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The What and Why of a Vertical Wine Tasting

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According to the Wall Street Journal, "The vast majority of wine in America -- estimates range from 70% to 90% -- is consumed within 24 hours of purchase." But you're not reading this wine column to learn that we're an instant gratification society, do you? If you're busy quaffing Two Buck Chuck, there's no point in laying any bottle down to see how it ages.

If you are willing to spend some money on wine, it's not just for fun to see how they age, but it might also be well worth doing as they do actually change. For instance, a Napa cabernet sauvignon might be a terror of tannins upon release, so astringent you nearly pucker, but if you let the bottle age, time will tame that beast for you, and eventually give you something rich and structured.

This gets us to the joy of a vertical tasting. That means having the opportunity to taste the same wine (same winery, same varietal, same vineyard), over several years of its production. It's a way to discover where wine is at a different time and place, and how a growing season affects grapes in that wine. For instance, can you actually taste the difference between a 2012 Santa Barbara County wine -- a year of early rain, lots of sun and warm temperatures, and thus a big yield of fruit -- and a 2010 Santa Barbara County wine -- an unseasonably cool summer that lead to lower yields? You might be able to taste the difference if you taste them side-by-side. Thus you learn how average weather conditions end up in your wine glass.

Thanks to a very generous friend, I recently had the opportunity to take part in a vertical tasting of seven Flying Goat Cellars' Dijon Clone Rio Vista Vineyard Pinot Noirs from 2005-2011. Norm Yost, the winemaker at Flying Goat, is one of the most respected men in the business in Santa Barbara County, and this particular wine comes from a choice spot in one of the county's choicest appellations, the Santa Rita Hills AVA. What happens in the exact same spot, year after year, that's expected to both maintain a certain level of quality and get better? (Life isn't easy for a winemaker.)

Remember too that it's still a generally held belief that American wines don't necessarily age well compared to European wines. Much of that is because Europe's generally got older vines, too, but they've also got a tradition. (And Europeans don't mind drinking a 35-plus-year-old Burgundy and saying how much they prefer flavors of pencil lead to the long-gone fruit.) And, alas, the 2005 Flying Goat was a tad past its prime, not showing the amazing vibrant fruit of more recent vintages.

But then you get to taste the bell curve that is peak point for a wine. For my palate the 2010 was the star -- full of spice, but still more deep red fruit than anything else -- with the 2009 a close second and the 2011 still a bit tight. It seems bottle aging lets a wine loosen its bones. So maybe five years is a good time to wait on that Santa Barbara pinot? Better buy at least two bottles so you can be happy now and hide the other one away.

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