COMMENTARY

The Long Goodbye

Bid adieu to untapped cellars

By Ken Friedenreich

If readers search the term “dead parrot” on Google, the first entry retrieved is a clip from Monty Python — as it should be. This sketch remains one of those comic old chestnuts like Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on first?” or the sounds rising from Jack Benny’s cellar vault.

The Python bit revolves around a customer’s complaint to a pet shop counterman. “This parrot is dead.” To which the employee retorts, “No, it is just resting.” And the euphemisms and denials continue until the customer insists, “This is an ex-parrot!”

My recent holiday season included its own dead parrot variation around a turkey and all the trimmings. A cuckoo clock in the room sounded as we ate — as if Harry Lime were pouring the wines.

The experience was made stranger by fawning over these once-stellar Burgundies from a reasonable vintage. I thought no one at the table would admit these Amazon Blues were, if not sincerely dead, then at least in critical condition.

As the song says, “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em; know when to fold ’em.” How long are we to hold wine and is there “too long,” when the wine stalks the living like George Romero zombies?

The answer? It all depends — suggested by several examples drawn from real life for which great comic bits above are reflections.

First, consider the numbers.

Trade groups have determined about 8 percent of all wines purchased by U.S. consumers are cellared for future consumption. The rest deplete as the dinner bell rings — a relatively small amount stays around for breakfast.

Given my avocation, I move through circles of people from a certain demographic. They’re relatively affluent, if not indeed wealthy, and were legal drinkers when the U.S. left Vietnam for good, and no one knew an AVA from the PTA.

Many of my peers could purchase wines for modest prices at the time; while today, such wines morph quickly into collectibles. Now revered, these once-cellar starters appear in lots auctioned at Christie’s by hedge fund bandits.

Cultivating a wine collection has its challenges though: They grow, demanding more and more space, and owners usually do not outlive their wines — I really hate when that happens. But the cellar can also survive what’s collected within — I see dead parrots … everywhere.

Assembling a collection or stocking a cellar generally expands over decades. As these bottles age, so do collectors; it’s common for some wine to escape notice for years. Since purchases may be secreted from one’s spouse — acquisition can be a surreptitious exercise — the odds favor losing wine that goes far past its prime.

Successful collecting must include the ability to call out vintages before the so-called parrot goes wheels up without a squawk. Now, owners of cellars can access the Internet before deciding when to drink their collectibles.

The standard wisdom percolating around the web offers recommendations like stock analysts. “Buy and hold.” This wine is “at peak,” which means “drink now.” On the other hand, as the apogee recedes, they suggest “selling” or otherwise disposing of the wine considered — drink or dump.

These considerations occur far from the vineyard, where winemakers are well aware of the aging potential in each wine and vintage. This isn’t crystal ball gazing but a reasonable inference based on experience with the fruit and its sources. Acidity, alcohol and residual sugar all play roles in the lifespan of a well-crafted wine. Over time, one reveals structure, the next holds the wine intact while the third offsets the other fundamentals and, sooner or later, contributes to the harmony of the full expression of the varietal in context of its terroir.

The idea of the cellar as a whole takes precedence over the constituents of the collection. If one liberates a prize bottle for tonight’s meal, the empty slot will demand a replacement to maintain the symmetry. People who collect wine realize they’re a bit crazy but make light of it.

On the rare occasion someone asks me how long to cellar a wine, I suggest they imagine looking in a mirror 10 years from now. “If you like what you see in the mirror, maybe the wine is ready.”

If you find a wine you enjoy and purchase a case, perhaps label it with “drink now” reminders at varying intervals. Use one color label to indicate two years; another, five; and another, 10. The fun is in the comparisons of other wines classified the same and, of course, with the wine from the original case.

Don’t forget what the color tabs mean lest your cellar takes on the angst of a “Dark Shadows” re-run. 

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