For a short month that has Valentine’s Day in it, February can seem long and unlovable, especially if you’ve already taken your winter escape trip. To brighten up the month, look no farther than Open That Bottle Night, aka OTBN.
Wall Street Journal columnists Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher, whose “Tastings” was a favorite of wine-loving readers for 12 years, came up with OTBN in 2000. Celebrated the last Saturday in February every year since, the idea is to open a treasured bottle that you’ve been hoarding. If you have such a bottle and are waiting for a day to pull the cork, that day this year is Feb. 24.
Since this is a bona fide occasion, there are obligatory traditions originally prescribed by Gaiter and Brecher. First and foremost is that you use OTBN as a reason to connect with people you enjoy. Each person or couple should bring a favorite bottle to share, along with the story of where it came from and why it’s special. Plan on serving dinner. After all, what’s a celebration without food? Also, over the course of a meal, some wines may open up and taste markedly different from when they were first uncorked. If anyone brings a bottle that has been cellared for some time, stand it up for a while to let the sediment settle. Serve the wines at about 55 degrees and have a two-pronged opener on hand.
That last point brings to mind a particular OTBN my husband and I attended in Ashland several years ago. One of the guests had brought a bottle of 1928 Chateau Rieussec Sauternes. He had inherited the tiny 220 ml bottle from an aunt who was a serious collector of wines. She would soak the labels off her bottles and paste them in a book, then write out an ersatz label on a piece of tape and use that to identify the wine. Ironically, the book in which the history of her wine collection was kept was lost. Fortunately she had never removed the label from the 1928 Chateau Rieussec, so we could see just how special it was, a grand cru classé that today, according to a quick web search, would run you close to $700 for a 750 ml bottle.
Part of the Bordeaux region of France, Sauternes is renowned for sweet wines produced from a blend of semillion and sauvignon blanc. Sauternes pairs beautifully with blue cheese or stilton traditionally served by Europeans after dinner. Chateau Rieussec dates back to the 18th century but was acquired by Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) in 1984. Grand cru classé translates “great growth” and denotes wines of great distinction, according to a French classification system dating to 1855.
Among the guests at OTBN that evening were two local winemakers who spent considerable time examining the tiny bottle of Chateau Rieussec and its equally tiny cork. The cork looked dry and fragile. How should they go about pulling it without risking breakage? They settled on a two-pronged opener that barely fit into the neck of the bottle and with painstaking slowness managed to remove the cork intact. After pouring about an ounce for each guest, they swirled and sniffed and spoke.
“Orange peel,” said one. “Dried orange peel,” said the other.
I remember that rich, elegant, honeyed taste almost as well as I remember the candlelight reflected in stemware and the faces of friends gathered for the sheer pleasure of the company.
Correction: Winegrower John Pratt emailed to tell me his Celestina Vineyard, source of grapes for DANCIN’s Allegro Zinfandel, is located not on the Kubli Bench but on Dark Hollow Road outside Jacksonville. Thanks for setting me straight!
— What’s your take? Email MJ Daspit at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on this topic, check out her Backstory Blog at mjdaspit.com.