by Clare Tooley MW

The Passing

Hard not to crave and seek, magpie-like, the shiny brightness and vigorous fruit burst of a brand-new wine. We open our bottles within hours of purchase and revel in instant gratification. I am as seduced as the next person by the cherry bonbon crunch of a Beaujolais and the blackcurrant compote note of a Petite Sirah not yet a year in bottle. I love the gentler flower-meadow Picpoul as much as the rasping green-grassiness of a Touraine Sauvignon Blanc. I savor the stony, lemon zest-lined quinine-bitterness of Assyrtiko just as I do the egg-custard nutmeg baking spice of a Chardonnay tasted straight from the barrel. These primary aromas and tastebud awakeners appeal to my human desire for all things fresh and pander to my preference for ignoring the passing of time.

This evening’s glass, raised in tribute to Simon Staples, a friend taken too soon, needs to be something of a different ilk, however.  Something more profound, something with age, as an emphatic reminder that time does indeed pass, all too quickly.

We met in London in the 1990s. We were young, just stepping into our wine shoes. He called me ‘Tools’, and plenty of other unmentionable nicknames over the years, in his eternally lovely-lewd, irreverent way. I was playing at the broker role while he was mastering it thoroughly, mercilessly, always merrily. Over the subsequent years, as I struggled with the MW, he simply opened the bottles, and thoroughly KNEW wine.

More than three decades have passed since those heady days of London trading. Right now, it feels like a blink of the eye. When did you last open a wine bottle that was more than 30 years old? Was there a faint uneasiness, a minor anxiety, that the wine would no longer be ‘right’, past its prime, shot, figuratively bled dry? A similar sense of nervous anticipation has sometimes bothered me when approaching a personal reunion yet melted the moment I leant in to embrace and reconnect. People change as do wines, in the ageing process. Yet while their architecture and circumstances evolve, their core remains, as does what you always loved about them.

I loved that for years he teased me like a brother. I loved that we posh-dined in cities and nosh-dinnered with my family at my home in Bordeaux. I loved how much he understood and took his trade seriously and yet never, ever, failed to make me, and countless others, laugh. He never flattered me nor the wines he bought and sold, yet always made me feel better just as he elevated the labels he promoted. I loved how much he loved his wife, Sarah. My heart goes to her today.

Recently, I tasted two wines from Stag’s Leap Cellars approaching their 50th birthday. As a child of the ‘70s, tasting wines ‘my age’ is a revelation. I note the tawny rim and degradation of aromas from flower-in-bloom to pot-pourri dust. But rather than write words that describe a palate in mourning with faded fruit, and hollowed out core, I choose to call glory on the incense on the nose and the loosening and sagging of tannin weave. Rather than complete a tasting note that reads like an obituary, I write the eulogy. I choose to highlight the crumbling structure as a revelation of the wine’s natural acidity. I experience it as letting the light in to an aging wine, rendering it luminous. In this case, the wines’ core still gently reflected what I love about fine Napa Cabernet Sauvignon; sweetest ripe fruit from sun-baked days bathed in the freshest acidity from Bay-brought ocean air. Leaning in to taste decades of ageing, the reconnection is instantaneous. In a blink of the eye, a sip and a swallow, what I considered a Library bottle, becomes an energizing and revitalizing experience.

I think my friend would prefer me to call glory on our shared life experiences and remember our crossing paths wreathed in the brightest of lights. I will open a great claret in his honor, of course. It will be aged but superbly so, undiminished, and I will raise it to all in the trade and beyond who, like me, will miss him greatly.

Photo by Juan Trujillo Andrades

Leave a Reply