Phelps Insignia, Jackass Zin and a Vice Bust: How the World Celebrated OTBN

Wine “has the capacity to lift us out of ourselves by its beauty. The appreciation of that beauty elevates our life through wine.”

--Warren Winiarski, on OTBN 2020

We invented Open That Bottle Night in 1999 and have celebrated it ever since, along with thousands of people worldwide. Every year is the best ever. Still, this year…

(Photo: John and Dottie with winemaker and philanthropist, Warren Winiarski, and MacKenzie Smith, UC-Davis Head Librarian and Vice Provost of Digital Scholarship. At CIA Copia in Napa.)

Maybe current events had something to do with it. Maybe the virus, the stock market and the election ahead have convinced people that the best time to open that special wine is today. For whatever reason, more memorable bottles were opened this year at more venues with more great meals than ever before. From Sauternes in Tacoma to Barolo in Los Angeles to Zinfandel in Tampa, this was a banner year for OTBN.

One of these days, when you’re feeling down or just stuck in your chair at work, go to Twitter and search #OTBN and we dare you not to smile – and get very thirsty. Among the great wisdom there is this, from Scott Bigelow of Danville, Calif.: “Remember, an empty bottle with memories is better than a full bottle of vinegar.”

Christian Gunning summarized the idea well. Christian, of Los Angeles, and his wife, Anna, invited friends over for an OTBN feast. The Gunnings opened a 1999 Salvioni Brunello di Montalcino that Christian had bought in 2006. Their guests brought a 2001 Aldo Conterno Barolo Gran Bussia that was a gift in Italy in 2009.

“On opening, the Barolo was a little tight but had more fruit, with a prominent tart cherry. It had more heft and held up to the cheese/salami plate,” Christian wrote. “The Brunello was more subtle, with dark fruit and minerals, but silky and balanced. Both evolved over the course of the next two hours, and changed considerably as we were finishing off the bottles. The Barolo finally relaxed and the tar and roses I love in Nebbiolo finally surfaced. The last few sips were pure heaven. The Brunello’s final stages were heavily floral -- like liquid violets, stunningly aromatic and delicious.

“Overall, a great showing for two wines we had long held and waited for the right moment. But it was the company of our friends that made it magical.”

More wineries and vintners took part in OTBN than ever before. At Acorn Winery and Alegría Vineyards in Healdsburg, Calif., owners Betsy and Bill Nachbaur wrote: “Our OTBN 2020 was special because we celebrated our son James and his boyfriend, Rob. Because both their birthdays are in early March, we opened bottles from each of their birth years: 1980 & 1986. 

“The 1980 was a Cabernet Bosché from Freemark Abbey, and the 1986 was a Ridge Park-Muscatine Zinfandel. Sadly, the Freemark Abbey was corked, but the Ridge was interesting, and quite good. The fruit was subdued, but it was a lovely older Zin, with an interesting vineyard history.”

OTBN was also celebrated in Prague. St. Claire’s Vineyard is part of the Prague Botanical Garden. Eliška Muchnová, manager of the wine store in the vineyard, wrote to us that St. Claire’s produces between 8,000 and 10,000 bottles each year. Its lineup is mostly Riesling and Pinot Noir. “We sell our wines only in our wine shop. Every year we save 10-20 bottles from each wine to our archive. Our winemakers can taste and observe how the wines change over time,” Eliška wrote. “Open That Bottle Night is the only occasion when people can taste these wines. Some of our customers, friends and neighbors are people who are very interested in wines. Sometimes they bring the local wine of their own production and share it with us. It is a really special evening and we enjoy it every year.”

(Photo: Prague tasting room)

We wrote earlier that Winderlea winery in Oregon celebrates OTBN every year with about 35 guests, who tell stories about their bottle. At the end of the evening, the guests vote on their favorite story. Donna Morris, who owns the winery with her husband, Bill Sweat, shared this year’s winner:

“The final story of the evening was a wild tale involving cops, robbers, ladies of the evening, car chases, and a near death experience for one of SeaTac’s finest. (Names will be withheld from this story to protect the innocent, accused and imprisoned.) Officer (name withheld) was assigned undercover duty on the Vice Patrol and was cruising a well-known area where certain men seek certain women. Our officer (OTBN dinner guest), picked up a woman in this area one evening with a wire on him to record conversations and had as well an undercover car and officers trailing him for protection. After our officer guest was propositioned, he informed the woman that she was under arrest for her proposition. The woman immediately bolted from the car and as he tried to restrain her, she knocked his glasses off of him, leaving him legally blind and stunned. …By the time his backup arrived, the woman was beating him with a knapsack she was carrying and nearly knocked him out with whatever was in the knapsack. What was in the knapsack was a bottle of 2016 Cell Block ‘Shackled Red.’ Our officer purchased that bottle as a souvenir from the annual police auction. And as you can imagine, in this case, the story was much better than the wine and was our guests’ favorite story of the evening.”

In the heart of Washington wine country, along the Columbia River, Vicki Wishman Dunn and her husband, Benn, had two OTBNs to work around the schedules of their friends. They had two Cabernet Sauvignons the first night and then wines from Italy, Napa and Washington with smoked brisket on the second. “We love this celebration of wine and memories,” Vicki wrote.

(Photo: Vicki and Benn Dunn and friends)

OTBN isn’t just about opening that bottle you’ve been saving. It’s also, sometimes, about finding a bottle that brings back memories and opening it up. And sometimes – well, let Andrew Hoffman of New Jersey explain. He and his wife, Debbie, were vacationing in Florida and spent OTBN at Bern’s Steak House. Andrew, senior executive producer of Yahoo Finance, had always wanted to taste Martinelli Jackass Hill Zinfandel – and he finally got his chance because he perused the giant wine list online and discovered that Bern’s had it. “So this was a case of OTBN not of a bottle I’ve been saving to open, but a memory that’s been waiting to happen,” Andrew wrote. 

“My wife and I drank the bottle over the next few hours paired with Bern’s classic steaks and we finally finished the last of the wine while touring their wine cellar.”

Long-time OTBN revelers Mike and Sue Veseth had friends over in Tacoma, Wash., and once again opened a stunning array of wines, including a 2013 Pengsheng Cabernet Sauvignon from China brought by their friends Pierre and Cynthia Ly, who have a new book called “Adventures on the China Wine Trail.”

“We benefited from their research,” said Mike, author of many books and the blog The Wine Economist. Another friend, Ken Willman, brought a 1959 Château Suduiraut Sauternes. 

(Photo: 1959 Château Suduiraut Sauternes)

“We were worried about the ’59 -- beat-up label and it was a little bit down on the shoulder,” Mike wrote. “But when Ken tasted it he couldn’t stop smiling. A great finish to our OTBN celebration.”

In our case, we had an OTBN we never could have imagined. Several months ago, the University of California at Davis – the world’s top wine school, with the world’s best wine library – contacted us to ask if we’d donate our papers to the Warren Winiarski Wine Writers Collection. It already includes idols of ours such as Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson. Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible and blog WineSpeed, also has agreed to donate her papers.

We said yes, of course, and have already shipped off a great deal of material, including several years’ worth of notes and labels (as well as the DVD of an Open That Bottle Night question on “Jeopardy!” and, as it happens, a very old wine list from Bern’s Steak House signed by Bern Laxer). Then the folks at UC Davis had a genius idea: Why not celebrate our donation on Open That Bottle Night?

So a few days before OTBN, we flew to Davis to tour the library, which left us awestruck. We also visited the Robert Mondavi Institute, where the world’s future winemakers are learning their art. Andrew Waterhouse, the institute’s director, who we interviewed years ago about headaches and wine, showed us around.

On Open That Bottle Night, the celebration moved to the Culinary Institute of America at Copia in Napa, where Karen MacNeil interviewed us in front of almost 200 people. (Anyone who thinks there aren’t a lot of laughs in wine should have been there.

After the event, about 40 of us had dinner with our special wines. Did we say special? Our old friend Kevin Zraly, creator and author of “The Windows on the World Complete Wine Course,” brought a 1999 Phelps Insignia, to honor the first year of OTBN. (It tasted much younger.) Rolando and Lorena Herrera, owners of Mi Sueño Winery, brought their 1999 Chardonnay, for the same reason. (It was still alive with acidity and heavenly fruit.) We brought a Noble Companion “Port” from Prager Winery & Port Works that we purchased at the Napa winery — a regular stop for us -- in 1987. Jim Prager signed the bottle in gold ink. He died in 2017 and this was our last bottle signed by him. (It tasted like a multi-course dessert, filled with chocolate, nuts and raisins.)

Karen brought a 1984 Louis Martini Monte Rosso. Her reason, she explained: “California’s two greatest cabernets not from Napa Valley are Ridge’s ‘Monte Bello’ and Louis Martini’s ‘Monte Rosso.’ Both have always intrigued me, and both also show best when they are quite old. Can an old wine possess a certain wisdom? I think it can. So for OTBN, I grabbed this bottle out of the cellar to share it with friends and find out.” (It did.)

One of the wines that made Napa famous was the Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour 1968 Cabernet Sauvignon, crafted by the great André Tchelistcheff. When we honeymooned in Napa in 1979, Beaulieu was still selling that wine in the tasting room. We bought a bottle, borrowed a couple of glasses and drank it amid the vines. We have often said it was the greatest wine we have ever had or will ever have.

To our astonishment, Carlton McCoy Jr., the new CEO of Heitz Cellar, knew that story and brought a bottle of the ’68 Beaulieu from his stash. A master sommelier, he decanted it with an elegance that amazed us and then poured us a taste. All these years later, it’s still a beauty. It tasted much like it did in 1979, with layers of flavors and nuances, still stunning complexity and stature that demands attention. It was the kind of wine that brings tears to our eyes.

(Photo: Carlton McCoy decanting)

And so did Winiarski, the founder of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, the winner of the Judgment of Paris, a legend in Napa Valley and around the world and a generous philanthropist and visionary. As the dinner began, he rose to say this: 

“Tonight was like a perfect column of John and Dorothy. A perfect column because it caused us all to feel that we’re glad wine is a part of our life, which is how they wrote about wine, causing people to want it to be part of their life. That was a very important achievement.

“This [wine writers] program is meant to capture everyone who contributed to that, writing about wine and elevating it from what it was during Prohibition and what it was for many people: the image of it as booze. Wine is not booze. It has the capacity to lift us out of ourselves by its beauty. The appreciation of that beauty elevates our life through wine…Let’s raise a glass now in spirit to the wine writers who accomplished that for all of us.”

Thank you, Warren and the folks at UC-Davis, and thank you to everyone who told us about their OTBN. Remember: Any night can be Open That Bottle Night. Pop those corks and the let the memories flow.

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. Dottie has had a distinguished career in journalism as a reporter, editor, columnist and editorial writer at The Miami Herald and The New York Times as well as 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.

Read more from Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher on Grape Collective.

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