In his book Cellaring Wine, Jeff Cox wrote about what he called “Christmas boxes.” These are cases of odd bottles that he believed would benefit from a little age, but that weren’t part of any organized cellaring process.
When I’d visit a wine store or market and find an interesting bottle, I’d bring it home and place it on its side in the appropriate case. When a case became full, I’d close the top, circle it with strong strapping tape, and write the year it was to be opened on all sides of the box.
Of course, when the boxes are ready, I no longer remember what I put in them. So every box, especially the long agers, is like a vinuous Christmas present.
Since reading that, I’ve kept a case in the basement to drop odd bottles into. This weekend, we opened one that had been sealed up, as best I can tell, in 2004. Besides interesting wine, an added benefit of opening a box like that is nostalgic perspective. Most of the bottles that came out of the box brought back a story, a place or people that were, perhaps, more significant than the wine itself.
The first bottle out was a 1997 Cavallotto Barolo Riserva Bricco Boschis. I’d forgotten completely about it, and when it came out of the box my memory lit up like opening the door into a shuttered room. My parents, who’d retired to the hills above Austin, Texas, were experiencing the first of a series of health problems that ended what had been their blissful retirement. I was visiting, bucking-up their spirits and mine, keeping my dad from driving my mom nuts with endless talk of doctors’ appointments and medication schedules. I spent four or five hours a day with my laptop and phone in a stripmall Starbucks, keeping my business back home alive. Next to the Starbucks was an unpromising wine shop (“All Yellow Tail 40% Off!”). I wandered in out of boredom and, after passing down aisles of branded Chardonnay, came face-to-face with a wall of Barolo.
It’s the kind of out-of-the-way find wine lovers dream about, like coming upon a Titian in a barbershop. The poor, befuddled kid sitting behind the cash register didn’t know anything about the Barolo except that it was old (he said it scornfully) and the store’s owner had acquired it when “some friend of his died.” I couldn’t afford most of it, but I bought three bottles of ’94 Vietti Lazzarito that, when I started opening them two years ago, turned out to be some of the loveliest wine I’ve ever had, with a vivid bouquet of violets. (I lost one of the bottles on a Superbowl bet, to an attorney who didn’t properly appreciate it.) I bought some other bottles I’ve since forgotten, and the Cavallotto. And I remember I hid the wine from my parents, who would have been horrified at how much I had spent.
I must have been on an Italian kick back then. Along with the Barolo were Barbarescos and a couple of dense-looking reds from Puglia that I have no recollection of at all. There were a couple of unclassified Bordeaux, one of which is a gift from a friend I haven’t seen since, and even a Malbec, put into the box to settle what had seemed an important argument about whether Malbec ages gracefully. (Result: I win! The Norton Reserve 2002 had faded badly.)
Opening the box was a festive event that we should have shared with a group of people. Next time, we’ll build a party around the box and uncork three or four of the bottles on the spot. This time, it was just my wife and I down in the basement. We cracked open the 1998 Augustus Eutyches from the Penedes, which was showed signs signs of being both too old and too young. The tannins were still sharp but the fruit had grown whispy. Still, it was a fascinating glass, a lesson of sorts, taught by the lengthening shadows of time.
There are, at this point, ten bottles remaining from my 2004 Christmas box. The Cavallotto is back in the next Christmas box, to be opened in 2015. I may pass it down from box to box until I can no longer make it down the stairs into the basement. The others will be opened with friends, stories told over dinner with people who understand wine and stories and the changes time brings to us all.
I took an inventory and I think I’ve got eight more Christmas boxes downstairs. I’ve got a ninth about ready to close, two bottles remaining to be added before the wine is consigned, for a few years, to silent darkness.
Of all the things I do with wine, this habit may be the best.