It was a bottle of 1926 Chateau Cheval Blanc. Recently out of graduate school, I was a freelance clarinetist in New York City. (Freelance: an adjective meaning “rarely employed.”) My other waking hours were spent bagging almonds and dried apricots in an upper west side health food store, feverishly practicing my instrument toward my big break and, as an oasis, reading about wine. My first taste of a 1970 Chateau Lascombes from the Margaux district of Bordeaux was the revelation, my catharsis. So this was what wine could be! It was all satin sheets, warm succulent texture and sex (well, I was very young). Nothing like the alcoholic grape juice I had previously guzzled. I began reading ravenously about wine in every book I could tote from the public library.

A cellist friend and I used to double date. He would always supply a couple of $4 wines for our foursome. With a Cotes de Bourg here and a Macon Villages there, our dates always settled into a cozy, warm atmosphere. One time, when my friend had a late rehearsal, the job of selection fell to me. I recall my panic and the sheer nastiness of the chosen wines; it was enough to shake the confidence of any Don Juan, and a big incentive for further study.

Music, with its ability to transform a series of lines and circles into a swirl of overwhelming emotional impact, had always been my first passion. But now wine, with its ability to transform grapes into a magic liquid, seemingly completely removed from its source, became an intense avocation. As my education and selections improved, I found myself relishing rather prestigious wines by sharing the expense with four or five like-minded friends. In this way, we spent numerous evenings pondering great Burgundies, Piedmontese reds and “Grand Cru Classe” Bordeaux–albeit only about a four-ounce allotment each.

In time, a fixation developed within me toward the consumption of a venerable wine, one of the legends of the Bordeaux hierarchy. These were wines mostly seen at auction and at astronomical prices. (It made sense: How many bottles of 1918 Lafite Rothschild could be left in the world? Demand equals costliness.) Still, just thinking of being able to purchase one was the stuff that dreams are made of.

One November morning, I was reading the Wednesday New York Times, Wednesday being when Frank Prial’s wine column appeared. I glanced over to an ad for D. Sokolin, an upscale wine shop. Some anniversary or other was being celebrated and, as a thank you to their loyal customers (you know the spiel), a few gems were being offered at prices well below their market value. One item literally leapt from the page–it was a bottle of 1926 Chateau Cheval Blanc, one of the “Magnificent Seven” of the Bordeaux hierarchy. A book I had recently bought (from the remainder shelf, naturally) was Michael Broadbent’s The Great Vintage Wine Book. I had been nightly ingesting its contents like a bar of dark chocolate. Here is part of what he had to say about this wine:

“The decade of the ’20s was good to this Chateau. When I first drank it in 1967 I could not believe it was from Bordeaux–more like the plumpest, ripest, and most velvety Burgundy. Mahogany color, full but delicate bouquet, harmonious, lively rich flavor. Perfect weight and balance, in fact”–and here’s the kicker–“a perfect wine.” He gave it his maximum five star rating and predicted optimal drinkability for many years ahead.

The price was $125. Not chicken feed, but a mere one-fifth of what it was worth on the auction block. I went to the bank, then camped out on Sokolin’s doorstep the next morning. They opened at 9; I was there at 7. I vowed to get it and no one else best try.

At around 8:15 another fellow, his breath suspending in the cold air, appeared.

“Here for the ’26 Cheval?” I queried.

“Yes, as a matter of fact.”

“Well, unless they have two bottles, you’re out of luck,” I shivered back. Ruthless, and proud of it, I watched him grumble and then simply shuffle away in gritty New York fashion (stirred but not shaken).

The door was finally opened and the gate lifted. I immediately spoke my intentions and the storekeeper led me to the holy grail. He pointed out that the label was faded, but the chateau name and date were still clearly, unmistakably visible. He said that there were no guarantees on a bottle this old, but indicated how high the liquid level was in the bottle. With the passage of time, wine slowly, imperceptibly, evaporates through the cork. In a bottle of this age the wine could easily have been below the shoulder level. Yet there was still a sliver of liquid reaching into the base of the neck–a good sign, we both agreed. I thanked him and excitedly paid while cradling the bottle with both hands. 1926–the year before Lindbergh’s flight and the Babe’s 60 homers. A year when this bottle’s contents were illegal in America! The era of bathtub gin and Fitzgerald’s flappers.

I drove home to Durham for the holidays and transported the bottle in the center of a 12-compartment cardboard wine box, upright, with tons of padding on all four sides. Before unpacking anything else, it went immediately to my mom’s sideboard, and there spent four days resting up and dropping its sediment to the bottom of the bottle.

I suppose “bemused” would be the reaction of my folks to this treasure.

“Is it any good?” my father asked.

“Don’t know, pop, but it’s supposed to be perfection,” I defensively replied.

The tradition of opening gifts had moved to Christmas Eve in our all-adult house, with a grand supper following. My thoughts were predictably far flung as the gift giving proceeded, while my hopes hovered toward a tasty meal accompanied by paradise. I eased the cork out at a snail’s pace, hoping it would neither crack nor crumble. It emerged like a newborn child, moist, smooth and intact. It had done its job admirably during 55 years of imprisonment. (Interestingly, by the next day, the cork had shriveled and shrunk impressively, looking like a mummy or Dorian Gray’s portrait, all creased and misshapen.)

I decanted the wine just before we drank it. The color was a light but healthy hue and its fragrance was magnificent. How would it taste? My father’s first reaction was, “How much more of this have you got?” He liked it! But a frown of displeasure arose when I told him that this was it, a one-of-a-kind experience. (I never mentioned what it cost.) I could see his practical wheels turning: What good is it if we can’t have another bottle?

My mother was pleased that I was so pleased, boyishly placing this event at the apogee of our reunion. I’m sure she liked the wine, yet perhaps not more than others we had previously shared. Mom normally liked her wines with a bit of kick to them, reminiscent of the hearty barberas or splashy freisas she grew up drinking. This wine was smooth and totally devoid of any biting tannin.

My grandmother was in her heaven, surrounded by her child, son-in-law and grandchildren. I’m sure she never once came down from that rarefied perch. Later that evening, we all signed our names on the bottle’s label to commemorate the occasion. In her excitement she curiously wrote “Love, Ada,” as if a postscript to a letter delineating what the evening had meant to her. (She was gently kidded about this for some years to come.)

My brother and his wife were new students of the grape, and they genuinely shared in the significance of the occasion, getting caught up in my indefatigable energy. To them, with whom I had little in common but cared deeply about, it proved a tasty bond that we could compare and revel in.

What expectations did I have? I had never before drunk a wine of such pedigree, age or accomplishment. Despite its stellar rating, the wine was far lighter than I had expected, a very thread of grace, like a ballerina on a moonbeam, soft and spiritual. I wrongly expected a bigger statement, but was so pleased with its health and what it did have–perfect balance, ease, calm and glide. I was sold.

Harking back now, with almost 25 years of experience to guide me, the event was the beginning of many more magical bottles and occasions to come. I’ll never forget it. Not only the wine, but how it drew us all together in a time, in a way, that never quite happened again.

Apropos rare wine, it is serendipitous to note that a bottle of Chateau Cheval Blanc also plays a central role in the newly released motion picture Sideways. Miles, the wine geek, is played to a turn by Paul Giamatti. Wine is a tonic and the refuge from his life of quiet desperation. For any theatergoer who thinks that his portrayal is a bit over the top, let me assure you that wine lunacy and palaver of this kind is all too real. However, if the adulation and consumption of pinot noir influenced the cojones that Miles displayed while retrieving a certain wallet, then I’ll begin stocking up on 2002 red Burgundies today!

A sparkling time
For all budgets, here are my favorite selections for a bubbly December and a brisk welcome to 2005.

Sparkling wines
Marquis de la Tour Brut $8
Charles de Fere Brut $9
Bouvet Brut $10
Greg Norman Estates $16
Chandon Blanc de Noirs $17
Prosecco, Col Vetoraz $17
Mumm Napa Brut $18
Mumm Napa Blanc de Noirs $18
1999 Gruet Blanc de Blancs $22
Chandon Reserve Brut $24
1999 Iron Horse Classic Brut $30

Montaudon Brut $33
Pommery Brut, Royale $35
Drappier Brut, Carte D’Or $38
A personal favorite and hands down winner, with texture, tenderness and a beautiful finish.

Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Blanc de Blancs $43
Another style I love. Charms and seduces with its brilliance yet suppleness. A perfect date champagne.

Bollinger Brut, Grand Cuvee $45
Full bodied and deep. A red wine drinker’s champagne.

Guy Larmandier Brut, Grand Cru $51
Memorable quality, and with all the grapes coming from the highest rated vineyards (a Grand Cru, or grapes rated in the 100th percentile), a good value. From the village of Cramant.

Vilmart Brut Rose $65
Rich, complete and a mouthful of luxurious flavors.

1996 Pol Roger Brut Rose $70
Big, intense, power packed wine of pinot noir “stars.” Amazing character–and it will age and improve.

1996 Bollinger Grand Cuvee $90
The finest Grand Cuvee I’ve ever tasted. Loaded with emerging nuances, complexities and incredible “nervous” energy. Fabulous and will improve.

The must book
Make sure that every wine lover within the sight of my pen scratches owns Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Encyclopedia of Wine (2005 edition, $15). Persons with a passing or full-fledged love of wine should own this remarkable wine tool. Since its inception in 1977, it has opened the eyes of millions to the nuts and bolts of wine appreciation and purchasing knowledge.