Dan Berger

Dan Berger

Rummaging around in our underground wine cellar the other day, looking for a wine to go with a modest Wednesday night dinner, I pulled from the rack a bottle of an illustrious Super Tuscan, a Sangiovese blend from the 1985 vintage.

I almost forgot we still had one, so suspected it could be really tired. Like most athletes, even the best red wines get fatigued at 35 years of age, especially Chianti types like this one. Three things dissuaded me from opening it, none related to its age:

— I’ve identified it as a wine to serve to Bob and his wife. I had hoped it would be excellent, which these Italian wine lovers would appreciate. But because we’re all self-quarantining these days, that evening we were dining alone.

— Even if the wine turned out to be spectacular, a bottle of it was too much for just the two of us — and at age 35, any leftovers would be undrinkable the next day.

— Opening a possible classic for just the two of us seemed wrong. Special wines should be shared. I know of no wine collector who consumes classic wines alone. It’s just not done.

(Legend has it that President Richard Nixon violated this principle while in the White House. In 2012, Wine Spectator editor Ben O’Donnell wrote: “Nixon favored Château Margaux; they kept a bottle on hold for him at all times at the 21 Club… the waitstaff had been instructed to pour cheap stuff for his dinner guests, obscuring the label with a napkin.” One tale says Nixon’s guests got the cheaper, un-prestigious Mouton-Cadet.)

So my ultimate decision with the ’85 Italian red was obvious: We’d wait until the coronavirus pandemic wanes. When we can get together with friends again to share special bottles, we’ll re-establish joint dinners, especially with certain wines targeted toward specific friends.

That led me to muse about how social distancing has radically changed the way we dine – which affects our normal wine consumption patterns.

Without proof, I now believe that total wine consumption worldwide has taken a serious hit in the last two months, and I suspect it’s likely to remain depressed for many more months. One reason: we’re not joining with others for meals, in or out.

We can all guess why internet wine sales in the last several weeks have been huge (wine.com’s business is booming). But this doesn’t necessarily translate into consumption. Much of the buying probably is by people stocking up in anticipation of an imminent national stay-at-home order, which could disrupt wine supply lines.

I believe people are enjoying less wine because social distancing has robbed us of conversational meals. Among the world’s beverages, wine probably elicits more conversation than any other beverage, with the possible exception of some esoteric microbrews (“what hops were used?”) and perhaps coffee (“the beans came from where?!”).

And lacking dinners with our convivials, dining becomes simpler and shorter.

Whiskey and other “ardent spirits” typically aren’t associated with philosophical or romantic soliloquy. (Perhaps in Ireland?!) Beer is often associated with raucous, rowdy behavior, beach parties, sports venues – and volume consumption.

By contrast, a Corton rarely is equated with roadside sobriety tests or egging the neighbor’s garage. The worst downside of Corton: terminal snobbery.

As much as we miss the wine and food of multi-person meals, so do we miss the dialogue — and how much better most wines seem when shared. Once we’re past romantic, tête-à-tête meals, those shared by two people often are simpler, as are the wines.

We have many special wines we’ve saved for special people – an old Riesling we want to share with Daryl, a 1977 Cabernet we’re saving for Mike, a 1964 Barolo we want to share with Steve, as well as 1978, 1981, and 1984 red wines we’ve amassed from my three sons’ birth years.

We have opened one for each birthday we’ve celebrated over the years. And though we are running low on the 1978s, we opened a Marcarini Barolo from that vintage in February to commemorate Marc’s birthday. It was awesome.

Self-quarantining also reduces the number of celebratory events, which clearly hurts sales of sparkling wines and Champagnes. (Bubbly sales this June will be hit hard, I suspect.)

As for dessert wines, before the current crisis, they were infrequently part of dinners. Now, I imagine, they’ll simply be abandoned until parties can resume.

This doesn’t mean we’ve discarded consuming all older wines. Looking through our cellar carefully, I saw some treasures that weren’t the last of their kind. Among them were some wines of which we had several bottles, dating back to the 1970s.

It took me a while (sometimes my mind works like a clock with a dead battery) to realize there was a great strategy to employ. We’d drink some wines of which we had plenty, starting with those bottles with low fill levels.

As wine ages, even in perfect conditions, some bottles lose tiny amounts of liquid (leakage can be a cause). In those cases, the headspace – the empty spot just under the cork, called ullage – gets larger. If the ullage isn’t very great, perhaps an inch or two, the wine may be fine.

Once the ullage becomes four inches or more, the wine can be harmed. There are no hard and fast rules about this.

Recently we opened a bottle of a 1979 Louis Martini Cabernet with a three-inch ullage. The wine was spectacular. We have two more bottles of that wine, both with higher fill levels.

Under self-quarantining, we have generally switched to younger wines, leaving older ones for a better time.

To that end, we’ve begun reviewing some of the 2019 rosés now hitting store shelves. Most may have to be purchased from on-line retailers and shipped. That is likely to be the new normal for wine lovers for the next several months.

Wine of the Week: 2019 Domaine de Cala Rosé, Coteaux Varois en Provence ($17.50) – One of the nation’s most, acclaimed chefs is Joachim Splichal of the Patina group of restaurants in Southern California. He knows wine better than most chefs ever do. So I was intrigued to learn he and his sons, Nicolas and Stephane, had acquired a 650-acre ranch (140 planted acres) in France’s Provence to make a dry rosé. To guarantee the quality of the wine, he hired super-consultant Stèphane Dererencourt to assist with the blend. This 48% Grenache, $35% Cinsault is brilliant, barely salmon-tinged in color and about as classic a south-of-France rosé as it ever gets. Delicately floral with hints of strawberry and white peach, it is dry but not angular. Its 12.5% alcohol makes it a classic with lighter foods or by itself for those who appreciate lean tastes. We’ll have a lot more on Provence rosés soon.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.