The modern wine lover is a rather educated fellow — she knows grape varieties and regions well, is familiar with individual estates and vintners, and may even prefer a specific vineyard block or winemaking technique. But with all that intel, what’s the next educational frontier? Where does he go now to further his oenological intrigue?
To me, the answer is age, as in drinking older bottles of wine. Though Americans reportedly consume more than 90 percent of wine within 24 hours of its purchase, those who have patience to sit on a bottle for five, 10, or even 20-plus years will find much to enjoy.
Not only do older bottles offer exotic, occasionally mystical aromas and flavors that young wines can only dream of — think shaved truffles and exotic mushrooms, gamy charcuterie and funky cheese — but these are one of humankind’s only opportunities to truly taste the past. There is, of course, a bit of gambling involved, for not all wines are built to withstand this test of time. But those that do survive reveal far more about the staying power of a vineyard or prowess of a winemaker than the latest release does.
Thankfully, wineries do a much better job than consumers of saving these liquid time capsules. A growing number are also pouring and selling them regularly, such as The Ojai Vineyard (ojaivineyard.com), which offers more than three decades of vintages for sale at its Ojai tasting room. Those on the hunt would also be smart to reach out to dealers like Industry Wine Merchant (industrywinemerchant.com), where I’ve picked up a few gems lately, including a 1987 Qupé Bien Nacido Vineyard Syrah (which I proclaimed on Instagram as possibly my favorite wine ever), a 1986 Richard Longoria S.B. County Pinot Noir (which was enjoyed while camping on Santa Cruz Island), and, for my 40th birthday last September, a 1977 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. Just last week, I picked up four bottles of Babcock syrah from the late 1990s. Even Wine.com offers old bottles for sale.
But you needn’t even go whole bottle, which can be pricey, to dip your toe into this trend. Five years after opening the wildly successful Bar Covell in Los Feliz in 2010, Santa Barbara–raised, Los Angeles–innovating sommelier Matthew Kaner opened Augustine in Sherman Oaks, where vintage flights became all the rage.
The idea quickly spread north to Pico inside the Los Alamos General Store, where proprietor Will Henry started offering a “Unicorn Flight” of vintage wines upon opening in early 2016. Many of the original bottles came from the cellar of his father, Warner, who founded The Henry Wine Group, a seminal brokerage for many small California wineries. But dad’s cellar isn’t bottomless, so Henry is getting “more creative” in searching out old bottles from wineries and collectors.
That search must now intensify, as Henry just brought his unicorns to downtown Santa Barbara. Last month, he opened The Wine Shepherd, a wine bar, bottle shop, and tasting room for Lumen Wines, the brand he co-owns with legendary vintner Lane Tanner. It’s located at the corner of Anacapa and Ortega streets, connected to Black Sheep Restaurant.
“We have a long friendship with the owners of the Black Sheep, and we love their food and what they do, so this is a nice complement to that,” said Henry, who is also serving Pico’s house-made charcuterie there. “I’m really trying to find wines that have some age on them and really are drinking at their peak, as opposed to being consumed on the way home from the liquor store.”
That includes bottles from Napa and Sonoma as well as Europe, but also plenty from the Central Coast, which aligns with the Henry family mission to promote this region’s wines. “The whole idea is to focus on the small, family-operated outfits that have commitment to quality,” said Henry, explaining that philosophy came straight from his father. “These are not mass-produced, supermarket McWines.”
On a visit last week, Henry’s wife and business partner, Kali Kopley — who also owns a bunch of wine bars in Tahoe — poured me the current Unicorn Flight, which is always $36: a 1988 Murphy-Goode Alexander Valley Merlot, a 1999 Longboard Vineyards Russian River Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and two Lane Tanners, the 1996 Bien Nacido Vineyard Pinot Noir and 1999 French Camp Vineyard Syrah. Instead of the fresh berries and sharp spice we expect from new bottlings, these wines all revealed deeper sensory mysteries: earthy chocolate, peppered saltines, smoked fruit, dry-aged meats — the essences of yesteryear.
PRESQU’ILE’S LIBRARY NIGHT: While not quite so old as The Wine Shepherd’s offerings, Presqu’ile Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley is opening its library this Saturday, July 6, at 6:30 p.m., for an exclusive tasting. For just $45, guests can tour the property with the father-son ownership team of Madison and Matt Murphy while enjoying the winery’s first vintages of chardonnay and pinot noir from 2009, 2010, and 2011. I’m hoping to see much more of this progressive backward thinking in years to come. See presquilewine.com.