Sunday, April 05, 2015

Meditations on the '51

Sooner or later we encounter the mirror. As much as we try, with makeup, with dye, with dark glasses and soft focus, time ultimately wins the race. The young ones look upon the older ones as something that is in the way or will ultimately be neutralized and discarded. Invisibility is a step along the way to annihilation. What the young ones don’t know (or don’t want to realize) is that they are on the same path as the elders who are taking up space in the cellar. So it goes.

We all have our ideas of what a unicorn wine is. That is, a wine that is rare, maybe not the greatest of the great, but when one encounters such a creature, it is a special moment. I had such an meeting last month in the Langhe, in Barolo.

For years I have read about wines from my birth year, 1951. Not a great year, according to Michael Broadbent. Maybe a Port, if one could even find such a remaining bottle. There was mention that the 1951 Beaulieu Vineyard "Georges de Latour Private Reserve" Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was one of the greats. I got close, very close, to that one. It was in Ft. Worth, Texas, in the cellar of a North Texas gentleman. But I never got the chance. The gentleman got religion, sold his collection and the wine scattered to God knows where on earth.

There has been talk that the 1951 vintage for Piedmont, and Barolo, was not bad. Not great, but still worth a search. I spy them from time to time in the cellars, but how does one go about asking the owners for a taste, for a glimpse back in time, to the time when we both were born?

I was born a few months before Barolo 1951, and thousands of miles away, in the foothills that ring Southern California above Los Angeles. Barolo, in those days, had few paved roads. Wine was a rustic matter, an agricultural product. Not like the luxury item it is these days, especially wines from Barolo and the Langhe.

And so, when Anna and Valentina Abbona surprised me one late night around a candle lit table, with a bottle of their family wine, the Marchesi di Barolo, a 1951, I was a bit dumbfounded. I had built up the wine to be some kind of a more-than-special moment. The wine, it didn’t disappoint.

Our group was trying all kinds of wines and the ’51 arrived before the dessert and the coffee. It was rather old, after all. Valentina handed me the bottle. “Here, you open it.” And there I was, confronted with the ghost in the mirror.

The cork was firm. Nature’s little miracle. As I extracted it, I realized it probably had been re-corked. This wine had never moved more than a mile, if that, from the place of its birth. A stark contrast from Mr. Million-Miler who was examining the cork. Here we were, the two of us in a dimly lit room, so much in common and so much difference between us. It was like encountering an unknown twin, shielded from my knowledge, protective parents wanting to spare both of us the harsh reality of our co-existence. As if we found out about one another something unimaginable could, would, happen.

But it wasn’t like that at all. It was rather a peaceful encounter. The cork came out, the wine was poured, not decanted, and it was wine. Good wine. Very good wine.

The color was light, as Nebbiolo should be. I remember the aroma was classic Nebbiolo. It was full of fruit. The tannins were softened by a lifetime of sleeping in the dark, in the cool.

How must it be to have one purpose, and that is to rest up for 63+ years, only to finally be opened in a party and enjoyed? That has to be a pretty meaningful life, at least in a hedonistic interpretation. But all those years lying in wait, dozing and dreaming, while the human counterpart ran across the planet seeking life and love and happiness, encountering all that plus grief, sadness, failure along with all the minor triumphs that make life bearable.

And which life appears to have more meaning? For the bottle of Barolo, I think its life was perfect. It was born, it rested, waited, matured, and in the end it gave all manner of joy and pleasure to those around the table, who didn’t realize they were attending its coming out party. It became part of all of us, and then is slipped into the Greater River.

As for its human counterpart? Well, the verdict is still out on that soul. Time will ultimately tell. But unlike the bottle of ’51, he’s still begging for a little more time.

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