I had been waiting for Tuesday, August 4th, 2020, for quite some time.
It’s a date that I first eyed on a calendar in the late 1970s. I was nine years old, and we just built an early model computer at home. It was a kit, with a very rudimentary processor, 1KB of memory, no screen (just a display for numbers and letters), and lots of random wires that plugged into a circuit board (remember, these were the days when a handheld calculator was a revelation, and cost $40 as well). After assembly of our “computer,” one of the first (and it turns out, only) things you could do with this machine was plug in a date in the future, and it would tell you what day of the week it was going to be on.
I didn’t know what to put in, so I did some quick math to find out when I’d turn 50 years old. A fictional age, impossible to dream about. A time that would, of course, look like The Jetsons, including wrist computers that could transmit video of whomever you were talking with (it came true!). The date would be August 4th, 2020. I learned the day of the week would be Tuesday. I leaned back in my chair at the wonder that this digital brain in front of me was telling me what my life would be like forty years from now. Or at least what day of the week I’d be getting my gifts.
About twenty years after that day with my computer, I found myself in the world of wine and starting to teach classes on the subject around town. I began to get lots of questions about aging wine, how long to keep it, why to have a cellar, and how best to enjoy it. It took a few more years, but I developed a speech that I’ve used ever since, and many of you may have heard it: buy a great bottle of wine for a point in your future, then put a tag on the bottle promising that wine when you would release it from its cork prison.
It’s a simple idea, but one I found resonated with my wine students. Turns out many students had kept wines too long. Many couldn’t bear to open the precious and unique bottle purchased on their honeymoon 20 years ago. That $15 bottle of Merlot was now vinegar.
Fast forward another decade (so now we’re at 2010 in the story) and taking my own advice during a time of a bit more money in our bank account, we bought a couple of small cellars from private individuals around the Twin Cities. Most often, this was because one of the spouses had passed away, or a grandparent who loved wine had a great collection, but the kids were more into beer. I was always honest with all the sellers with the valuation, telling them real market value and showing them the spreadsheets of what they could expect if they did the work to sell the wines one at a time. I never even offered to buy the wine, but most didn’t want to tackle the problem themselves. “What will you give me for the whole thing right now?” was what led me to the Best Bottle Ever.
Here’s the story.
One particular cellar was packed with old, oaky, buttery Chardonnay. Really nasty stuff, and opening about 40 of those bottles and dumping them out was my life for a few hours. (It turns out Rombauer Chardonnay doesn’t hold up well after 15 years.) But it was worth it for what I really sought out: the small pile of older Napa Cabernets (including several from the great 1974 vintage), one bottle of 1977 Port, and a bottle of such rarity and history that I trembled while holding it. 1970 Chateau Musar from Lebanon.
Chateau Musar is legendary in the wine world but relatively unknown to most wine drinkers. These are wines made by the Hochar (pronounced ho-shar) family, which arrived in Lebanon in the 12th century.
Lebanon has a long and proud history of winemaking, going back nearly 7000 years. But it wouldn’t be until the 19th century that the French grapes arrived.
It was 1857 when the first vines of Cinsault arrived from French Algeria. By the time 1930 rolls around, the wine industry was well established in Lebanon with fine varieties, and a young Gaston Hochar returned from a trip to France where he was studying winemaking. Hochar settled in Ghazir and opened Chateau Musar in the cellars of the Mzar Castle, built in the 18th century.
Years of trial and error, with advice from French winemakers, slowly crafted Gaston’s style and confidence. In 1959, Gaston’s son, Serge, became the winemaker after following his father’s footsteps and studying in Bordeaux.
Eleven years later, in 1970, Serge Hochar made the wine that I would consume for my 50th birthday.
In 1970 there was still experimentation going on for the perfect blending formula of Chateau Musar. Because of the slow evolution of these wines in the bottle (current releases come out eight years after the vintage), and because you only get one harvest a year, it took many vintages for Serge to find the right equilibrium. Based on his Bordeaux training and his familiarity with Cabernet Sauvignon, the 1970 Chateau Musar was comprised of more Cabernet than any of his wines previous or since, with the balance Carignane, Cinsault, and Merlot. (It wasn’t until 1977 that he declared he’d perfected the Musar blend: Cinsault based, with a balance of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, which is still how their wines are made today.)
1970 was a time of tension in Lebanon, with the corrupt election of Suleiman Franjieh (he won by one vote, after three rounds of ballots), which led to the polarizing of Muslims and Christians alike, plus loss of control of the state’s dominance over the growing local militias. In other words, the seeds of the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War were planted.
During the Civil War years, Serge continued to make wine, never missing a vintage. Because 80km separated the winery from the vineyards, the pickers had to harvest in small windows of opportunity between bombings, sometimes having to take shelter during raids. They even had to sneak in via boat in the middle of the night one year to harvest the grapes.
These are not just wines. They are liquid history.
I had the pleasure of meeting Serge Hochar in 2014 and heard his stories first hand of being in his home during the civil war. One day, during a particularly intense bombing raid, his building was ordered evacuated. Serge refused and locked himself in his flat. If his day had come, he reasoned, it was time and he wanted to go out with a bottle of Chateau Musar in his hands. He opened an older bottle of his wine, and while his neighbors pounded at his door pleading with him to take cover, he instead took a small sip every time a bomb went off. Over the course of the day, he consumed the entire bottle, and miraculously his building was not destroyed. With every bomb that went off, he had to cover his glass and wait for the dust from the ceiling to settle before pouring again.
At this 2014 trade tasting where I got to meet the great man, I remember one moment with particular clarity: Serge insisted, to every person present, that Chateau Musar is not to be spit out or dumped out. He was emotional. “Every drop I made of this wine was made with decades of struggle. We don’t dump out Chateau Musar. Ever.”
A mere three months after this tasting, Serge Hochar passed away in a tragic accident in Mexico. The world lost a wine icon.
Chateau Musar Red (they also make a white and a rosé, and at different tiers) is legendary for age-worthiness. And when I purchased that tiny cellar, I found myself with the bottle from my birth year, 1970. I put a little tag on the bottle, promising the juice when I would set it free: August 4th, 2020. And we tucked it away in the deep corners of the wine cellar.
The cork came out clean (thanks to using a Durand wine opener). The aromas floated forward immediately: loads of black raspberry and worn leather. Sometimes, with older wines like this, you don’t know how long they will taste good before fading off, so we immediately decanted it to get the wine off the sediment, rinsed the bottle with clean distilled water, and brought the wine back to the original vessel. The color was spectacular, deep crimson red with no hints of oranges or browns.
The first pour, taking the time to look at the color and smell the wine in a good glass, caused my world to stop spinning. Time froze. Suddenly it was just me and the wine, no other possible distractions, for this was oh so good. Someone could have lit a firework under me and I would not have heard it.
Describing perfection is impossible. The layers of aromas on this wine were surreal: raspberry, cherry, cocoa, worn leather, sweat, tears, history, provenance, and, most of all, balance. Not a feather was out of place.
The flavor! Oh my, the flavor! The first sip made me cry. I had never experienced a wine that complete, that mouth-filling, that sweet (without sugar, of course, but rather a sense of fruitiness in the mouth). Medium to full-bodied, with texture and soul.
It was like drinking a Miles Davis album.
For the next hour or so, we slowly sipped the wine, paired with charcoal-grilled dry-aged Prime beef tenderloin. With every sip, I thought about meeting the great man and hearing his stories. With every sip, I thought about how difficult his life in Lebanon in 1970 must have been, with the future unknown and tensions building every day, not unlike our current situation. With every sip, I remembered his positiveness and appreciation of life. A position that is important to think about today.
2020 is not the year any of us expected it to be. At times it’s challenging to hold onto optimism. But this wine gave me hope. We will get through all the struggles that are marking this year. Serge Hochar walked through hell and was still able to provide the world with the gifts of his wines. It was a gift from the wine gods for my 50th birthday. We, of course, absorbed every sip.