I was once fortunate enough to attend a dinner at Downey's restaurant in Santa Barbara at which two Gaja Barbarescos were served, the 1978 and the 1985. I was foolish enough to admit that I preferred the '85. Both wines were splendid, but the younger had a little more brawn. For this, the wine's owner branded me a barbarian, the sort of simple soul that likes 'em young and fruity and has little appreciation of things like nuanced flavors and silken tannins. He still ribs me about it. Why don't I just stick to current releases?
It might have been fun to have my friend Michael along for that dinner. Michael is forever decrying the tendency of connoisseurs to rhapsodize over ancient wines, which he suspects are often little more than "tired old s---" -- no fruit, just a lot of dirt and acid. He is quick to admit, however, that his experience in these matters is limited, and he is willing to be converted by somebody else's 30-year-old Grand Cru Red Burgundy (or even their 26-year-old Barbaresco). Michael is no barbarian.
Neither am I. So far, experience has taught me that I favor youth, but youth with its rough edges smoothed out by time. The easiest illustration of this is the rapid aging (read: oxidation) that takes place in a decanted wine over the course of a dinner. Ken Avedisian, vice president of operations for the wine auction site Winebid.com, knows whereof I speak. "I can't tell you the number of times I've sat down to dinner, and by the time I'm done, the wine I'm drinking is just delicious. I'm saying to myself, 'It didn't taste like this two hours ago. Now, it's shining.' And now -- one sip, two sips -- it's gone. So I encourage people to decant their young wines. If you're drinking young California or young Bordeaux or young Rhone, decant them at least two hours before serving."
Like me, Avedisian will admit that he tends to like "young wines, sometimes very young wines." It is where he began, where most people begin. We lack the family wine cellar, built up and replenished over generations, so we start with what's on the store shelves. But Avedisian, who began attending wine tastings when he was in college, eventually fell in with a group that bought wines at auction. "Back then, Butterfields was holding auctions every two months or so. We'd have a tasting, go through the Butterfields catalog, and buy verticals or horizontals [multiple vintages of a single wine or multiple wines from a single vintage]. Then we'd do tastings with the wines we'd bought. I was tasting probably four or five hundred bottles a year with this group. It really expanded my horizons." Buying at auction gave him a chance to try wines older than what he found in the shops. He got to play around, find out what he liked and at what age he liked it.
Avedisian's interest in wine, especially wine intermingled with food and company, led him to join the American Institute of Wine and Food. He wound up chairing the Seattle chapter for several years, and four years ago he joined the Institute's National Board. Along the way, he discovered Winebid and became a customer. He still likes young wines, he says, "but I also go in and buy Bordeaux from kind of off years, '81 and '83 and '85. The prices aren't crazy, and I can pull out a bottle of '83 Gruaud Larose that I paid $40 for, and it's a really yummy wine. I encourage people to try things like that for fun. Their taste preferences start changing; they start saying, 'I'm going to drink some young, and I'm going to cellar some.' I just opened a bottle of '89 Pignan that I bought a couple of years ago for $30, $40. It was delicious, and now I'm scouring to find more of it."
When he heard that Winebid was moving its center of operations from Napa to Seattle, he gave them a call. "I had been a chief financial officer for many years, but I wanted to marry my passion and my career." Now, among other things, he spends his time creating "programs to find ways to get people to consign collections." The hunt for consigners is what brought him to San Diego recently, a visit that sent him to most of the city's wine shops and storage facilities. "Many times, if somebody wants to sell their wine, they go to their storage facility, or to their retailer. A husband passes away, and the wife has 2000 bottles of wine. She calls the retailer and says, 'We've been buying wine from you for all these years. Now what do I do?' These storage facilities and retailers refer people to us."
Other times, "We've worked with retailers when they have certain products that don't sell; we help move the stuff." Things like 2000 Cabernet.
In some cases, Winebid gets business from its own business, making consignors out of longtime buyers. "A lot of people have bought from us over the years and have then decided that they have too much wine. They can't fit it in their storage locker anymore, and they've had good experiences with us, so they call us up." There's always something new -- be it vintage, varietal, or region -- and something's got to go.
Picking what goes and what stays is one of the highlights of Avedisian's job. "I'm a collector too, and to be able to get into these people's cellars, see their collections, talk with them about the wines, and go through and pull stuff is just a lot of fun. I had a friend -- their house was being remodeled and they needed a new kitchen. He called me and said, 'I've got all these lockers, and they're stuffed to the brim. I don't even know what I have.' There was no inventory; it wasn't in any order. It took me three days to go through and decide what to do. But his stuff sold for something like 20 percent over reserve, and he got a new kitchen."
Determining that reserve is part of the Winebid service. "We've been doing this for seven years, so we have a proprietary database of over 35,000 wines. When we give an appraisal on a collection, we'll give an estimate of what the starting bid should be. I'm working with a guy right now who has got a very significant collection that includes a lot of older Italian wines. Some of them may not have been traded frequently, or recently, and our database may be a little behind. So we research what other auctions might be selling the wine for, what retail is selling it for. A wine like the 1982 Gaja Sori Tilden Barbaresco is a really unique, high-scoring wine" and may merit a premium reserve because of it. And I'll bet it's drinking beautifully right now.