Though a 2-pronged cork screw or port tongs may have been the best tool for the job, I really feel more confident with my corkscrew with most older bottles-- I like the way that I can feel the composition and texture of the cork, and when you are pulling, you get a certain tactile feedback that helps you move it just right. To my own surprise, I removed it in one piece. It was conical-- full size at the top, and slightly shriveled were it had been in contact with the wine. The cork had practically petrified into a crumbly-clay material that reminded me of playdough left out too long.
This would be a crap shoot. We'd have one of three things: vinegar, something like madeira, or actual, drinkable wine. As soon as the cork came out, a lovely perfume wafted up from the bottle-- amazingly, the wine was still good. And it wasn't just good, it was amazing. The tertiary aromas were pretty intense, lots of mushroom, earth, that smell of cold and moldy castle walls that I associate with Bordeaux, and that slight oxidation from extreme age; and there was still some fruit... I was amazed that there were still these faint hints of fruit on the nose... The wine was a brick color, but still had some dark ruby in the core. It tasted mellowed and balanced-- the tannins, flavors, body, structure, and alcohol were all singing in harmony. The wine tasted incredible, lovely, and the shear emotional rush of drinking something this old was surreal; I thought back to the Roaring 20s and how during this era the top tiers of society were enjoying themselves and the prosperity of the USA, unaware of the looming global Great Depression that would be ushered into being on Black Tuesday. The wine was great, and I enjoyed it with the innocent, carefree enjoyment with which society enjoyed the Roaring 20s; and yet, like the looming Great Depression, there was a shadow of uncertainty hanging over the experience.
I myself am skeptical by nature. Once a case of first growth I had ordered arrived with two different nail markings in the wood. (It had been opened and re-nailed). I made several calls right away and was assured it was only a customs thing. Then I took photos of the bottles and compared the labels and capsules to the same bottles that were in my friend's cellars. I check regularly to see which high end producers are taking anti-counterfeit measures, and I keep a list so I can look for these features when I order these bottles. I always compare the cork and bottle to ensure the information is the same. I track the provenance of older bottles, so I can be reasonably certain where they came from should anyone ask. I try to be as diligent and aware as possible about these issues, because authenticity is important. Wine is more than just the bottle to me-- it is a link to the producer, the land, and the year it was grown. To promise this experience to someone and have it be a lie simply takes the joy out being a sommelier. It's the difference between working with the artistic genius of someone like Oscar de la Renta, or selling bad fake Gucci knockoff bags out of a trash bag on Lexington Avenue. Selling authentic products is meaningful, fulfilling, and inspiring-- it puts you directly in touch with creative energy and passion. But when you knowingly sell knockoffs you surround yourself with darkness and filth-- it puts you directly in touch with people who are too lazy to use their own talents to do something meaningful with their life and who instead leach upon the hard work and efforts of others. I never want to be involved with a fake scandal-- you'd lose credibility as a sommelier.
But honestly, I don't have much experience with bottles this old. This was a pre-Depression bottle older than my grandparents; I knew a few markers to look out for on this old Latour, but I'm not sure that I'm qualified to verify with 100% certainty bottles from this era. The label and cork matched and appeared real, the age looked authentic and un-faked, the mold/dust crust on the cork seemed real, the shriveled cork seemed real, it smelled like Bordeaux, and I had a gut feeling that the wine tasted real as well. But who can ever know for sure?
And this brings into question the principles of pleasure. I enjoyed the wine very much-- should that be enough?
This is a question that all wine lovers will grapple with at some point in their love affair with the grape. And I think there is a different answer for each person, to be found in your own standards of aesthetic beauty. I used to think that what is in the glass is all that matters, but now, for me, what is in the glass is not enough. When I walk through the wine cellar, I don't even see bottles anymore-- I see all the people behind them, I see my friends, I think of how this bottle was his first vintage, and how she had to leave her father's estate to make the wine she really wanted, and what it felt like riding up the mountain in that back of that couple's pick-up truck to their vineyard. All of these things affect how I enjoy the wine, and why shouldn't they? I'll taste a smokey wine from a wildfire year and though I prefer the previous vintage, tasting this piece of history connects me in some way to those events in a special way. When I drink this one particular wine made by 9th generation winemakers who have vineyards on the Isonzo Pass, I can't help but marvel at how they kept their vineyards in tact during all the fighting that occurred there in WWI. For me it isn't just the wine, it is how the wine fits into the matrix of culture, history, and humanity, and this is what makes wine special to me. For me, each bottle is a piece of history and represents the unique individual philosophy of the winemaker. Once in a while I like blind tasting, but as an exercise to hone my palate. Sometimes I will blind taste and not find out what it was, and I feel disconnected from the experience. Who knows, maybe one day I will change my mind and only care about the aromas and tastes in the glass, but for now, that link to origin is too important for me to disregard.
Despite all the evidence pointing to the realness of this Latour, I'm still left wondering a small amount about the authenticity of my experience. It's funny- I never get this feeling when I drink old riesling, because I suspect that the profit opportunities for counterfeiting old riesling is just too small compared to Bordeaux for someone to take the risk. Also, I imagine it is more difficult to fake an old riesling than an old Bordeaux. This must be how any museum curator or antiques dealer feels every day-- making educated guesses but rarely entirely certain beyond a doubt of the provenance of their artifacts.