Is Wine Breathing Bunk? Guest Post by Denman Moody
We first encountered Denman Moody, Jr. in 2009, at the inaugural Houston Wine Conference, where he, along with Guy Stout and Gary Vaynerchuk, was a featured speaker. Now, we often join him at winemaker dinners in Houston, sometimes with his delightful wife Marijo. Denman is a wealth of wine knowledge. He didn’t just start drinking wine yesterday. In fact, people have been commenting on Denman’s wine knowledge since I was in high school. With 33 years of wine on his palate, Denman has traveled the globe tasting with some of the best.
A fellow Texas attorney, who has practiced before the Supreme Court, Denman is a financial manager and estate planner by day. After hours he is a freelance wine writer, having contributed to numerous publications, including his monthly column in Houston Lifestyles & Homes magazine. He began Moody’s Wine Review in 1978, which The Washington Post proclaimed “…the best newsletter in this country for tracking the state of rare and exotic wines.” Texas Monthly has a nice little article about him in their October 1984 issue.
We asked Denman, an avid storyteller, if he could share one of our favorite Denman stories, and he most graciously agreed.
Is Wine Breathing Bunk? by Denman Moody
In May 1977, my late friend Alexis Bespaloff published “A Corking New Wine Theory” in New York Magazine. In blind tastings with Robert Mondavi, Paul Draper of Ridge Winery, Alexis Lichine of Bordeaux Chateau Prieuré-Lichine, Kevin Zraly, then cellarmaster at Windows on the World Restaurant and author of Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, and John Sheldon, then wine consultant at Tavern-on-the-Green, Bespaloff uncovered an embarrassing fact.
The wine used for the blind tasting with Draper was his 1974 Geyserville Zinfandel. For Mondavi, his 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon; and for Lichine, his 1967 Chateau Prieuré-Lichine. In each case, for each taster, one bottle was decanted one hour before serving. One was simply uncorked an hour before serving. A third was decanted and served minutes before the tasting and the fourth was just uncorked and served minutes before the tasting. Mondavi and Lichine tasted each other’s wine also. Don’t shoot the messenger, but in every case, including a 1973 Chateau Pichon-Lalande with Zraly and Sheldon, the bottle that was just uncorked and served at the time of the tasting was preferred!
Bespaloff queried both the famous French wine consultant Emile Peynaud and the prominent U.C. Davis enology professor Vernon Singleton on the subject, and each just uncorked the wines and poured them with similar thoughts about non-breathing. Bespaloff went even further and opened two bottles of 1967 Chateau Figeac on one occasion and two bottles of 1967 Chateau Latour on another occasion, one decanted an hour before and one uncorked minutes before serving. In each case, four other wine drinkers “…discovered, to their astonishment, that the bottle just opened and poured had more flavor and a bigger bouquet than the one decanted an hour before…”
This experiment serves as serious evidence that “letting wine breathe,” at least for red wines, is bunk. But even though this article appeared 34 years ago from one of the most prolific and knowledgeable wine writers in the world, the custom of opening a bottle to let it breathe and decanting wine to let it breathe remains firmly entrenched.
In the past, I had been convinced that wine breathing, especially in the glass, could be beneficial. However, being a skeptic myself, I decided to test the theory. I asked Bill Floyd at Reef Restaurant in Houston if he would round up some serious wine professionals to have a go at a blind tasting conducted by myself.
The wine was a 2005 (outstanding year for Bordeaux) Chateau Lynch-Moussas (a very good Classified Growth Bordeaux, at least since 2002). I decanted one bottle two hours before the tasting, decanted one bottle one hour before the tasting, and opened one bottle just before the “judges” arrived. I then poured the three offerings, two from decanters and one from bottle, separated the tasters, and served the wines blind. The attending tasters were: renowned Houston Chronicle sports and wine writer Dale Robertson; one wine-savvy restaurateur; one well-known wine wholesaler; and several well-known Houston sommeliers. All but one attendee agreed: The wine that had been opened and poured just prior to the tasting was the most flavorful!
In late 2010, Tim Mondavi’s sons (and Robert Mondavi’s grandsons) came to Houston and invited me to dinner to taste their super-premium wine, Continuum. Robert Mondavi spent his last several years helping Tim and his daughter Marci develop this wine. It displays an amazing depth of flavors and is a culmination of everything Robert and Tim had learned over the years. Carlo and Dante, Tim’s sons who work at the family winery, mentioned that they struggled with when to open the wine.
Recommendations they had received included the morning of the day the wine would be served for dinner, three hours before serving, etc. I told them about Alexis Bespaloff’s tests and my own recent test. Carlo said, “We just opened this one right before we sat down and it’s tasting better than usual! We’ll check this out.”
In April of 2011, Carlo invited me to another tasting, which I was unable to attend, but I took the opportunity to ask him about when he decanted or opened the wine these days. He replied that they no longer worry about “breathing” with Continuum; they just open it and serve!
Denman Moody has compiled this and other fascinating stories in his new book, The Advanced Oenophile, available for purchase by clicking on the title. Reading it will take you on a trip around the world of wine, without having to endure one single pat down or x-ray from the good folks at TSA. You can learn about the renowned wine districts of Bordeaux, France, travel through California, Oregon and Washington wine country; through Europe, South America, and Down Under, with information about Australia and New Zealand wines. The book also covers wines from South Africa and Israel, Port and other dessert wines and includes a chapter on Asia’s Wine Scene contributed by Debra Meilberg, Master of Wine. If you’re new to wine, don’t let “Advanced” scare you off — there is plenty of information for new wine lovers too!