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Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. Steven is co-author of Exploring Wine, which has sold more than 125,000 copies, and was nominated as Best Wine and Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation. Steven is also co-author of WineWise, a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world, which won both the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Beverage Book and the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Award for Best Wine Book of the Year. He is also the author of A Sense of Place, a history of Napa Valley's Niebaum-Coppola / Rubicon Winery (foreword by Francis Ford Coppola) that received the prestigious Versailles Award for Best American Wine Book in 2000. He is a contributing editor and the wine columnist for The Valley Table and Salon.com. In 2007, Steven Kolpan was named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. He has been a member of Slow Food International for 20 years. Steven Kolpan lives just outside of Woodstock, New York.

Drink Up!

Recently, an old friend stopped by to say hi and just to hang out for awhile. I realized that although we had known each other for almost 35 years, and we counted each other as a best friend, it had been some time since we had a chance just to talk -- to shoot the breeze -- to laugh at memories of the old days and the absurdities of the new days. In my post-9/11 life I have begun to realize all over again how important friends are, and how much magic there is in good and honest conversation, especially with someone who has known me for my entire adult life.
As day turned to night we talked about dinner, maybe grabbing a bite at a local restaurant. I wanted to keep the momentum of this reunion flowing, so I suggested dining in from whatever I could scrape together from my fridge and my larder. Let’s see: a rotisserie chicken I picked up that morning (just warm it up), Brussels sprouts (shred and sauté in olive oil), and a fresh salsa of grape tomatoes, cucumber, cilantro, and baby vidalia onions (lickety-split in the food processor). In less than 30 minutes, while my friend Bob checked out the day’s events on CNN, dinner was ready.
Such a simple dinner calls for a simple wine, right? Maybe a crisp Sauvignon Blanc to play with the salsa and bring out the rich sweetness of the chicken, and the earthiness of the Brussels sprouts. Dry Riesling would work, so would Gewurztraminer or Viognier, or maybe a Tavel rosé or light red: Valpolicella Classico, Rioja Crianza, Beaujolais-Villages, a regional Bourgogne or Côte-du-Rhône. I had all these simple wines, and more, to choose from; any one of them would work with the food.
Then it hit me.
I really wasn’t thinking, or maybe I was thinking but not feeling. Easily, almost mechanically, I was pairing the wine with the food, but in a vacuum devoid of the meal’s social context. This was, after all, a special occasion, a spontaneous reunion. I was welcoming my old friend at my table after a wonderful and meaningful day, and all I could think about was wine-and-food dynamics? No, I could do better. A lot better.

I said to Bob, “Let’s drink a really great bottle of wine with dinner.” By his smile and his enthusiastic “All right!” I could tell we were both on the same page. He understood that this simple meal was about to become an exceptional repast to honor our long and enduring friendship.

I admit to having more than a few special bottles in my cellar, set aside for broad celebrations and intimate seductions. As I gazed at dozens of wonderful wines I began to realize that any time true friends (new or old) and family (beloved or merely tolerated) break bread in my home, these treasured bottles should grace the table. Some of these wines are rare, many irreplaceable, but not nearly as rare or irreplaceable as the most important people in my life.

I found what I hoped would be the ideal wine: 1990 Louis Michel Chablis Grand Cru “Les Clos,” a very fine white Burgundy from a great vintage. This is twelve year old Chardonnay without even a whisper of oak, preserved in all its glory by its alcohol and its acidity. I was a bit nervous that the wine might show serious signs of oxidation, but the color was ideal: greenish-gold without any hint of browning. I served the “Clos” in Riedel crystal Chardonnay glasses, just a little cooler than cellar temperature, in order not to numb the delicate nuances of aroma, bouquet, and flavor. The nose was superb: green apples, fresh cut grass, pear, white peach, all wafting from the glass in a singular, sexy, and harmonious perfume. On the palate, the wine was pure nectar: smooth and full-bodied in its attack with a rich vein of grapefruit/lemon acidity for balance, and a finish that seemed to never end. Perfect.

We agreed that the wine enhanced every aspect of the food (the pairing really was amazing, almost a force of nature), but what was so much more important was that sharing this irreplaceable wine together enhanced our conversation during dinner and tied anew the already-strong bonds of a lifelong friendship. What started out as a day to “just hang out” became an important and memorable benchmark of renewal.

So many wine lovers are the stewards of rare and wonderful wines that they are saving for a special occasion. In a world where every day we are increasingly reminded how fleeting life can be we might want to re-examine the concept and definition of “special occasion” to make it more inclusive, more elastic, more fun. Get those bottles out of the dust of the cellar, stand them up in the light of day, and bring them to your table that evening to enjoy. Opening and sharing a rare and wonderful wine makes the food taste better, the conversation more sophisticated (or at least the same old stories become bearable), your dining companions more attractive. Even close friends and family members witness, perhaps for the first time, that you and your home exude a glowing warmth and generosity.

In the preceding paragraph I call wine lovers who cellar a treasured and rare wine “stewards,” not owners. Legal standing aside, can one really “own” great wines? Unless you get inordinate pleasure from looking at or stroking bottles with labels, you “own” very little until that labeled bottle is opened, until that wine is drunk. If you collect wine to re-sell it, you merely steward that wine from the previous cellar to your cellar to the buyer’s cellar, and the only pleasure is profit; you might as well invest in pork bellies or any other commodity. As anyone who has ever tasted truly great wine can attest, it is a magical elixir that provides pleasure so far beyond dollars, pounds, or euros, that the sale of fine wines and the enjoyment of fine wines do not even inhabit the same pleasure universe.

Those of us who love to drink fine wines are also stewards. We keep our treasures buried in a cellar-- or in a convenient closet -- until such time as we are ready to offer these treasures to the worthy. When we have taken our pleasure by giving, sharing, tasting and talking we once again own a labeled bottle, a mere talisman of the occasion for which the wine was consumed. We only “own” the wine for those few momentous moments when we experience and internalize the pleasure, the “rush” of those precious sips.

I wonder if we, even the most wine-stained among us, realize how truly rare is the opportunity to taste great wine. 96 percent of the wine produced in the world is made to be consumed within one year of its harvest vintage; 99 percent within two years. This leaves one percent of the wines produced in the world that can age. The overwhelming portion of this wine will be consumed within five years. You see where I’m going with this.

No more than one-tenth of one percent of the wine produced in the world is destined to be among the treasured classics. Fortunately, the equivalent of about 15 billion bottles of wine are produced every year, so about 1.5 million bottles from each worldwide vintage might be keepers. This collection is diminished even more: by the relative quality of the vintage; reputation of the producer; the wine futures market, especially in Bordeaux; the auction block; the finest restaurants who get first dibs on treasured wines; the generally rich and powerful who, if they want to, can always get there first.

We the many, who are neither so rich nor so powerful, can afford very few of life’s Large Luxuries. Occasionally, we purchase or perhaps receive as a gift a Little Luxury, a fine bottle of wine, a wine to be shared with the right people at the right time. Now is that time, a moment that will never come again, so don’t wait for that “special dinner.” Make tonight’s dinner special; special for the one you love more than any other; special for your kids home from college; special for the friends whose support you rely on and who rely on you; special for the folks who don’t always feel so special, but you know they are. Sharing your finest wines creates a very special atmosphere, as the table becomes a place not only for celebration, but also for meditation.

With our first look, our first smell, our first sip, we are transported to a place where riches and power run a distant second to pure pleasure, and for that brief shining moment we are as rich as the richest person, as happy as the happiest, and power just doesn’t matter.

STEVEN KOLPAN is Professor of Wine Studies and Gastronomy at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. He is the author of A Sense of Place: An Intimate Portrait of the Niebaum-Coppola Winery and the Napa Valley, which was awarded the Best Wine Book of 1999 by the Versailles (France) Book Awards. Steven is the co-author of Exploring Wine, a definitive wine text now in its second edition, which was nominated for Best Wine &Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation Awards.

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