When is a wine truly finished?
These are the crazy things that I think about while I’m driving along highway 97. It’s amazing I haven’t had a serious accident lately.
What I mean is this: When a car rolls off the assembly line at Toyota, it’s finished and ready to be used. It’s the same with any other manufactured product. In the art world, when a painter is finished a painting, it’s done. It’s a finished work of art that won’t change noticeably over time. A book is an author’s finished work. A photograph is a photographer’s. A sculptor’s final work can last hundreds of years as statues.
When a chef finishes a dish, it must be enjoyed at a particular time. Wait too long and the food gets cold or worse. There’s a short amount a time for the finished product but at least it is finished and in a presentable state.
So when is a bottle of wine a finished work? When it’s in the bottle? Just bottled? After 6 months? 6 years? Wine makers are artists of a sort as well (some of them really act like it sometimes) and it must be more than a little daunting to know that the wines that that they make will be received completely differently based on when someone opens the bottle. How many times have you bought a wine from a winery only to hear them say, “Save this one for about a year before opening it.” You won’t hear that after buying a bottle of beer, or a cola at 7-11.
There is no real definitive time when a bottle of wine is actually finished. Like a chef’s meal, it won’t last forever but some wines are capable of lasting for years.
Music is another art form that seems like it should have a more finished product but it isn’t. When is a piece of music finished the way that the song’s composer wants it to be? In Bach’s time, was the manuscript the finished work of art? Nobody can hear a manuscript – it needs to be played by a musician. So is that first performance the finished piece? Or is it the tenth? We’ve had commercially available recordings for only the past century so. Are the recordings the final product? Which recordings? The original vinyl version of Sgt. Pepper’s, the CD version, or the mp3 from iTunes?
What’s the Point?
Maybe that’s the point. Maybe that’s why wine is considered to be a grand metaphor for humanity. People change and evolve over time the same way that wine does. No, we don’t lose our acidity and tannins, but we have moods and changing situations that make us react to various stimuli in different ways from day to day. We are ever evolving until the day we die. There is no definitively finished or completed human, there is always room for change of some kind (improvement, education, enlightenment, etc). The variations can be small, subtle, and barely noticeable, but over time will become obvious.
We see the changes in children more quickly because they are young and their growth (physical and intellectual) is immediately apparent. One day they can’t talk, the next day they can say words, and the next day they can tell you why they should be able to climb onto the roof of their playhouse when they were told in no uncertain terms not to do that.
This whole idea is a direct result of my recent 8-year Nota Bene vertical. As I opened the bottles, some wines were aged beautifully – complex, aromatic, and smooth – while others were clearly on the young side. They were all Nota Bene but which was the real finished product? To me, the ’07 stood out but the ’05 was pretty good too. The ’12 was still showing it’s youth but was also a great tasting wine, albeit at a different stage of its life. I was concerned that some of them would be too austere for drinking this early but I needn’t have worried about it.
Just like a young child, the ’12 had changed noticeably over the past 10 months. When I first tasted the ’12 last April as part of staff training at Black Hills, it was not very complex, lacked a little structure, but was strangely smoother than previous vintages at the same age, which I ascribed to the dominance of Merlot in the blend for this vintage. Over the next 7 months, I smelled or tasted it daily for nearly 5 days each week and noticed how it changed month to month. Some of it was based on my own tasting but some of it was also based on customers’ reactions, which itself was widely variable. I had one customer say that he preferred his Nota Bene to be super-mature and was only now drinking his ’02’s! Many indicated that 5 years was about they most they could handle, more because they just couldn’t wait more than that to open it. I have a sneaking suspicion that the vast majority of the customers from last summer will have gone through all of their wines by the time next summer rolls around.
Nota Bene has a reputation for age-worthiness but the wine culture here seems to endorse early drinking rather than holding on to wines for to a more mature state. To be fair, most wines aren’t meant for long-term ageing but if the wine culture drinks everything young, then why bother?
Let me be clear here – I think that there is nothing wrong with drinking age-worthy wines young. It’s all a matter of taste and whatever each person wants to find from that ‘finished product’ is a personal choice. The gentlemen that bought a recent vintage of Oculus to open “tonight at the camp site” obviously knew what he was getting into and choose that wine for that reason. (If I could choose to do that with a bottle that was $90 at the time, maybe I might do that more often as well…) That ’12 Nota Bene did taste quite amazing last summer in August. It also tasted beautiful 3 full days after my vertical party, so it does have some staying power. I am interested in exploring the idea of what exactly that ‘finished product’ is, if it even exists at all.
This is part of its nebulous nature and is what keeps us interested in it. Famous wine people like Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson, and Robert Parker probably all still love wine even after spending a lifetime putting it under a microscope. What other beverage can claim this? It is unlikely that there will ever be as many publications about tea or connoisseurs of root beer. (Perhaps a flawed exampled – have you tried the one at Burger 55?? Damn…)
Get on with it
I suggest that wine is not ever a ‘finished’ product like cheese or a car or a can of cola. Wine’s evolutionary nature combined with our own makes for endless possible points for intersection. Person A can taste a wine on Day X and hate it while Person B might love it. If Person A had waited a few years until Day Y, it may have been the best wine they’d ever tastes, maybe even their ‘epiphany wine’.
As if wine making isn’t already full of variables, the elusive ‘finished product’ seems to take it all to another level. The unpredictable nature of it all seems to be part of the attraction. Here’s to hoping that this never changes.
Cheers from wine country!