On my 40th birthday, I hesitantly opened a bottle of 1978 Kalin Cellars Zinfandel. I wanted it to be spectacular. I wanted it to be beautiful.

But I was not the first owner of this bottle. It was gifted to me by a friend in the restaurant business, and I’m not even sure if he was the original owner of this bottle. In other words, there was no way to know how this bottle had been stored prior to me acquiring it, and how many homes this bottle had before I became its next adoptive parent. Did it sit in the laundry room over the dryer exhaust? Was it in the kitchen next to the stove? Had it been in a wine fridge, and then the garage, and then under a bed in the guest room? Who knows?

For a long time, this bottle sat in my wine fridge, mainly as a memento from a historic wine producer in California who just happens to be known for creating wines that stand the test of time. But what better time to pop the cork than at my big 4-0 birthday party? If it was a disaster, well, then nothing ventured, nothing gained. But what if … what if it wasn’t?

When I pulled the cork, it came out in one beautiful, intact, spongy piece. Things were looking encouraging. As I poured that first taste, stuck my nose in the glass, and deeply inhaled, I was hit with gorgeous aromas of red raspberries, Bing cherries, leather, sweet pipe tobacco, star anise, dried marjoram and cardamom, and those telltale dusty tannins.

IT WAS ALIVE!

I quickly poured tastes for my birthday guests, and we enjoyed a remarkable time capsule—captured in liquid form, containing all the nuances of the weather, the hands that pruned the vines, the sunshine and the barrels and the dust. Everything that cannot possibly be replicated, all housed in a bottle of wine.

We savored every drop, and I remember jokingly saying the wine aged better than I did. But it wasn’t a joke.

So, this brings me to the big question: How long should a bottle of wine be aged? Dare I dumb this question down, but the answer is relatively simple: Nine times out of 10, it shouldn’t be.

Most wines available in supermarkets, wine-warehouse chains and big-box stores are made with one idea in mind: The average consumer is buying a wine at 11 a.m. with the intention of drinking that bottle at 6 p.m. As our alcohol consumption habits changed—meaning we went from a cocktail culture to a wine culture—the way wine was being made drastically changed.

Most winemakers realized that in order to appeal to their new customers, the wine needed to replace their evening Jack and Coke. It needed to be big and bold, rich and weighty—with an ample amount of alcohol.

The first thing to dissipate in a wine is its fruitiness. All those ripe, saturated, jammy flavors that attract you to your favorite bottle of cabernet are the first things that disappear once a bottle gains maturity.

This is not how wines were made in the year of my birth. It didn’t matter if they were from California or France; the idea back then was to create a wine with a low pH (meaning the wine would be higher in acid; lighter in body and color; leaner; and offering more tart fruit flavors) and lower alcohol. These would be wines that had more savory flavors and felt less unctuous in the mouth. These were wines made for the long haul, meant for a wait for them to achieve that perfect balance of acid, mellowed tannins, and a combination of fruit with the earthy savoriness that only shows itself once the other elements have calmed down.

One thing to note: The first thing to dissipate in a wine is its fruitiness. All those ripe, saturated, jammy flavors that attract you to your favorite bottle of cabernet are the first things that disappear once a bottle gains maturity. If that bottle of wine doesn’t have anything else underneath those berry preserves, all you’re left with is a bottle of what tastes like rubbing alcohol.

So, in a crazy scheme to make money and not go out of business, wineries realized that perhaps creating a wine that requires 10-plus years before it’s considered ready to drink might not be the best business model.

Think of it this way: If you bought a case of Opus One 2016 vintage and were told not to drink it until 2028, what real incentive would you have to buy Opus One 2017? 2018? No one is amassing a collection of wines that need to be housed for more than a decade before the ideal date of consumption. It’s a crazy thought!

Does that mean that no one is making age-worthy wines anymore? Of course not. There are still tons of wines made for laying down—wines that deserve to rest until they come into their own and get past their awkward, geeky stage. But those are your heavy hitters. Those are not the wines you’re buying at Albertsons or Ralphs. These are the gems that you find in your little local wine shop, where someone can tell you exactly what you’re getting yourself into. More than likely, these are wines that come with a hefty price tag. These are wines made by winemakers, like Kalin Cellars, that are notorious for creating wines that need time. These are wines from high-profile wineries that have been around a long, long time.  

So many people tell me they have wines they’ve been sitting on for decades, and they’re wondering if the wines are still good. I hear the concern: “I probably waited too long, and I’m sure it’s past it’s prime.” Here’s what I say to that: Open it. Open it tonight! Revel in the idea that you could surprise yourself. Enjoy the exploration of finding out if maybe, just maybe, you caught this wine at its ideal age.

If it’s gone, have a little wine funeral, and say goodbye. But what if … what if it’s not? There’s only one way to know.

Katie Finn

Katie Finn drinks wine for a living. As a certified sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers and as a Certified Specialist of Wine, she has dedicated her career to wine education and sharing her...