Wine in the Time of the Virus
Given current events, what’s the worth of holding onto a wine meant to age well into the future?
In most ways, Martin’s Liquors, on Route 38 in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, is a pretty typical suburban liquor store. Fluorescent light, specials on vanilla vodka, pint flasks of booze behind the counter. Lots of pinot grigio, California chardonnay, rosé, hard seltzers, cases of Bud Lime and Miller Lite and craft IPAs. All the Jersey standards. At least, that is, until you stroll past the shelves marked “Germany.” The first time I was there, I did a double take, suddenly registering that this was one of the largest selections of German wine I’d ever seen, anywhere in the U.S. And not just basic, sweet stuff either, but plenty of hard-to-find Grosses Gewächs from top single vineyards. I know the manager, Joe, from a wine tasting group we both attend, the local Philadelphia-South Jersey chapter of the German Wine Society. Joe knows his German wine, and stocks the shelves with what he loves.
Of course, the market for German wine in South Jersey is no more robust than it is anywhere else in America — meaning not really robust at all. Occasionally, Joe gets overstocked on his most beloved German wine. He must offer close-outs. And those close-outs are generally on slightly older vintages of riesling, because most people don’t ever think of drinking “old” white wine. I, on the other hand, happen to love aged whites, particularly good riesling, and that’s why I was at Martin’s Liquors recently. Joe had a closeout on a 2013 Peter Jakob Kühn Oestrich Doosberg Riesling Trocken. It’s not exactly the kind of wine that moves in South Jersey. It had been $70 a bottle. Now, it was $24.99. Deep discounts are basically the only time I can afford wines of this caliber outside of professional tastings.
I’d hoped to buy more, but Joe only had one bottle left. A Grosses Gewächs from a producer like Peter Jakob Kühn might easily age until at least 2030, or likely well beyond. I felt a connection to that vintage: I’d actually visited Peter Jakob and his wife Angela in Rheingau during the spring of 2013, as this vintage was just coming into bloom. We tasted and talked for a few hours about their biodynamic vineyards (they showed me lots of photos of animal horns filled with manure they buried among the rows) and also about how their son Peter Bernhard would soon take over the winery. 2013 was also, personally, a pivotal year for me. That same spring, I ended the spirits and cocktail column I’d written for six years at the Washington Post, and was about to launch myself down the path of wine writing — with no idea where it would lead. Anyway, since I was only able to buy one bottle, I figured I’d hold it in my basement (cellar is too grand a word for where I store wine) for a few more years before opening it.
Then, the other night, in the span of about an hour, the world seemed as though it was coming unhinged: A coronavirus case at our local hospital had been diagnosed; Tom Hanks had tested positive; The NBA suspended its basketball season; Trump declared a 30-day ban on travel from Europe. Until then, for a lot of us, the coronavirus had been something abstract and amorphous. I understood it was serious and people were dying. I had vaguely been stocking up on random pantry items, toilet paper, and Clorox wipes in preparation for extreme social distancing or quarantine, but without any real focus. I had been somewhat worried about a recent trip to Vancouver, but two weeks had passed without symptoms. I knew all the big wine trade fairs in Europe had been cancelled. But the full reality hadn’t sunk in. Suddenly, in the span of one hour, the COVID-19 pandemic and its wide-ranging effects became very real and very tangible. On the most basic, selfish level, a ban on trans-Atlantic travel meant I might lose some work. Also, my kids’ high school most certainly would be closed. More than that, it was clear that very soon someone we know might contract the virus.
At that despairing moment, there didn’t seem much sense in saving that 2013 Peter Jakob Kühn Oestrich Doosberg Riesling Trocken for some date years from now. I fetched it from the basement and popped open the cork. It really wasn’t the mood for recording detailed tasting notes, but I can say this: It was pretty damn stunning. Golden, complex, profound. For those that need notes, it was full of honeycomb, spices like saffron and sumac, nutty and salty, with this amazing rise on the palate, almost musically to a crescendo. It was one of those rare wines that has it all — rich, lively, succulent, earthy, with a long, haunting finish. It’s the kind of wine that pairs with deep, clear thinking. I sipped and swirled in silence while I watched CNN.
My son Sander, who will turn 18 this weekend, joined me in the living room. I started babbling away over the news coverage in doomsday terms. He was quiet for a few moments. When I turned around, I could see he was growing agitated and upset.
“Dad! Stop!” Sander shouted. “I can’t listen to these worst-case scenarios anymore! It’s all anyone is talking about in school! Every class we spend half the time talking about how we’ll study from home!” He seemed at some sort of breaking point, between exploding in anger or tears. I put the wine down. Not too long ago, he’d talked about how despairing he and his friends were about their future, the future of the world. But now, this was about his present — his senior year, and the trips and celebrations they’d been looking forward to for years. If they stayed home from school for a few weeks, would they ever go back before graduation? Would tomorrow be the last real class of high school for everyone? And what about college next year? He was still waiting to hear about acceptances and rejections, all while seeing on the news that universities were sending their students home. What did the next few months or even years look like?
I hugged him. I wanted to say to him that it would all be fine, all would be ok. But would it? What did anyone know right now? I’ve always done my best to protect Sander and his younger brother. We live in a small, safe borough where kids walk to school and hang out mostly in our cozy, self-contained downtown. None of that would keep the realities of this pandemic away.
Not really knowing what to say, I grabbed another glass and poured him a splash of the riesling. My son has grown up around my job in wine and spirits — he’s responsible — and though I try to be careful about the context and situation, he’s no stranger to tasting inside the home. “Taste this,” I said. Normally I quiz him on aromas and flavors. But that night, I just let him drink it. “It’s six-year-old riesling,” I finally said. “What do you think?”
“I don’t think I’ve tasted anything like it, so it’s hard for me to say,” he said.
There really was nothing to say. If there was any lesson in this wine — about patience or age or faith — I had ruined that by impatiently opening the bottle rather than keeping it. Instead, father and son simply shared a glass of the past and pondered the future.