I'm finishing a retrospective tasting of 2002 California Cabernets this week, most of them from Napa Valley. Revisiting wines you tasted seven or eight years ago is an opportunity to evaluate how the wines are aging and recalibrate drink recommendations.
It can also be a minefield of second guesses. There is one thing, however, that becomes obvious to those of us who routinely revisit wines we rated years ago: You can't replicate the moment.
The moment you taste a wine has everything to do with your perception, especially if your assessment is at a winery or dinner party with friends. Even in our blind tastings, always conducted in the same setting, we still can't go back to the same moment in which a wine was first assessed.
What you're left with is the wine in front of you. It's great when the 95-pointer tasted years ago is still at the same level of quality. It's troubling if a high-end 10-year-old Cabernet tastes tired; that shouldn't be the case. Each bottle is on its own evolutionary journey.
People assess wines differently in different settings, or different moments, if you will. Ever heard someone say, "It tasted better at the winery"? Or, "I've had better bottles"? My favorite: "I wonder what on earth [critic's name here] was thinking when he reviewed this?"
It's important to keep an open mind when revisiting wines as they age—past experiences influence these new moments—and that's another reason that these retrospective Cabernet tastings are conducted blind. I also taste most of the wines twice just as a measure of bottle consistency.
The 2002 California Cabernets have been by and large just as impressive as the 2001s I revisited last year. A few are stunning and look to be wines with another 20 years ahead of them. Most are drinking very well now and can age another 10 years. A few have slipped or are fading. Either way, there's no substitute for reexamining one's research, even if the results aren't what you expected or may raise eyebrows.
People who are used to big, ripe, fruity young Napa Cabernets may be disappointed with the way some older Cabernets show, but that's part of the beauty of these snapshots of a wine at age 10. They create yet another moment—one we won't be able to replicate another 10 years from now—that helps us determine just how long a life these wines will have.
And they remind us that wine really isn't so much a living thing as a dying thing.