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Lesson in a Bottle
By Robert Whitley
Sep 4, 2012
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Rummaging through the cellar early one summer evening, I happened across a long-forgotten bottle of California Cabernet Sauvignon from the 1993 vintage. It was from Rodney Strong Vineyards in Sonoma County, a reserve wine that still had the $30 price tag on the bottle.

I remembered enjoying it at one time, but I had my doubts that it had survived to the ripe old age of 19 in good condition. Knowing I would be grilling a flat-iron steak later that evening, I decided it was now or never for the '93 RS Reserve Cab.

First, I inspected the ullage, which is the space between the bottom of the cork and the wine. It was excellent, with wine showing in the neck of the bottle. Sometimes with older vintages the ullage is down into the shoulder, so a bigger gap with more air and the possibility of oxidation.

Next, I felt the capsule for any evidence of leakage. Sometimes corks that have been exposed to extreme temperature swings will expand and contract and then expand again, letting wine seep out and air seep in. Again, too much air can oxidize or spoil the wine. The telltale sign of seepage is a sticky residue on the outside of the capsule. No problem there.

Next, I removed the capsule and pulled the cork. The cork was in outstanding condition, with a deep purple crust that had formed on the bottom after years of sediment formation. There were no blue streaks down the sides, which would have been another indication of temperature fluctuation and possible oxidation.

Because it was clear the wine had thrown considerable sediment, I decided to decant using a funnel with a wire-mesh trap to catch the sediment as I poured the wine from bottle to decanter. I took note of the color as I decanted the wine. There was little browning, and all in all the wine seemed to be in perfect condition, at least from visual observation.

Then came the real test. I poured a couple of ounces into one of my best Bordeaux glasses, gave it a swirl and took a long sip.

DOA, as in dead on arrival. I had committed the cardinal sin of keeping a good wine well past its prime. Despite the fact that I had done everything right, stored the wine under ideal conditions and pampered its presentation, this wine was finished. There was no primary fruit. There was no secondary fruit. Only bitter wood tannins and aromas of tobacco leaf and dried wood.

Ugh. Diane, the Wine Talk Wife whose Twitter handle is @NoBadWine, looked at me as if to say, "Robert, what were you thinking?" She said the same thing in so many words, taking the decanter to the kitchen sink and dumping the entire over-the-hill bottle down the drain.

The lesson here is know what's in your cellar, and don't make the same mistake I did with what was a fairly expensive wine at the time it was released in the mid-1990s. I have had many Bordeaux and high-acid Italian wines that improved for up to 30 years or so. I've even had California wines exhibit profound character at 20 or 25 years of age.

But in general, enjoy your California (or any New World) cabs at the peak of maturity, before they've lost their charm.

That usually means from 8 to 12 years old. Of course, there are exceptions. But I have just learned the 1993 Rodney Strong Reserve Cabernet isn't one of them.

Email comments to whitleyonwine@yahoo.com and follow Robert on Twitter @wineguru.