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Kershner: New wisdom from old bottles

A bottle of 1966 Bordeaux. (Jim Kershner)
A bottle of 1966 Bordeaux. (Jim Kershner)

Our friend Caron Campbell visited last week and brought us a memorable gift – and an even more memorable metaphor.

It was a bottle of red wine, but not just any old bottle of wine. It was a 1966 Chateau Mouton Baron Philippe, a Grand Cru from Bordeaux. I’m not entirely sure what Grand Cru means, but I know it means something grand.

And as I examined the classic old label, it became clear that “Baron Philippe” was actually Baron Philippe Rothschild. The name Rothschild on a bottle of wine must be good.

Caron found this bottle in her dad’s basement in Portland when she was cleaning out after his death last year. He had purchased it decades ago and put it away for … well, for some imaginary perfect moment in the future.

For him, that moment never arrived, because that bottle remained quietly resting in his basement.

So for Caron’s dad, the metaphor seemed to be obvious: Don’t put off life’s pleasures perpetually into the future. You never know how much future you have left. If you don’t fetch that bottle out of the cellar, you will go to your grave without ever knowing the taste of a 1966 Baron Philippe.

Yet as Caron set the bottle onto our kitchen counter last week, that wine transformed itself into a different metaphor, one that seemed almost the exact opposite of the above. That’s because Caron declared that the perfect moment had arrived to pop Baron Philippe’s cork. Suddenly, we were about to discover what a fine Bordeaux tastes like after mellowing and ripening for 45 years in the bottle. It had become a metaphor for the glory, not the folly, of deferred pleasure.

I rarely have the discipline to experience this kind of pleasure. I would say that the average amount of time that I age a bottle of wine would be approximately three days, or five days for the dregs in the bottom of our box-o-wine. If I had somehow scored a 1966 Chateau Mouton Baron Philippe in, let’s say, 1967, it would have been long gone by the time Apollo 7 was launched, which is to say, 1968. (Also, I would have gotten kicked out of Isaac Newton Junior High, since I would have been 14).

Most of us do not have the discipline to put something away for 10 years, much less 45, although we have heard that deferred pleasures are sweetest. Even with something like wine, which is the classic “gets better with age” item, most of us just buy a bottle and knock it back like a bottle of Coke.

So it was with a sense of occasion that we gathered around this bottle of Baron Philippe, corkscrew in hand. Pictures were snapped. We made a ceremony of removing the foil – and that’s when we had our first hint that all was not well. The cork was dark and discolored. The bottle’s neck was covered with deep purple stains.

Hmm. Then I applied the corkscrew. The cork was soft and soggy. Half of the cork broke right off, requiring a second delicate operation to extract the bottom half. We all looked at each other.

I poured Caron the first glass. It was … well, not the color you usually associate with wine, unless you shop in the “brown” section. Our hopes, like the wine itself, had turned sour.

Suddenly that wine had transformed itself into yet another metaphor, one related to, but not identical, to the first: Good things are worth waiting for, but 45 years may be a little ridiculous.

A 1966 Bordeaux might have been approaching greatness in 1986 and may have reached perfection by 1996. But by 2011, it had leaked through the cork.

Brought back down to earth, we all took tentative sips of this ancient brown liquid. It had oxidized partially, and it had a slight vinegary tang. But after a few sips we raised our eyebrows and all had the same thought: This isn’t all that bad.

So for the next hour or so, we happily polished off the bottle. Maybe the old Baron had seen better days, but who were we to quibble? The wine still tasted more like wine than vinegar.

So maybe there was fourth metaphor, too, or at least a moral: Even when life hands you a bottle with a rotten cork, you can still enjoy the wine.

Reach Jim Kershner at or (509) 459-5493.