‘Guess who got the wine in the divorce?’ Tales from OTBN 2024

In 1996, Amy and Michael Helton had a bottle of wine that changed their lives forever. They were headed to the south of France to honeymoon and teach for a month and they wanted to see what the wines were about. So, at a restaurant in Winston-Salem, they had a bottle of Domaine Tempier, the famous Bandol of Provence. On their trip, they were able to put together the wine and the place and they were so touched that, when they returned, they started Hanover Park Vineyard in the Yadkin Valley, one of the first wineries in North Carolina. “Our friends thought we were nuts,” said Amy. Now it makes about 1,500 cases.

Last year, they brought back a bottle of Domaine Tempier Lulu et Lucien from a trip to France – and on Open That Bottle Night this year, they uncorked the red wine and the memories, just in time for their anniversary, too. How sweet: When Lulu and Lucien got married in 1936, her father gave them Domaine Tempier as a wedding present. Amy said of Tempier wines: “They are always very special to us in so many ways.”

This is what OTBN is all about – life, friends, love and wines that tell stories, hold memories. We invented OTBN a quarter-century ago because all of us have wines that are so special to us and, in some cases, we can’t bear to open them because they are too precious. Our advice: Let those memories out. Any time is a great time to uncork those bottles, but we understand that sometimes we need support, and that’s what the OTBN community is all about.

OTBN is celebrated on the last Saturday of February, when all of us need a lift. Once again, wine writers picked up the idea all over the world, this year from Ireland to India, from South Africa to Akron, Ohio. The American Cider Association has added Open That Cider Bottle. The largest concentration of OTBN celebrations we learned about this year was in North Carolina, but people all over the world celebrated OTBN, from El Salvador to Napa and from Chicago to Australia.

In Florence, Italy, Bob and Judy Whelan were visiting from Connecticut with 40-year friends and didn’t have their own bottle, but that didn’t stop them:

We visited Il Santo Vino for two bottles of Vino Sfuso. They fill your bottle from a cask for 5 euros. We chose a Sangiovese and Vernaccia from San Gimignano for our non-red-drinking companion. We prepared chicken breast wrapped with prosciutto di Parma, carrots with butter, and tomato salad with aged balsamic. The sauce was from chicken broth, rosemary, garlic and white wine. We added focaccia from a local vendor outside our Airbnb. Both wines were perfect and we toasted the many OTBN dinners of the past while celebrating in one of our favorite places to visit. A special memory for the four of us. Salute!!”

Carmen and Arturo Thiele-Sardina of San Jose opened a 2022 Muga white from Spain, which reminded them of an awesome visit to the winery in Rioja with their family. How great was that visit? Said Arturo: “I clearly remember telling my wife later that evening that after that wine experience I could die today and be the happiest person in the world!”

For some reason, wines from Ridge Vineyards were big this year, such as the 2019 Pagani Ranch Zinfandel that Maura Murphy of Wellesley, Mass., shared, along with other bottles, with friends. “Great night with stories about work victories, trips to wine country, friends no longer with us,” she wrote.

Sue and Mike Veseth, the Wine Economist, sent a list of the wines they have enjoyed over 15 years of OTBN celebrations with friends in Tacoma, Washington. “In putting together the list Sue found that we all had very clear memories of the who, what, and when, all tied together by the stories we shared,” Mike wrote.

In the past, we heard a lot about wines from Jordan and Silver Oak, but not this year – with one notable exception. Bev and Rich Rella of Scottsdale, Ariz., hosted eight other members of their wine club, who all brought a special bottle to share and talk about. One attendee thought her bottle might be vinegar because it had been moved around a lot. Then Bev ticked off the wines they opened and wrote this: “Silver Oak Cabernet, Alexander Valley, 1996. Guess who got the wine in the divorce? And it wasn’t vinegar, it was lovely!”

These are very difficult times for many reasons and sometimes it is hard to find any reason to smile. Melanie Hawks of Salt Lake City put that into perspective:

“I almost didn't celebrate OTBN this year because 2024 has sucked so hard and I didn't think I had it in me. But I kept it low-key and just tried to remember that the point isn't to impress anyone or do the fanciest anything. The bottle of Nyetimber Classic Cuvée I brought home from London in 2017 called to me, in part because 2017 had also started out badly and ended much better. I used to joke that I had the largest collection of English sparkling wine in Utah—3 bottles at the time. Even with just the one bottle remaining, I probably still held that honor, and I was reluctant to surrender the status. OTBN presented the perfect opportunity to let go of this silly self-designation as well as some of the pain and grief that’s been preventing me from enjoying my life these last few months. I was thrilled with the wine—it’s both vivacious and serious, with zippy acid & citrus notes brightening up the toasty, slightly spicy backbone. Drinking it didn’t wash away all my troubles, but it gave me some respite and reminded me that there will surely be better days ahead.”

That might explain why this was a particularly strong year for bubbly, from Lindy and Chris Hebel’s sparkling Vouvray in Holland, Mich., to a bottle of Dom Perignon that Paul and Janet Bennett of Dallas could never stand to open. Before OTBN, Paul wrote that “it was given to us by our Realtor when we bought our house some 10 years ago. It was in a Jeff Koons box and was one of those bottles that always seemed too special to open. So a perfect choice for Saturday. I looked last night and it is actually a 2004 vintage, yikes! Hopefully it will still be good!”

So how was it? “Delicious! Dry as a bone,” he wrote us later.

Not all of the wines were still great, of course. Our cousins, Derrick and Roberta Rubin, celebrated OTBN with three other couples on Long Island and Derrick had this to say about their evening: “Great memories; lousy wine.”

In Smyrna, Ga., 14 people gathered at Chelsea Young’s Oenophile Institute to share and learn about older wines, with bottles Young provided and some they brought, from a 2012 Laurent Perrier Champagne to a 2002 Deinhard Beerenauslese. 

OTBN has always been a time to gather friends, new and old, because there is something about wine that draws people out. As Betsy Whitmore of Durham, N.C., put it: “Every wine, pricey or inexpensive, with every story, reveals a little more about the people attending.”

Whitmore used to host an OTBN party of more than 100, but time passed – and the pandemic happened – so her gathering has become smaller. Still, we can’t imagine many wine events that offer bottles as disparate as a small-production Champagne, a 19 Crimes with Snoop Dogg on the label and a North Carolina wine with a label that reads “Tractor Vineyards ‘Devil Juice.’ It’ll mow you down!!”

What did we open? As we wrote ahead of OTBN, one bottle was a 1997 Buena Vista Zinfandel, which just showed up suddenly in a wine cooler. A ghost bottle certainly seemed appropriate. It was good, though quite faded. We both felt it tasted too much of alcohol, although it was just 13.5% (low by today’s standards), and John tasted some lingering sweetness. It took us to a memorable visit to Buena Vista many years ago where something awkward happened with a group of women who may have dropped by too many wineries that day.

(Dottie with 2024 OTBN wines)

The Buena Vista was just the beginning. In 2001, on our first trip to Germany, we had dinner at a restaurant in the Rheingau region with an outstanding bottle from a winery called Peter Jakob Kühn. We called the winery the next day and asked if we could drop by (we did not identify ourselves as wine writers then or later and we do not speak German). Angela Kühn graciously greeted us in a casual tasting room off of her kitchen and poured us one miraculous white wine after another. We asked if they made a red and she said, “Would you like to try one?”

She left and came back with a wine called Pur Pur, which is primarily made from Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir). She explained that the winery has been in the family for generations, but that when she and Peter took charge, the first thing they did was plant some red grapes -- their contribution to the winery’s history. It was delicious. We bought a bottle to take home and wrote a bit about this visit in our column in The Wall Street Journal.

We have had that bottle, a 1999 Trocken, ever since. We have talked about opening it pretty much for every OTBN, but the memories of us, two strangers being greeted so warmly in a distant land, made it hard. This time, we did it. The wine was still lovely, filled with old fruit. Interestingly, it seemed to have a backbone that might have come from something other than Pinot. We decided we’d contact the winery, through its Website, to introduce ourselves, mention our visit and ask about the wine. What happened next made us realize that OTBN is a superpower because it can bend time and space.

“What a surprising message,” Angela Kühn wrote back. “How nice to hear from you again after really a lot of time has passed.” Angela said they’d framed the column and it was still on the wall and added: “I can’t count how often I have read the amusing text.”

(Peter and Angela Kühn)

The Kühns explained that the Pur Pur was 20% Dunkelfelder and that one of the synonyms for that grape is Pur Pur. The 1999 was the first year they made Pur Pur and now the only red they make is Spätburgunder, and a small amount of it. They included a picture of themselves saying hello to us and added this: “To have you with us remained in our memory throughout the years as well. Perhaps you will take a chance to come to ‘old Europe’ again and renew your visit here. We would have a warm welcome for you.”

Reconnecting, weaving those threads of life after a brief encounter more than 20 years ago -- this is so much of what OTBN is about. Long-time OTBN reveler John B. Donovan of Dubuque, Iowa, put it beautifully. He told us before the night that he hadn’t had an OTBN party in several years and was a bit nervous about it.Then, afterward, he wrote back to say: “We had a fine time and wonderful conversation and fellowship … oh, and some lovely wine.”

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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