A Cellaring Bottleneck

Two wines enter, one wine leaves

I knelt in the recesses of my walk-in closet, cursing, with a bottle of wine in each hand. My new 32-bottle wine fridge had just arrived, and after ripping the packaging apart as if my birthday bicycle were inside, I had deposited the tall, rectangular thing in my closet, the coldest ambient place in the house, and set about dragging bottles upstairs.

Like the rest of America, I’ve downsized here and there, and a bit of newly created wiggle room in my budget meant that a sleek new wine fridge was in order. (The old clunker it replaces, incidentally, is being up-cycled into a home-brewing facility; stay tuned as hoppy hijinks are likely to ensue.)

Thirty-one bottles in I hit a snag: one space left for the five more I plan to age. The treasures had been tucked in place: The Italians (Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello), the vintage sparklers, the mega cabs and all the other souvenirs I lovingly lug back each summer from the Woodman family’s travels. I was already testing my roommate’s considerable flexibility by having commandeered most of the kitchen fridge for all my drink-nows and drink-soons. And so, with an eagerly anticipated chardonnay in one hand (2010 Franciscan Estate Cuvée Sauvage, if you must know) and a bottle of 2009 Joseph Phelps Vineyards cabernet sauvignon in the other, I hit an impasse.

Allow me to explain.

Earlier this spring I visited Napa, Calif., and, thanks to a good friend, was granted an audience at Joseph Phelps Vineyards (JPVWines.com). OK, it’s not as dire as all that, but it sure felt that way when I roared up to those gates for my appointment with Claude Leruitte, a broad Belgian in a cabernet turtleneck and a tan vest that commanded, “Look out—I’m worldly!”

And he was, so, so very worldly, and just a lovely man. Before I had even a sip of juice we chatted away like girlfriends for more than an hour in a private tasting salon that just 24 hours prior received Texas’ lieutenant governor. We waxed poetic about each other’s travel and the use of synthetic corks in fine wines (“It’s like foie gras on a paper plate!” he exclaimed), and then slowly wound our way through the whites, the ’06 Freestone Vineyards Sonoma Coast pinot noir and the ’09 Napa Valley syrah and cabernet sauvignon. When it came time for the biggies, the ’08 Insignia and the ’06 Backus Vineyard cab, decanting could only be done in Claude’s style. In turn, he divided each bottle into two decanters, and then, taking them by the neck, he proceeded to swirl them wildly. No delicate wine-whispering here; these wines needed air now!

The result of his efforts was, of course, an unparalleled conclusion to the tasting. I could only afford a bottle of the ’09 cab, so that’s what came home with me, but I recently got to experience the Insignia again, and sooner than expected, at an intimate dinner at Comme Ça, where I was seated with Joseph Phelps’ son, William “Bill” Phelps, at the head table.

Fortune smiled upon me as I received tasting notes directly from the man who, were he to nick himself with the steak knife, would undoubtedly bleed California cab on the tablecloth. The petite Insignia vertical (’06, ’07, ’08) justified the hefty price of the dinner, illustrating, as Bill said, “what this winery can do year after year.” As I left, it occurred to me, did I bring my one and only bottle for him to sign? Oh, no, of course not.

Back to the closet with the unsigned cab and the chard last week. It was a tough decision—vibrant apple and vanilla flavors and Carneros fruit fermented with wild, native Napa Valley yeasts; or the rich, dark fruits, pipe tobacco and licorice of Phelps’ estate cab. I made my decision and, man, is it going to pay off when the moment is right. I drank the other while I ordered a second wine fridge. It’ll be here in a day or two.