The Joy of Aging

You can still get an ice-cream cookiewich out of the freezer case at Bob's Fine Wine & Liquors in San Clemente. You can still get a 40 of Bud, or lemon ice Gatorade, or Faygo orange soda. And, of course, you can still get tequila, or vodka, or whiskey. But you can also get Silver Oak Bonnie's Vineyard Cabernet from 1975, or a magnum of Lafite-Rothschild from 1961, or a magnum of 1983 Mayacamas Chardonnay, or a vertical Caymus Cab covering all of the 1980s and then some. And that's just for starters. The shop is crammed with boxes, many of them older, many of them wooden, many of them bearing coveted names -- the abundance makes it feel more like a collector's overstuffed storage locker than a liquor store.

Remarkably, what's on the floor is less than 10 percent of the shop's total inventory; the rest is kept in temperature-controlled storage -- the sort of place where allocated wine goes to await its glorious return to public life. "We go back to '59 on Burgundy," says shop owner Robert Clanton, "'61 on Bordeaux, '74 on California. We've always wanted the client to be able to get a nicely aged bottle of wine, something that's ready to drink now. People drink wines too young. A common story I'll hear from winemakers is when the consumer will purchase a wine upon release, go home, drink it, and call up saying, 'God, that was so good.' The winemaker gets on the phone, saying, 'Thanks so much; I'm so happy you enjoyed the wine.' But they hang up and think, 'God, he didn't even drink what I made. What I made was meant to be drunk five or ten years from now.' I'll tell consumers, 'I know you like such-and-such a wine, but try this one over here. It's aged six or seven years, and it's really creamy. The tannins have dropped off; it's supple, it's mouthfilling. It's got multiple folds of flavor in the back of the palate, little spirals of provençal herbs at the sides.'" For many people, he says, it's just a matter of getting them to try it.

The great fear with older wine, of course, is that you'll pay for all that aging and end up with something faded and sad, whether through improper storage or more natural causes. Clanton's response is twofold. First, as to questions of storage, "I know the history of every bottle in the shop -- nothing from the Internet or private collectors. I only buy library releases from the wineries themselves." The rest has been in the store's inventory since its release -- one of the advantages of inheriting a business that started way back in 1970. Second, Clanton stands behind his product. "If the customer takes it home and it's not good, they can bring it back and I'll make it right." (Of course, you have to make certain allowances for age: your vintage Chardonnay will most likely show a little bit of caramel extract, and you would do well to expect some raisin in your older Zinfandel.)

That kind of assurance means that Clanton has to keep track of his inventory as best he can -- retasting, revisiting, and when necessary, culling the herd a bit. Happily, he's developed a knack for it. "I started at such a young age; I didn't realize at the time that I was developing my palate memory. Now, I'm really good at tasting wines and discerning how long they're going to age. It's all the things you read about -- measuring tannin, acidity, structure -- really taken together as mouthfeel. You taste winery A upon release and say, 'Wow, that reminds me of winery C 20 years ago.' And you reflect back upon what winery C turned into over time." He grants that the current trend toward making drink-it-now wines means that "a lot of them will fall apart" over time, but overall, he isn't worried. "You've seen so many cycles in the wine industry over the years -- it'll turn around. I'm not worried about this phase in the marketplace."

Clanton has certainly seen his share of cycles -- he isn't kidding about the starting "at such a young age." His father (the original Bob) opened the shop in 1970, before little Bobby was even a teenager. "I was a kid in the shop, and I'd overhear things. I still remember how, in the '70s, winery owners still had to sell their wines. Miljenko Grgich and Al Brounstein" -- of Stag's Leap and Diamond Creek fame -- "used to come down to the shop. Joe Heitz would come down; he'd get upset if you didn't buy his Chardonnay, which was horrible. He'd be all gruff, but my dad was a gruff guy, too. You always knew where you stood with people of that generation -- PR was not a fine art at all." Except maybe for Robert Mondavi. "He had come down, and my dad was tasting his wines, and it must have been a weaker vintage. Dad said, 'You know, Bob, it tastes a little light to me.' And Mondavi looks at my dad and says, 'Well, Bob, I like to think of it as elegante!' I'm sure my dad bought it anyway."

Mondavi & Co. were making the stop in San Clemente because Bob's Liquors had made a commitment to serious wine, largely thanks to one Dave Pricewood. "He was a retired guy from back East -- he had owned some wine shops and was very savvy. He was bored and wanted something to do, so he said, 'Bob, why don't you hire me, and we can get some wines in here?' Dad hired him, called my mom, and said, 'Hey, I think an angel just walked in here.' Working with him, my father became very wine savvy. My dad was always bringing wines home to taste and evaluate, and I would get to taste and evaluate, too."

Pricewood's arrival was just one in a series of minor miracles that made Bob's Liquor possible, says Clanton. Mom and Dad were scientists -- she a biochemist, he a physicist -- who went into retail only because they needed money to pay for their children's medical expenses. Bob Sr. entered the ABC lottery for liquor licenses and got lucky -- fair trade was still in effect, and a liquor store could mean good money. Then he found a location next to an Alpha Beta grocery store -- which, being Mormon owned, didn't sell liquor. The Clantons convinced the landlord to give them a shot for the sake of the family, and the rest was (labor-intensive) history.

Dad bought a lot of French and German stuff, but young Bob saw California as the future. "I just thought they were going in the right direction. I guess my palate was more for the bigger, more dramatic, richer wines. I loved the creamy, decadent wines, and the French were generally lighter in body." It's part of the reason why he was so happy to discover the critic Robert Parker. "I was starting to amass this inventory of early-'80s California wine, and Parker's first Wine Buyer's Guide came out. So much of the stuff he rated highly was stuff I already had in the shop. I remember going to my dad and saying, 'Hey, I really like this guy.' I thought, 'Gee, I must be doing something right.' There was huge consumer interest, and I was just very pro-California." Today, you can still find plenty of '82 Bordeaux, but Clanton estimates that about 75 percent of his inventory hails from the Golden State.

That early-'80s buying spree started in February of '87, soon after Clanton officially took over the shop from his father (he'd worked there for a year and a half after high school, and on weekends throughout his college career). He began making regular visits to Napa, making friends with all those people who used to visit the store and with newer stars as well. "Justin Meyer at Silver Oak welcomed me with open arms. I was there with a college buddy and my girlfriend, and he took us in and treated us like royalty. We went into his kitchen, and he pulled out a magnum of '79 Bonnie's Vineyard, and we hung out for something like three hours, having a ball. That was what secured my contact with Silver Oak."

Today, there are plans to remodel, plans to expand the selection of inexpensive bottles, plans to reduce the liquor-store standbys (goodbye, cookiewiches?). What remains constant and distinctive is the devotion to properly aged wines from esteemed producers. "The wineries always take care of people who helped them out in the beginning. People getting into the business today can get the current releases" -- maybe -- "but they can't get the older stuff, the library wines. That's my niche."

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