It is perhaps one of the most unusual wine purchases I'd ever made.
The guy's Craigslist post said that he had accumulated some interesting and older wines over the last few months and the prices were unbeatable, in my opinion. Late 90s Washington wines, some 05 Amavi in a magnum and a few other odds and ends. I arranged to meet him, like any smart Craigslist shopper in a public area, the Southcenter Mall parking lot. In hindsight not necessarily a safety move.
One of the wines I picked up was a 1998 Andrew Will Merlot, from Ciel du Cheval vineyard on Red Mountain. I think I paid like $20 or $25 for this wine from this Craigslist guy's trunk. I bought it because probably a year or so before this weird Craigslist ad came upon my radar I had a Andrew Will Sangiovese from 1992 and it was pretty fascinating so I thought why not give this one a try.
The bottle sat for a couple more years and it was only recently that I had the occasion to open it.
So, what can you expect from a 17 year old Red Mountain Merlot? I think it's important to first point out what happens to wine over time. First off, everything changes. Some wines age better than others. Perhaps the most often thought of wines when it comes to aging are Burgundy and Bordeaux, but German Rieslings, the really nice ones, age unbelievably, and maybe better than anything.
But none of those last two or three sentences answer the question. Over time wine is exposed to oxygen via the cork enclosure, it's permeable in a very tiny sense of the word. The wine and little bit of air inside the bottle exchanges oxygen with the air outside the bottle. Over time the wines can change substantially. If you like the wines you buy and open immediately, you may not necessarily like the same wine in 10 or so years. The fruit character often fades and gives way to earthen or herbal elements. The acids typically fade, and the wine tastes old, nuanced but certainly different. Old wine though can be pretty fascinating in their own right. Most Washington wines benefit from a few years of aging, say three, but typically top out in terms of an upwards pointing trajectory around eight years in my experience.
The 17 year old Merlot was a wildly pleasant surprise. I don't know that I would have picked it out as Merlot blind but for 17 years, the wine showed a lot of freshness. On the first pour, it was a wild color, almost like liquefied brick, and it was seemingly lacking any fruit character whatsoever. Instead the wine showed lots of earth, dust, mushroom and peat character. But that changed over the next hour or so. The strictly earthy wine went to tart cranberry and Montmorency cherry. The acid on this wine was truly unbelievable given its origins.
Typically older wines tend to drop off after they're opened. The sudden exposure to oxygen doesn't do them any favors and so they go into a quick fade. Not so with this Andrew Will Merlot, it got more interesting. Was this wine better now than it was then? It's highly unlikely as Chris Camarda makes some really nice wines, but it was certainly interesting and worth what little I paid for it to take a look. Another point of note was the alcohol percentage of the wines. It's often the case that red wines from Red Mountain are fairly big, this wine in particular is from perhaps the states most well known vineyard for producing structured, ripe wines, but the abv was 12. something. The acid was present, lively and it really delivered a somehow fresh 17 year old wine.
Perhaps the strangest part of this story, even more than the Craigslist car trunk acquisition was the cork. After about an hour of drinking I picked it up, parts of it has broken off when it was opened. It said "Guido" and had a 206 phone number on it. I started punching the number into my phone and was about to hit send when my friend Sean Sullivan stopped me. "Wait, let me see if that's still his number." It turns out it was Chris's home number and I had nearly dialed him up at 11pm.
I ran into Chris a couple weeks later at an event on Vashon Island. He chuckled at the idea that he still nearly got a late night phone call from one of his older wines. "I used to get a lot of phone calls like that, and they typically started around 10pm." He was excited to hear that the wine was still holding up. I asked what he remembered of the 98s, and he called it a vintage that produced exotic wines, and he'd had one recently. "The vintage didn't get great press and so it was slow to sell at first but eventually people came around to it. I had one the other night and they're still very interesting wines." Guido is his nickname and he's (smartly)gotten away from putting his home number on his wines these days.