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1986 Fontanafredda Barolo

The White Whale

ImageWhen Carol first approached me about doing a feature like this on our website, I was actually quite flattered…and a bit intimidated, too.  After all, Carol is an accomplished columnist with years of writing experience and while I have been documenting our wine experiences for almost ten years now, those little vignettes are generally only read by friends and family.  So while I’ll always be the second-best writer in our marriage, I will give this a shot.

Carol gave me the same advice that Roger Simon gave her when she started her column “Schott at Sunrise” back in 1985…”write what you know.”  And although I’ve really only been interested in fine wine since 1998, I actually have read quite a lot these past ten years, drank even more and I have become the go-to guy for my family and friends when it comes to picking out a wine gift or selecting a bottle at a restaurant.  What I haven’t told them is that it’s pretty hard to go wrong, really.  I mean I know all the rules…red wine with red meat and red sauces, white wine with poultry and fish.  But as so many of our great New World vintners and sommeliers have now concluded, it’s okay to drink what you like while you eat what you like.  So while I do personally tend to follow the old axiom, when I don’t, I find that the world doesn’t come to an end.

So, write what you know, huh?  Perfect, I’ll write about the great wines I’ve had, great single malt whiskies I’ve tried and great beers I’ve enjoyed while meandering down this hedonistic life I’ve been fortunate enough to carve out for myself.  And while I make no claim to any accuracy of taste, I will honestly share my opinion with the reader for better or for worse.

Where to start?  Easy.  I’ll start with the best wine I’ve ever had…my white whale, if you will.  One disclaimer should be proffered at this point.  Or better yet, let me start with a baseline explanation of the life of a bottle of wine.  Each has a finite existence, as if it were a living thing.  Open a bottle too soon and it may taste overly fruity and young.  Wait too long and it may taste old and tired.  But open one in its prime, just at the exact right moment and it will release to you, its makers intentions perfectly.  It can be a religious experience…or at least a life-changing one.  We had that once.  And I remember it so well.  July 30, 1999. 

A friend and early wine mentor of mine told me about Barolo pretty early in our wine experiences.  Knowing that we liked Chianti Classico and Cabernet Sauvignon, he suggested that if we could find a Barolo for under $20 that would be a good deal.  That was actually more than we were spending for a retail bottle of wine at that point but we did keep an eye out.  On an excursion to a wine shop in a nearby city, I saw my first bottle of Barolo…a 1986 Fontanafredda.  This was early 1999 and to my novice mind, that seemed like a rather old bottle of wine.  I asked the teenage “wine expert” on duty that Saturday morning and he wrongly informed me that Barolos are aged in barrels for ten years and that he expected that the 1987 or 1988 vintage would be in soon.  Taking my friends advice, I paid the $16 price and along with a number of other selections that day, I brought the bottle home to our newly constructed wine cellar.

As I said, we opened it that July and just let me say, it set the standard for every bottle of wine we’ve had since.  Maybe it was at its absolute peak, maybe we were just really inexperienced, maybe it was the barbequed ribs we had with it, maybe it was the company, maybe a little of all that.  But it absolutely blew us away.  I remember Carol’s analogy that night, “If this were music, it would be Andrew Lloyd Webber.”

Over the years, we’ve found other vintages of Fontanafredda Barolo, some younger, some actually older.  I found three that were on offer from The Rare Wine Club, the ’82, the 78 and the ’71, which remains in my cellar at this writing.  We’ve also had the 1990, 1994 and the 1997.  And while they were all quite good, none took us where the ’86 did that summer evening.

So let me share this final thought with you here in my very first step into this new world.  Maybe we’ll never experience that kind of wine again.  Maybe it was my white whale.  Maybe the 1997 Opus One and the 1998 Penfold’s Grange I have in the cellar now and which hold so much promise for me, will fail to clear the bar set all those years ago, too.  And you know what?  That’s okay.  It’s come to me over the years that we should really just relish the magic when it happens, enjoy the moment and never, ever expect it again.  Yeah, I know, that goes for more than just a good bottle of wine. 

Enjoy the “good life” every time you can.  You never know, there may be another white whale out there waiting for you.  Cheers!

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