Drinking Nancy's Wine
The heavy rain bearing down on New York today reminds me of another similar chilly, wet spring day. One that was spent in the company of great friends at the fanciful home of one of the most remarkable women I'd ever met. Whenever I look back on that day, the word "lucky" is the first one that comes to mind. Not only was I lucky to be there, amid such great company, but also with what I had the opportunity to drink. I'd heard tell of my friend Max's step-grandmother Nancy's insane wine stash. Her husband, Peter, was an avid Burgundy collector, with a special penchant for Joseph Drouhin wines, and he also enjoyed good Bordeaux and German Rieslings. They lived in a crazy house he designed himself, in Darien, CT, with their own cellar. He died a few years ago before he could drink them all, so the wines, some dating back to the 1930s, were now in the process of being enjoyed by his widow and whoever wanted to come by and help her drink them. She was basically spending every day celebrating the love of her life by drinking his wine. Not in a sad, mournful way, but more as an appreciation for the time they had together.
Would I like to come to CT some time and try some?
Um, what has two thumbs, no job (at the time) and a thirst for great Burgundy?
Thus, on a rainy April day, five of us went out to Darien and spent the day with Nancy. In the house her husband Peter had designed himself, with elements that would confuse even M.C. Escher.
Peter had devised a map system to relocate the wines. They were listed alphabetically with a code to their "coordinates" in the cellar, with a corresponding, hand drawn map for reference. The shelves were marked with these codes. Unfortunately, much had been depleted, but not crossed out, so it was hard to tell from that list what would still be there. But we found some gems and took them back upstairs, up the spiral staircase, which oddly was built slightly under an unusable "bridge" from the living room to bedroom. We knew there was a good chance some of the bottles would be corked or past their prime (the conditions are not ideal, dark, yes, cool and damp, yes, but still fairly open to the elements, making the bottles un-auctionable, which is fine, as they were all intended for nothing but private consumption anyway). Nancy assured us we could always make other selections if we hit a bad bottle. They had gotten in the habit of lining up the corked bottles on a shelf down there.
The first wine we tried was a 1964 Rheingau Spätlese. Hard to tell exactly who the producer is from this deteriorated label. And dig the logo! Our friend Shawn's joke: "Well, if this is wrong, I don't wanna be Reich!" The first bottle was badly corked, but we found another. It seemed a little past its prime, but once it hung out in the glass, oxidized dried fruit flavors with good acid balance came to life. Our glassware was not ideal, but it did the trick.
Next bottle was a 1969 Drouhin white Burgundy. The label was way too deteriorated to know appellation and producer. But it was full of flavor. Deep, rich apple, citrus peel and burnt sugar with good acidity. The back of the bottle had this helpful label on it. No, those are not floaties IN the wine. The bottles have a lot of crud on them. We cleaned them off best we could before drinking.
Then a 1976 Drouhin Chambertin. Quite full of flavor, despite being a tad past its best consumption time. Wouldn't kick it out of bed though, as they say.
Next up, a 1970 Jaffelin Clos du Vougeot. We couldn't tell much from the label, as you can see, but luckily the cork held a lot of answers. The wine came out cloudy, and didn't have much on the nose, but what an amazing concentration of flavor! Great fresh cherry, lots of herbs dried and fresh, including basil. This kept getting a lot better in the glass, and the aromas began to emerge.
1971 Joseph Drouhin Musigny. The first time I'd ever tried a wine from my birth year! Lots going on here. Very warm cherry and plum flavors, juicy, luscious, with some pine cone and cedar notes. Very much alive and in prime. A real thrill for me to have the opportunity to drink! Sadly, I don't have a photo of this bottle, the label was pretty far gone.
Aside from mapping his wines in the cellar, we also found out that Peter had meticulously kept much of his Playboy collection in a three-ring binders, which we easily found in a nearby cabinet. Max and Shawn happened to pull one from the early to mid seventies, with one spread, if you will, of a very young, stunning, pre-Superman Margot Kidder! Nancy sat by amused as we looked through it, at the old liquor adds, at the unabashed shots of real, untrimmed bush, at the unenhanced breastage and soft lighting. Those were the days... Glad she still wanted those around. Well, there was lots that was in essence Peter's personality around that house. As I wandered about, looking at pictures and objects, I became very moved, imagining those two around the time the wines were originally purchased, living their lives, laughing, loving, drinking, traveling. They must have been a great couple to be around.
By now it had gotten dark, and we were quite happy.
On to a 1970 Corton. The label was way too far gone to read any more about it. No idea of producer. But let's just say this bottle was quite devoid of suckage. Really delicious and well within drinking dates.
We ended with a 1964 Grand Pontet Rousan-Segla, Bordeaux. It was way mossy, musty and earthy on the nose and I was worried it would be awful. But in the glass, lots of concentrated black fruits, spice, chocolate, prune, moss (in a good way) and dirt. This was excellent right out of the bottle (note that none of the wines were decanted, but we still enjoyed them!), and kept getting better, as long as we could stand to let it sit in the glass.
By now several hours had passed, Nancy was getting tired, and my crew needed to get back into the city. We said our goodbyes and thanked Nancy again and again. So good of her to share these precious bottles and sit and drink them with us (none the worse for wear, rumor had it, Nancy would soon be enjoying a Manhattan while watching the Daily Show).
Sadly, Nancy passed away suddenly, but peacefully a few months after this wonderful day. I took comfort in knowing she went out with all her dignity in tact, living life the way she wanted to, in a house that gave her great pleasure to dwell in. Few of us are lucky enough to experience life that way. But hopefully we can all at least take comfort in taking a pause with friends, laughter and great things to drink.