because you have to be able to really connect with something for it to be special. The qualities of "rare" and "expensive" alone don’t make a wine special.

From Brunello to South African Cabernet there’s so much good stuff out there these days to choose from. Do I still have some Burgundy and Bordeaux in my cellar? Sure. But do I miss buying them as much nowadays as I did in the past? No, not if the other choices are that good ...

Serge Laporte
Canada —  July 10, 2007 4:09pm ET
I have to agree with you, James, on the fact that one cannot be drawn to a wine purely by tradition or even more tritely, that the given wine is extremely expensive thus must be great(when in fact most of the cost is speculation based...eg.. Bordeaux).I think we have to re-evaluate our drinking choices constantly and keep our taste buds alive , not rely on habit.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  July 10, 2007 4:51pm ET
Amen brotha!
Alvaro Esquivel
Miami, Fla —  July 10, 2007 4:56pm ET
Hi James! Very good point and I agree with you 100%. Bordeaux prices are mad and of course there are many choices out there that good.Do you think the 2003 Clos des Papes or the Pegau Reservee will keep open and drinkable or would they soon closed down? Good luck with your game.
Ken Koonce
Dallas, Texas —  July 10, 2007 5:53pm ET
This reminds me of a comment I once read by Jancis Robinson that a restaurant is not the place to try expensive wines. Do that at home, at normal retail prices. In restaurants, look for the bargains. Even those will be expensive enough.
Kevin Krawchuk
Vancouver B.C —  July 10, 2007 7:14pm ET
With your closing statement, I think its apparent you should consider hiring the Mrs as your go to Gal! ;)
John Miller
Windsor, CA —  July 10, 2007 9:10pm ET
Ken,That is exactly what I do. Or I bring a bottle and pay the corkage. If it is a special bottle, its generally worth it.
Fred Brown
July 10, 2007 9:30pm ET
I agree with you about finding better celebratory selections (that are better) from regions other than the "prestige" regions. I also agree with Ken about restaurants - I usually try to find something that I can enjoy without feeling cheated, and drink the really good stuff at home!
James Molesworth
July 11, 2007 9:13am ET
Alvaro: From my experience, the top '03 CdPs have shut down...
James Molesworth
July 11, 2007 9:36am ET
Ken: I don't mind paying a premium to the restaurant for well stored, and properly served bottles of wine. But the long accepted 'industry standard' of two times the retail price is absurd to me. Restaurants that use lower markups sell more wine - I've seen it time and time again...
Zachary Ross
Brooklyn, NY —  July 11, 2007 11:59am ET
Wow, two more non-downtown restaurants! Just kidding...
Lisa Otoole
Kansas City —  July 11, 2007 3:05pm ET
The only thing you could have done differently to improve the situation would have been to order the 2003 Boekenhoutskloof Syrah Coastal Region instead of the Cab.
James Molesworth
July 11, 2007 3:14pm ET
Lisa: You're in the know! I would have, if they had it...;-).
Ken Koonce
Dallas, Texas —  July 11, 2007 4:56pm ET
James: If you know of any restaurants in my area with only (!) a 2 times markup, please share! Most are 2.5 to 3 times. So if you buy a $20 retail bottle for $45, versus a $40 retail bottle for $90, it's half the price to start with, and you're only out of pocket an extra $25, and not $50, over retail. That's a big difference.
Filippo Recchi
Florence, Italy —  July 12, 2007 12:43pm ET
James, still on CdP: do also CdP whites close down as reds do? What about 03 or 99 white Clos des Papes? Do Hermitages follow the same pattern? And lastly, when will they be open again..5 years?
Thanks a lot for all your great blogs!
James Molesworth
July 12, 2007 2:37pm ET
Filippo: It's hard to generalize about white CdPs. Some - like St.-Prefert and Vieux Donjon - are made in a style meant to be drunk up within their first year or two of life.

Others, like Beaucastel, Beaurenard's Boisrenard and Clos des Papes, are meant to age. Beaucastel's typically shuts down quickly, after a year or so, and can take 8 or 10 years before re-emerging, much like a white Hermitage. The Boisrenard shuts down, but not as severely - I like it after about 5 to 6 years of bottle age when it starts to show some white truffle notes...

Meanwhile, the Clos des Papes white ages on a more linear path, turning toward mineral and petrol notes as it goes (search the forums for my notes on a vertical of white Clos des Papes)...

And don't forget La Nerthe, arguably among the top handful of whites in the appellation, though it ages on a faster track than some of the others...

There's just too much variation among the white CdPs to make a blanket statement regarding how they age (other than that they taste good!)...
Filippo Recchi
Florence, Italy —  July 13, 2007 5:28am ET
Thanks a lot James!

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