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Pajama Party Treats

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Nov 10, 2006 12:52pm ET

If you’ve only got one bottle of a special wine, do you drink it or hold it?

I'm often asked that question, and I have a couple of thoughts that merit consideration the next time you’re facing that dilemma.

Once, just after I’d moved to Napa, a heatwave hit and I worried about my small cache of wines—each bottle was unique. Would they cook?

First, I put them in my dresser drawer under a pile of shirts and socks. But then I decided I’d be better off keeping them in the refrigerator for a few days, which is what I did. The wines were fine when I drank them.

My most memorable experience with a single bottle happened in northeastern Italy, in Collio, Friuli. A vintner named Gradimar Gradnik offered me a bottle of his Picolit, a rare, prized, slightly sweet dessert-style wine made from the white grape that is its namesake.

As I visited with his daughter, Wanda Gradnik, I asked Gradimar about the Picolit. He described how important it was to the region and to their historic winery and then concluded that this was the perfect wine to sip in your pajamas while watching TV. (I have a witness to this exchange; I wonder if Matt Kramer, seated next to me, recalls this episode).

Wanda blushed, clearly embarrassed, and we both laughed as we tried to picture how the thick-fisted, barrel-chested man must have looked lounging in his PJs with a glass of wine in his hand, watching TV.

I kept the bottle and brought it back home. I set it aside, waiting for the right moment to open it. I tried to think if I’d ever drunk wine in my pajamas, and I don’t think I ever have. Finally, I opened it at a dinner party with an Italian theme, and we enjoyed it after the meal, while still dressed in our civvies.

From then on, I have more or less decided that it’s best to open your single bottles of wine rather than cellar them—especially if you really don’t know much about the wine and what it tastes like.

Surely, there’s nothing wrong with sitting on a bottle for the right occasion. But my reasoning, and what I tell those who ask for my advice, is that you’re better off knowing what that one bottle tastes like. Because if you really love the wine, you’ll likely have a better shot of buying another one than if you wait a decade.

If it turns out you merely like the wine, well, that too is valuable information. You’ll know you've spared yourself the suspense of aging a wine only to be disappointed.

I’m curious how you deal with the one bottle dilemma.

Peter Czyryca
November 10, 2006 3:05pm ET
James - Pretty interesting post. I've bought a bottle of the 02 Etude St Helena cab and every time I grab a regular napa Etude - I salivate at the thought of trying it. I like your train of thought though, Im going to bust it open next time I have steak and then just get on the phone to Etude for a 6pack. If, of course, it's drinking well.
Hoyt Hill Jr
Nashville, TN —  November 10, 2006 3:16pm ET
In my wine shop we have an "Orphan Bottle" rack, which is where we display the last remaining bottle of wines we have at 20% off
J Paul Jackson
Dyersburg, TN —  November 10, 2006 3:51pm ET
As a working man with a modest disposable income, I cannot afford to buy most fine wines in quantity. Therefore, when I first began to have a real appreciation for wine, I frequently found myself trying to decide which bottles I should drink and which I should hold. I finally decided that the question is best dealt with through consumption. Therefore, if I have only one bottle of a wine that I have never tried I will usually drink it. If it is truly great I will try to find another bottle. However, if I have a bottle that I know is truly special based upon experience, I will often hold it for the "right occassion". Thanks to this approach I have enjoyed many fine wines that I might have otherwise held, and I am always confident when I bring out that "special" bottle for friends or family.
Dan Jaworek
Chicago —  November 10, 2006 5:15pm ET
I always tell people not to wait for special occasions. The day may never come. And I think I may have more wines than I'll ever have occasions. I do have one bottle that I'm saving and thats a '96 Margaux (a big deal for me). But I'm not waiting for a special occasion. I just want it mature enough to drink. After that, I'll host a dinner and open it with some friends. I won't wait till my wedding or birth of a child. I may never marry and have children. Nor will I wait for retirement. I may not make it that long. No, I'll wait for the wine but I won't keep the wine waiting on me. Dan J.
Jason Thompson
Foster City, CA —  November 10, 2006 7:24pm ET
I agree with all. You have to drink the "special" bottles. It is not just the bottle that is special, it is the event of drinking it as well. Can't make it too special. My dad has made a regular event of our small X-mas dinner away from the extended family. We spend the entire day with them and when our immediate family sits down to eat dinner that night for the last 4-5 years, we have had his "special" wines. Last year...1992 Mouton, 1993 Araujo, 1997 Insignia, 1997 Heitz Martha's Vineyard. It was great and really the only people in the world that I would want to drink those wines with if they were coming out of my cellar. BTW, if anyone is wondering, the winner was the 1993 Araujo, but not by consensus as the Insignia had some fans too...
Claude Pope
Raleigh, NC —  November 10, 2006 8:33pm ET
James, when would you open a 1961 Lafite? I began collecting wines before I was old enough to legally buy them (Thanks mom!). I now have some gems and I've started drinking them - some I'm sure are well past their prime but I'm determined now to drink my more recent acquisitions before they go this far. To do otherwise would be akin to having a bunch of "bottle art" - pretty to look at but probably not drinkable.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  November 10, 2006 8:41pm ET
Claude, I'd find an occasion to share it with friends, especiall people who will appreciate it. Great old bottles like the '61 Lafite are a treasure to share with your family or buddies. I'd decant it, and drink alone, without food or other wines, and savor the wine, so you can store it in your taste memory. Let us know how it goes!
Jj Gallagher
Near Napa, Ca —  November 10, 2006 9:23pm ET
James, What a timely post. I have been wondering about this exact subject. I have just given a bottle of 1966 Latour to my husband as a 40th birthday gift, as that is his birth year. We are slated to celebrate at 'Press' in St Helena and are debating whether to take the bottle with us. We are really more experienced with California wines, and nothing of that age. On one hand the Sommelier at Press, Thomas, is excellent and I would welcome his feedback, on the other, would we have a better chance to slowly try the wine at different stages, without distraction, at home? What are your thoughts on experiencing a bottle like this in public vs private? Anyone else have an experience/opinion they would like to share?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  November 10, 2006 9:52pm ET
Jj, your husband's a lucky man. Home or away doesn't matter, but older wines are tricky. Sometimes they're already expired (or nearly so) and oftentimes they evolve rather quickly (which is why having a nice backup is a *good* idea). If you have a great bottle and want to taste it over a period, that's fine, too. I've found that older wines are tougher to pair with cuisine that has strong flavors. The old wines are delicate and fragile once exposed to air. On their own I've found them to be great conversation pieces. So let me know how it goes and hope I'm not at Press the same night.
David Nerland
Scottsdale —  November 10, 2006 10:04pm ET
Last year, 4 of the senior executives of the company I work for gave me a bottle of 1998 Screaming Eagle for a christmas gift. I promised my brothers that when we got together next, we would salute our father who had past away in March of 2005.I am opening this in less than 2 weeks when we all get together. We will toast our father, who is deeply missed.
Steve Lenzo
PHX, AZ —  November 10, 2006 10:47pm ET

When drinking special wines like that I either do it in public at high end restaurants, usually alone with the wife. Or in private with my wine buddies during a tasting get together. I prefer the former rather than the latter for two reasons.

1) I get to drink more of the wine and 2) If the wife really loves it, I can buy more of it without getting in trouble. Enjoy it, either way.
Robert Mathews
November 10, 2006 11:53pm ET
If I somehow come across a special bottle of wine and know I can get more, even if it has to be by kicking and screaming, I drink that sucker. I need to know if it's worth kicking and screaming to get more.
James Peterson
San Antonio, Texas —  November 11, 2006 3:43am ET
I really only have two single bottles of aged consequence in my cellar--a 1985 Vega Sicilia Unico and a 1989 Pichon Lalande. Both were gifts in 1999, and both have been properly cellared ever since. I was going to open the Unico in 2005, but it just never seemed the right time (although I know it needs drinking). In any case, I suppose I'm of the same opinion as the gal in the Sideways, where opening the bottle is the special occasion. As soon as I get back to my cellar (I'm living overseas), that is my plan. Good post. - Jim
Ted A Hunt
Fort Lauderdale, Fl —  November 11, 2006 9:11am ET
James - I was a little puzzled by your recommendation for the 2001 vintage of Napa and Sonoma Cabs in your recent Cabernet issue. I am not clear on the "drink" directive you made and need some additional advice. I have 6 cases of various 2001 cabs most of which were recommended by WS to be drunk as far out as 2012. Your recommendation for the 2002 Cabs was "drink or hold" and most of those 8 cases of cabs I have were indicated to be drunk as far out as 2011 to 2013. Please help me understand the difference and whether I need to start "drinking up" the 2001's. Thanks.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  November 11, 2006 7:16pm ET
Ted, a lot depends on how you like your Cabernets. If you enjoy the upfront fruitness and richness of the young wines, then you might be disappointed if you wait a decade. If you like mature wines, then you're fine. The drink windows depend a lot on the actual wine. If its a wine with track record for aging, that's a factor. That said, most of the best 2001s and 2002s should drink well for up to 15 years, if properly stored. If you have a few bottles of each wine, I'd be inclined to try them (especially if you haven't) just to make sure they're what you want to age. Finally, I encourage readers to drink their wines earlier rather than later. And the note I wrote describing the wine is more in line with what the wine tasted when I reveiwed it. In 10 years it will be different.Also, see this:http://www.winespectator.com/Wine/Archives/Show_Article/0,1275,5077,00.htmlThat help?
Joseph Romualdi
Woodbridge, Ontario, Canada —  November 11, 2006 7:24pm ET
James, your question should be "do you drink it or sell it?". We all have a bottle or two which we've held far too long. Why? When a bottle reaches its peak, it should be drunk without regret, or sold (for profit, if possible) so someone else can enjoy it.
Robert Fukushima
California —  November 11, 2006 8:52pm ET
I figure that I am going to drink it someday, let that day be the 'right' day. I tmay be just sharing a special bottle with family, toasting a unique or special event, or simply the bottles time has come. The situation has arisen where I have finished off a case, or half case of a favorite wine and not been able to replace it exactly, oh well, time to go out and find something new, this is not altogehter a terrible thing. I have a few one off bottles of exceptional quality, at least as far as others have indicated, I was not able to afford more than one of each. I just hope that their time is up before mine.
Arne Skog
Kenmore, WA —  November 11, 2006 9:30pm ET
Is Wanda your wife? Remember that MASH episodewhen they opened a bottle after the last person in the group died they had saved from when they were all together?
Ted A Hunt
Fort Lauderdale, Fl —  November 12, 2006 7:38am ET
James- Thanks. Helps a lot! One last question then; does your recent vintage recommendation of "drink" for 2001 indicate that 2001 Cabs are maturing earlier than 1999 and 2002?
Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  November 13, 2006 10:39am ET
I took a step back and said .. "I'm not going to buy any wine nor drink any at a restaurant over 50$ for an entire year". I sucked it up saved 3k$ and bought a case of the 00' lafite. I have a 5 year program now where I pop one on the date it arrived (give or take a month when I force friends to come over and drink it). That being said, it's been worth it, and alot of pain not getting anything else for a whole year.
Bert Pinheiro
Baltimore Maryland —  November 13, 2006 12:58pm ET
James if I have one bottle of wine I will save it, if there is no more available, to drink witha couple of friends. If it is still available Iwill drink it now to see if I like it and buysome more. I am saving my last bottle of 1997Antinori Brunello for next May when James Suckling said it would be at it's peak.
John B Vlahos
Cupertino Ca. —  November 13, 2006 1:21pm ET
I agree. From my experience, wine can be unpredictable, so if you only have one bottle of a particular wine, better to open it with a few friends in an informal setting wherein you have explained to your friends that you you've been told that the wine is exceptional and that you will open it to find out. If you have more than one bottle of a particular wine, then the first one you open will tell you how to treat the rest.
Paul Manchester
Santa Cruz, CA —  November 13, 2006 1:27pm ET
Jj, I just turned 40 also, if you would like to send me a 66 Latour I would be happy to have it and then let you know exactly how it is.. just kidding of course. Seriously though, I've shared many a good bottle with family and friends, at home & at restaurants. My opinion is that it's always been more enjoyable at home with a few special people. You can take your time, eat & drink at your own pace, and see how the wine devolopes over time. I also enjoy the whole procedure of preparing the food together, fellowshipping and sharing the love. I've also noticed what James pointed out, restaurants tend to make powerful food that can overwhelm an older wine. I recently had a 1966 Trotanoy with soft Brie-type cheeses and was surprised how well they went together. I say keep it simple, you want the wine to be the highlight not the food. So enjoy that lovely bottle and let us know how it went. PM
Gerard Buffo
Hartford, CT, USA —  November 13, 2006 2:31pm ET
I really have no dilemma because I know that great wines get produced all the time and that wine is meant for sharing and consuming. I guess a dilemma might arise if I thought all the great wines of the world have already been produced. I always share a great wine. I have a small cellar (about 800 bottles), mostly domestic red, that I invite friends to pick whatever they would like to drink. I never lament the choice.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  November 13, 2006 4:18pm ET
Ted, no. That reminds me that it's time to flip over the calendar and change the drink windows. Surely the 1999s are drinking well. As for 2001, I think they're delicious now; some may be tight and closed. Best bet is to open a few and see how they taste to you and let us know.
Joseph Karpowicz
Stony Brook, NY —  November 14, 2006 9:35pm ET
Hey Gerard, can I be your friend? Only kidding, that¿s a great system. My wife and I have had this same predicament as everyone else here as we started collecting wine a few years ago. Although we do share the Jordan/Raymond Reserve/BV Reserve and other 30-40 dollar bottles w/friends, we are inclined to drink the "vintage" bottles with just ourselves in front of a warm fire. It is a bit selfish, but the way she figures it, she has a hard enough time competing with me for a second glass, if we had other people around she can forget it all together.
Ted A Hunt
Fort Lauderdale, Fl —  November 15, 2006 8:25am ET
James - Thanks for the help! Enjoy reading your columns, reviews and blogs. Gosh, do we really need to drink them? Can't wait. By the way, on another subject, my wife, Linda and I dined at Frasca on 10/28 and Cyrus on 11/5. We were blown away. Ted

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