Drinking Old Wine: Adventures With A 1978 Ridge Zinfandel

It’s strange to come across a food product that’s older than you are. Last year, I drank a wine that was 34 years old.

Our buddy, Ben, had happened upon a stock of old bottles at Kahn’s Fine Wines in Indy. In that stock he spotted a few bottles of Ridge California Zinfandel from 1978. Knowing what a Ridge fanatic I am, he told me about it when we visited soon afterward. Of course, I had to have a bottle, even though I knew it was risky — Zinfandel isn’t exactly known for aging gracefully. It holds out for a few years, or a few decades in really good vintages, then it fades. Zin’s lack of tannins (compared to something like a Cabernet Sauvignon) means that, once the delicious fruity flavors depart, there isn’t much left to enjoy.

Ridge sunset.
Ridge sunset.

The $60 price tag was a little daunting, but I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance. When buying an old wine, all bets are off. This wine stash had come from an estate and so no one knew how it had been treated. Kahn’s had a sign hanging near the old stock that excused the store from any guarantee of the quality of the wines. We decided to take the risk, and, with shaking hands, I…let Paul pay for the bottle.

There are a few things to look out for when buying old wines:

  • The label doesn’t matter. The label can be moldy, dusty, covered with dirt, torn, whatever. The label doesn’t matter: the cork is the key factor in determining if the wine is still good.
  • So, check the corks. Kahn’s had a few bottles of the 1978 Ridge in stock, so I had the luxury of being able to check them all out. Some of the bottles’ corks had leaked through already, but I was able to find one that seemed intact. Push on the cork. Does it feel soft? Does it yield and push in to the bottle? Sometimes a bit of wine has already leaked out — can you see dried wine around the capsule? If the cork feels wet, sniff it. Does it smell musty? Or does it smell like delicious, delicious wine? If the cork is loose and the wine smells musty, skip it. If the cork is just a bit soggy but doesn’t yield and it smells like wine, it might still be fine. We once stumbled on an expensive bottle of Amarone that had started to ooze through the cork. We picked it up for a bargain, drank it that night, and it was amazing. 
  • Get rid of the lead. When drinking a wine made before the 1990s, be sure to fully peel off the capsule (the metallic seal that covers the cork) and thoroughly wipe the mouth of the bottle before pouring — capsules were made with lead up until the 1990s and can contribute a significant amount of lead to your glass of wine.
Paul expertly pouring samples.
Paul expertly pouring samples.

We weren’t sure what to expect — would the wine need to be decanted, or would it quickly fade when exposed to oxygen? To find out, we uncorked the bottle — the cork stayed in one piece, until I broke it the next day — quickly poured a few tastes, and then recorked the bottle. It definitely did not need to be decanted. The wine was very obviously old…burgundy-orange with clear edges.

The brick-red Zin.
The brick-red Zin.

The Zin still had a little fruitiness — like a dark cherry jam that had gotten a little dried out and concentrated — but most of the fruit was long gone, replaced by a vegetal element — like water after an artichoke has been cooked in it. I also felt it had an oily character, though no one else agreed with me. Ben, who is better than me at using his wine words, described the wine as: “Good wine. Definitely old, with meat and vegetable aromas, but it also still had dark cherry, raisins, and potpourri spice flavors.”

Old wine is so fascinating — it’s like taking a trip back in time. This wine was made before I was made. Before drinking this wine, the oldest thing I’d ever consumed was a 15-year-old piece of cheddar. That was interesting, and probably even riskier, though not as interesting as 40-year-old cheddar.

The saturated cork.
The saturated cork.

According to the website, Kahn’s still has a few of these older bottles left: the very same 1978 Paso Robles Zin, a 1977 Ridge York Creek Cabernet, and a 1985 Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet. The Monte Bello is a find — this is the wine that won the Judgment of Paris, after all. If I had an extra $200 lying around, I’d probably have bought it. I’d be cautious about purchasing these wines to ship, because you can’t inspect the bottles and because shipping is likely to damage the wines. If you live in Indy, though, you should take a trip over to Kahn’s and check them out. We spotted them all at the Keystone location (5341 N. Keystone Ave., Indianapolis, IN 46220), but it’s worth a call to ensure that they’re still in stock.

To summarize, I’m glad I dropped $60 on this bottle of wine, even though it didn’t end up tasting that great. Tasting bad wine is as important as tasting good wine — it’s all part of your wine education.

Cork and bottle.
Cork and bottle.