A Ghost Bottle Appears Just in Time: It’s Open That Bottle Night!

Has anyone ever broken into your home and left a bottle in your wine closet for safe-keeping? Don’t be too quick to answer that. We would have laughed it off, too, and then this happened:

We don’t have a giant wine cellar. We live in Manhattan and, in any case, we buy wine to drink, not collect. Still, we’re down to just under 300 bottles now. We study each one as we get it and John carefully catalogues every bottle, as he has for about 50 years. We were looking for a bottle with dinner the other night and there it was: a 1997 Zinfandel from Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma. It still had its price tag: $8.99.

(Dottie with our 1997 ghost bottle from Buena Vista Winery)

This bottle is a complete mystery. We had a very memorable experience at that winery once, long before we had children. Then, when the kids were young and didn’t yet complain too much about visiting wineries, we returned to Buena Vista. It had interesting wines for us and cool historical artifacts the kids could look at while contemplating the tantalizing mystery of what happened to its Hungarian founder, Ágoston Haraszthy, a pioneer in winemaking in the United States who disappeared in 1869 in an alligator-infested region of Nicaragua. Kid bait! 

But we swear we have never seen this bottle before. And it is not catalogued anywhere. There’s only one explanation: the break in! What should we do with such an old bottle with utterly unknown provenance? Is it still good? Are there evil spirits inside (yes, we just watched “The Curse”)? Maybe Haraszthy’s generous ghost just really, really wanted us to have it. Then we realized the good news: Open That Bottle Night is just around the corner, on Saturday, Feb. 24. Perfect.

We created OTBN in 1999 (a quarter-century ago) because readers kept asking us the same question: I have this one very special bottle of wine that has great memories for me; when should I open it? We realized everybody has that bottle and the only way we were ever going to pop the cork was to take a deep breath and do it together.

Since then, OTBN has become a global celebration of wine, friendship, love and life (and even a question on Jeopardy!). It will be celebrated this year from Smyrna, Ga.; to Carlton, Ore.; to Nuriootpa, South Australia. While we appreciate that these wines should be opened as often as possible because no one is promised tomorrow, the official date for OTBN is the last Saturday of February, when we all need a break.

In Australia, Small Victories Wine Co. and the famous Elderton Wines, which are owned by the Ashmead family, celebrate OTBN with their own wines and others. Said Jess Ruciack, the digital marketing manager: “How many times have we all said ‘we can’t open that tonight, it’s too good,’ or ‘we’ve put that away for a special occasion’? Has that occasion ever come? So, we’ve started making the occasion with OTBN!”

What will they open? Said Allister Asmead, part of the second generation now helming the winery: “I am loving how our current release 2022 Neil Ashmead Grand Tourer Shiraz is tasting right now. From beautiful old vines, planted in the 1950s, the wine is dedicated to our father, so on OTBN I am looking forward to opening the first vintage of this wine from 2008. This is a perfect wine to pull out of the cellar and share with friends to remember and reflect on the good times past, present and future.” 

(Allister Asmead of Australia's Elderton Wines is opening a 2008 Neil Ashmead Grand Tourer Shiraz.)

In Austin, Texas, KC Dignan and Jim Allan host an OTBN party around their pool every year and ask bring people to bring at least one bottle that fits into one of these categories: enjoyable, special or scary. Everyone presents their bottles. “Whoever brought the bottle tells the story while I pass it around for a sample for all,” Dignan said. “In 2021, we had a wine from that much-lauded epicenter of wine: Nebraska. And it was from that all-too-sought-after vintage: 1999. Yup! Don’t be jealous.”

She wrote: “Many other stories about wines from the vineyard where they got married (while she was pregnant with child), wine from special trips, wine from significant moments, like when ‘we’ closed on our first house.” 

“It’s all about the stories!” she added. “And isn’t that what wine is about, about the moments and stories in life that make a life worth enduring, that make life special?”

We couldn’t say that better ourselves.

In Smyrna, Ga., the Oenophile Institute is holding a special class for OTBN on older wines, and is expecting about 18 people. Chelsea Young, a wine educator who owns the institute, will open five wines with some age to discuss how best to enjoy them. (It’s $65 and open to the public.)

“Anyone can sign up and they are also welcome to bring a bottle to share,” Young said. “The event will also include an educational component about what makes a wine ‘cellar worthy.’

“Life is fleeting,” she added. “Now is the time to experience great wines with friends and the community.”

What will she open? “I've been holding on to a few bottles that were meant to be opened after I passed WSET Diploma and after my acceptance into the Master of Wine program. Unfortunately, I let those moments pass. So OTBN will probably include a ’99 Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape and a couple early 2000’s Pax Syrahs.” 

When we attended the International Pinot Noir Celebration in Oregon last year, we happened to drive by Flâneur Wines, a lovely spot in a former grain elevator in Carlton. We picked up a bottle of Pinot Meunier, which was excellent. As it happens, Flâneur is hosting an OTBN celebration for its wine-club members and their guests (on Friday, Feb. 23). Members are encouraged to bring any wine that is special to them and the winery will provide pizza and some library wines. “Each time a special bottle gets opened, we will call out the member who brought it and let them say a few words about the wine they brought, if they wish,” said Amelia Dobbes, the director of marketing at Flâneur and daughter of Joe Dobbes, founder of Dobbes Family Estate Winery and Wines by Joe in Dundee.

(OTBN 2023 celebrants at North Carolina's Golden Road Vineyards)

In North Carolina, Golden Road Vineyards has made OTBN a major annual event that sells out early. This year, the owners, Crista and Chad Guebert, will use the occasion to present a new wine, called Slàinte Mhah, Gaelic for “good health.” “We are SO excited about this,” wrote Crista. “It’s Chardonnay aged in Scotch barrels from the Ardbeg distiller. Our bourbon barrel aged red blend wine is a big hit in our tasting room, and Chad wanted to try aging a wine in scotch barrels and found some Ardbeg barrels (his favorite scotch brand) from a cooperage in Maine…I guess this is where it all started. If I may get candid with y’all, when Chad started talking to me about this, I was like ‘I dunno about this…,’ but after a few tastings I am sold. I’ve never had anything like this before.”

Good point there: OTBN isn’t just about revisiting memories; it’s also about making memories, looking forward. What will you enjoy on Open That Bottle Night? There’s still time to make that hard decision and – who knows? – maybe you will find a ghost bottle. We will let you know about the Buena Vista. We also have our eyes on several other bottles that have always been too special to open. We will advise.

Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher conceived and wrote The Wall Street Journal's wine column, "Tastings," from 1998 to 2010. Dorothy and John have been tasting and studying wine since 1973. In 2020, the University of California at Davis added their papers to the Warren Winiarski Wine Writers Collection in its library, which also includes the work of Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson. Dottie has had a distinguished career in journalism as a reporter, editor, columnist and editorial writer at The Miami Herald, The New York Times, and at The Journal. John was Page One Editor of The Journal, City Editor of The Miami Herald and a senior editor at Bloomberg News. They are well-known from their books and many television appearances, especially on Martha Stewart's show, and as the creators of the annual, international "Open That Bottle Night" celebration of wine and friendship. The first bottle they shared was André Cold Duck. They have two daughters.

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