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Thoughts on Open That Bottle Night

We all have our preferences in the wines we drink, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that through the years we also develop strong preferences in the way we drink wine and how we mentally process what we drink, especially if we’re in the wine and hospitality trades.

I was thinking about this last Saturday night when I participated in my first Open that Bottle Night at Walter’s Steakhouse in Wilmington, DE.  OTBN is lovely popular tradition started by Gaiter and Brechner in 2000 when they were at the Wall Street Journal.  The idea is that friends gather on the last Saturday in February to each open a special bottle – whether a vintage treasure, a family heirloom or a special gift – and tell the story behind each bottle.

There were about 25 of us gathered for a delicious six-course game menu – consommé, duck, rabbit, bison and venison – as most of our treasures were red wines, though not all.  Once we assembled, local wine impresario sans portfolio, Mike Barko, graciously acted as our sommelier, putting the diverse wines – we brought an ’85 pairing of Cabernets from Ridge “Monte Bello” and Diamond Creek “Red Rock Terrace” – into flights of 4 or 5 bottles for each course, including the goat cheesecake dessert.

The names and the wines were spectacular – ’65 Château Margaux, ’55 Prosper Maufoux Pommard, ’95 Dom Perignon, ’61 Cos d’Estournel – but I soon lost track of trying to write down each name as I enjoyed the food, chatted with friends and tried to take only a sip or two of each wine, as I had to drive home later.  And I had a great time.

But it also reminded me of why I had not attended a OTBN before.  As much as I enjoy these events as social affairs, for me the wines are not fully appreciated as we don’t have time to give them the individual attention they deserve.  I would much rather have split the one big dinner into four intimate ones of four couples, each meal with five or six special wines – my favorite way to entertain and be entertained.  Let the wine develop in the glass, taste it with this food and that food, discuss it leisurely.  But I also realize that many people prefer a gathering of riches – the more famous bottles the merrier, nights that will be remembered, at least until the next one comes along.

Similarly, I have a good friend who can’t leave a wine fair without tasting every wine at every table, no matter how long it takes, whereas I will sample one here and one there, then get bored waiting for him to finish.

Similarly, I generally avoid walk-around trade tastings.  Say you have a group of Italian producers, and each one has 6 to 12 wines at his or her table.  Go for a red that interests you, and they ask plaintively, “Don’t you want to try the whites first?”  Ask for their prized bottle hidden under the table, and, if they don’t know you, they look at you like at you like you’re Silvio Berlusconi “friending” their teenage daughter on Facebook.  Plus, the tables get so crowded that you can’t have a good conversation with the winemaker or owner.  Add the public, and it becomes worse.  Yet, I have colleagues who can do great work in this atmosphere and love the college-bar atmosphere.

Instead, give me a walk-around, say, of a couple of dozen producers from Pessac-Léognan showing their latest vintage or two of the château red, and I’m the happiest person on earth.  Everything is manageable, plus I also have a chance to chat and take notes.

At formal tastings, either at a restaurant in New York or at a winery in Napa, where the wines are poured in advance, my preference is to quietly concentrate and taste every wine, then discuss them.  Some other writers prefer the opposite – talk and ask questions as you taste.

Then there is the matter of blind tastings.  Nicolas Mestre, who runs the annual tastings of barrel samples at Primeurs in Bordeaux, tells me that writers are equally split as to whether they want to taste the regional panels of 20-40 wines blind or to know what they’re drinking.  Both are accommodated.  My preference is to see the labels because I like to mentally compare the new vintage from those châteaux that I follow to their previous vintages.  Blind tasters feel they can be more objective if they know nothing while tasting – although I’m sure some go back and adjust their notes accordingly!  (I’ve also written before about the different methods in atmosphere and procedures when I taste by appointment at the various first growths – be assured that Latour, Lafite, Haut Brion, Ausone, Cheval Blanc and Petrus are as distinctive in how they show their wines as in how they make them.)

Still, I will probably attend the Open that Bottle Night in 2012 – if invited – and will resolve to pay more attention, take better notes and try not to let my not-clinically diagnosed adult ADD (some call it impatience) show too much.


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