The Wine: Grgich Hills Cabernet Sauvignon 2001
The Grapes: Primarily Cabernet Sauvignon
The Region: Napa Valley, CA
Pairs Well With: Braised red meats, stewed beef, aged blue cheese: simple, hearty fare
Stay Away From: Overly complex meals (can overwhelm the subtle flavors – this is a complex wine)
You Will Like It If: You are familiar with mature flavors in wine, you want a classic Cali cab for the cellar
Stay Away If: Young, robust, overdone cabs have been your favorite
Cellar Potential: Best now – 2015+
Ruth doesn’t know it, but she saved my life.
The airplane was small; I felt bent almost double shuffling down the aisle. Cold glances met my apologetic gaze as my bags knocked into passenger arms, shoulders, knees. With two seats on each side, this was actually the biggest plane I had ridden all day, but a harsh Milwaukee wind actually seemed to rock the small vessel as I sought my seat in vain. It was a tiny plane and a rough day for flying: sunny but very windy and obviously unstable. I passed a pale, visibly shaken man making more than cursory glances at the plane’s safety manual. As the aircraft swayed in the wind, he seemed to be memorizing the pamphlet as his key to salvation.
It took only a matter of seconds, but my walk down the aisle was a long one. Boarding pass in one hand, I held the remnants of a small bathtub of soda in the other. About halfway through the plane, my bladder had an epiphany: the soda would not be happy for long, especially on what promised to be a bumpy ride. By the time I found my seat, liquid was sloshing around my innards with alarming force.
And then I saw Ruth, a rather tall, frail lady of 80 at least, glaring up at me from the aisle. Yes, the window seat opposite hers was my destination. Yes, she would have to get up so I could sit. She stood up resignedly, harshly knocking her head into the overhead bin. She winced, made no sound, but looked at me coolly. I could feel piercing blue eyes on me as I shuffled past her, and she informed me under her breath she had been hoping to make this flight alone. I should be ashamed, she chuckled harshly, to call such an old lady out of her seat.
Crammed next to all my fellow passengers, I was alone in my agony. Ruth was next to me, rubbing her head dully and muttering. The lavatory was screaming my name, but how could I ask this lady out of her seat again? No, I would have to wait it out.
With this realization, I began to wonder about the physical limits of the human bladder. Mine seemed to swell beyond comprehension, and the otherwise short 50 minute flight stretched before me for ages. Maybe my impending humiliation would at least warrant some sort of award. Would there be a prize for being the oldest passenger to ever wet one’s pants mid-flight? How about highest-altitude embarrassment?
As I settled in my seat, Ruth gave me no mercy. Spindly fingers reached out to me in introduction. She offered no name and simply inquired why I was headed to Cincinnati. Was I a native? Just visiting. Too bad – she lived in the area all her live, and it was a great city. Hearing my hometown, she looked at me pityingly and her face seemed to soften. She was familiar with the area, and no matter, we can’t help our origins.
As an apparent peace offering, she pulled out a picture of a young woman. The Milwaukee trip, from which Ruth was now returning to Cincinnati, had been to attend her granddaughter’s high school graduation. The blue eyes took me prisoner again, and the interrogation seemed to resume. The picture was thrust in my face, and I was given no mercy until I agreed her granddaughter was ‘quite a looker.’
Having bonded over the photo, I was apparently an enemy no longer. We talked throughout flight, each telling our stories. She had an array of interesting friends and family, many now deceased. Her three children had found spouses of varying quality, and some could be tolerated easier than others. The various grandchildren had now all left prep school but were now of course embarking on a series of marriages and college graduations. Ruth worked in real estate for most of her career and still pursued work on a semi-retired basis. A tumor in the back of her leg made it tough to get around, and it was in a wheelchair that I would see Ruth shuttled from our flight.
Ruth was a fascinating lady, sharp in every sense of the word. Tall and angular, she was quick with a wan smile and a quiet giggle, but she was never boisterous and seemed to keep things close to the vest. Ear-length brownish hair darted back and forth as she was quick also with a pointed nod, seeming to glean more from my statements than I intended.
Ruth and I parted ways on the tarmac, our plane too small to warrant the use of a jet-bridge. She was seated in her wheelchair as I adjusted my luggage. I reached out to shake her hand, but she gave me more of a youthful hi-five. She said my wife was a lucky lady, I noted my spouse still needed some convincing (that set off one final smile). I shouldered my luggage and went on my way, now only vaguely aware the first stop would have to be a restroom. Without Ruth, mine would not have been a dry flight.
The whole experience with Ruth was a rather philosophical one for me. The human being is a complicated animal, and it seems we all live diverse, interesting lives. It was my pleasure to have the chance to get to know Ruth, if only briefly. But Ruth admitted time is a fleeting thing. She was planning a party to commemorate her parents’ anniversary, but another party five years down the road might not happen. She did not know if she would even be around, although with that same quiet smile she said she was planning on it.
Ruth was not shy about talking about her advanced stage in life, but I felt lucky to have met her at specifically this time. Maybe she didn’t move around as well as she once did, but this point of life was one of reflection. I met not a robust young life but a complex full one.
As is my wont, the experience got me thinking about wine. I hear more and more concern about drinking wines at a certain stage in life, as though there is a definite window when maximum enjoyment can be sucked out of any given bottle. The concept is especially important these days, as so many wines are made for early, quick enjoyment. Wines are often almost prostituted to us: we are meant to have only a quick, superficial experience with a flashy product with little greater character.
As I sat waiting for my shuttle, I started thinking about the 2001 Grgich I recently tasted. At almost 10 years old it’s not considered an old wine, but it’s getting there. What makes the wine exceptional is its unquestionable ability to age. It already shows mature of menthol, leather and mint notes on the nose, which carries over to notes of loam, cassis and sage on the palate. It is medium bodied and already showing just a hint of tawny brown at its edges, and the tannins are still pronounced but very well integrated. The finish is very long and balanced, and the menthol and some ripe cherry nuances are pronounced.
Overall, the wine shows signs of maturity but shows enough structure and balance to keep it for several years to come. In fact, one might say this wine could be ‘over the hill’ sometime midway through this decade, but the wine will have new secrets to tell for years beyond. And that’s what makes this wine a great reminder of the benefits of ageing wines – even as mature wines lose some qualities, new unique nuances develop.
I have read several reviews of this wine, and the literature continues to frustrate. Number lovers would quail at some of the low scores given to this wine, and I often see it described as thin, coarse, and green. I really don’t get it. Was the wine too young when initially reviewed? Did the wine pundits just not like its style? Probably a bit of both, although I still find it laughable that we try to quantify something as complex as a bottle of wine.
We certainly don’t try to quantify ourselves. I wonder how we might score Ruth. She was rather coarse and blunt, and it took much more than a quick sip to figure out all the complex aspects of her nature. And she was no doubt an evolving person, not necessarily better or worse but very different than the person she was several years ago.
So the lesson I take from Ruth and from the Grgich cab is this: let’s focus more on the subtle complexities of aging wines rather than worrying about whether they are good vs. bad, young vs. old. Even a young wine should be tasted as a reflection of its stage in life. Are we drinking a great wine way before its time? Or have we found one that probably had more to say 10 years ago? In either case, would this be such a bad thing, or can we still appreciate the experience?
In short, each wine has something to offer, if we take the time to find its qualities.
All content and photographs © 2010 jb’s pour house