Tim James: Message in an empty bottle

By , 6 February 2023



Vallana Vino Barbera 1961.

There must be few of us wine lovers who haven’t felt the urge to save a bottle – the actual glass bottle, I mean, emptied of that which made it special or memorable or rare. Though perhaps the urge to keep it might be a hopeful one to preserve the memory of the occasion on which the wine was drunk, rather than the wine itself. Or both.

Many of us will have felt the urge again and again – and so the collection of bottles grows.

It was certainly the case for me, as the world of wine opened up for me beyond the stuff of everyday drinking – opened up, literally, a world – and there were more wines that were rare and special, wines of wonder for which the empty bottle seemed the best receptacle of memory. Of course, if one is fortunate, the idea of what is wonderful and rare and special might change, and the once-venerated bottle might be turfed out as being after all not so great or rare, and be replaced by something better, or more rare.

Almost inevitably (but why not?) there’s often an element of display, of boasting, in such collections of souvenirs. It’s perhaps like framing your graduation certificate and hanging it on the wall for others to see and be impressed by. Note how splendidly experienced I am, what great wines I have drunk….

For some youthful years, then, I accumulated bottles. Sometimes, of course, I had to compete with other wine lovers for a particular bottle that we’d shared, but that was OK – some I won, some I didn’t. But the trouble with a collection of bottles is that they take up a lot of room, really; they need dusting occasionally, even if you’re not all that fussy; they’re heavy when you move. Fine if you’re settled and have the space; less so if you’re not or you don’t.

Then you can decide to raise your standards, and keep only the particularly special bottles while abandoning the lesser ones. I did that for a while. But then a sort of competitive jockeying for position happens between the bottles and the whole project becomes less innocent – or so I found, and I decided the bottles had to go. All of them. A brilliant solution supervened: abandon the cumbersome bottles, even those with particularly lovely shapes or colours (there were a few in my collection kept at least partly for that reason: I remember, for example, the curvaceous bottle that Veuve Clicquot’s La Grande Dame used to flaunt herself in, and a ridiculously tall and elegant German flute magnum – I now forget which wine).

Jettison the bottles, but keep the labels! Not only did they convey the rarity and recall the occasion, but I could transcribe my notes about the wine (and/or occasion) on the label backs. Well, even apart from the note-writing, which I should have realised from the start I definitely didn’t have the self-discipline – or the skill in evocation – to persist with, a fundamental problem soon emerged. More and more (chronologically, that is), labels were reluctant to allow themselves to be easily removed. Good old-fashioned paper ones applied with glue were fine and easily detachable, but most self-adhesive ones, especially where any metallic finish was used, were emphatically not. They clung desperately to their bottles. I struggled with dry heat and with water and solvents and with razor-blades (remember them?), but too often a scrunched up or torn, ugly scrap was all that resulted. Besides, my being lazy didn’t help. If I couldn’t even discipline myself to floss every day, what chance of persisting with labouring at removing the labels and artfully putting them in a stamp-collector’s album?

It was with some relief that I one day took the pile of bottles (labels still adhering) to the dump and threw away the just-about-begun albums. I am, after all, by nature a chucker rather than a collector (as I mentioned a few months back in a different context). At first I thought, well, keep just a dozen or two ultra-special bottles, but hardened my heart against that, as choices would have been too invidious.

I now have just one bottle, standing on a bookshelf, and it was thinking about that bottle (for a reason which might become clearer in somethinig I write in a month or two) that prompted this little flood of reminiscence.

A few years back, in fact, I had two bottles that I’d saved from my ruthless disposal. One was a late eighteenth century one that came from the Duke of Wellington’s cellar in London and had contained Constantia, of which I’d had the great privilege of a very small but genuinely wonderful and momentous glassful. I’d filled the empty bottle with sand and was using it as a doorstop (a rueful icon would be appropriate here). And, well, it got broken.

My one surviving bottle is a curious one, and I can’t say it is beautiful – though it’s very impressive, despite the glass being an ugly beer-bottle brown. And the wine it had contained was not famous (it was virtually unknown at the time I drank it; it’s more famous now) – and probably not great, though certainly very good. But it is deeply meaningful to me as well as being an oddly spectacular bit of overdone packaging. The elaborate, embossed main display label announces Vino Barbera 1961 and mentions the gold medal that occupies much of the space; beneath that is the producer: Casa Vinicola Antonio Vallana & Figlio, Maggiora. A small, separate label above this further identifies the origin of the wine (Cantina di Baco) while the back label goes into a bit more detail and mentions Piedmont. But that’s not all: A raffia string goes around the neck of the bottle with a crimson metal seal and a vine-leaf-shaped ticket indicating, among other things, that this is bottle no 3520 of a total of 8690.

Worth keeping just for all that, especially as the producer had long ceased producing wines here in the north of Piedmont, north of the more famous Barolo and Barbaresco (though the wines had been very highly regarded before the area slipped behind for various societal reasons – it is now being energetically revived, including the house of Vallana). I’d had the privilege of drinking a number of Antonio Vallana wines from the 1950s and 60s in the latter 1990s and early 2000s (mostly from spanna, the local name for nebbiolo), thanks to my friendship with Louise Hofmeyr of Welgemeend and her great English importer, Roy Richards. Roy was immensely generous in bringing out wonderful classic wines – including many of these Vallanas, which he had recently re-discovered in the winery cellar and had bought (paying a serious price).

So I kept this bottle less for its inherent bravura and rarity than in memory of so many great wines, of the friendship, and of Roy’s generosity and the influence he (and Louise) had on my wine-life. If I ever started to gain any real, essential understanding of wine – of what Roy calls “proper wine” – it was through drinking bottles like this and hearing Roy talk of them and their origins. This bizarre bottle reminds me of that and, chucker though I fundamentally remain, I’m so pleased I kept it.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.


2 comment(s)

Please read our Comments Policy here.

    Tim James | 7 February 2023

    Thanks for this, Fiona. I hadn’t seen about Dave’s dying. The end of an era, certainly – he was always a vital presence in my wine life until he was obliged to pull back, and a great contributor to the the wine and spirits industries. I didn’t know he was such a meticulous label collector, with so much more discipline than I could begin to muster (of course, if he’d collected the bottles they would have long since completely filled his house and more!). I also recall him carefully making little blots with a few drops of wines to record something about their colour and intensity of hue.

    Fiona McDonald | 7 February 2023

    Tim, I too have a few treasured bottles lurking and gathering dust. They’re more about memories of time, place and occasion than they are about the ephemeral impression of the wine. With Old Man Wine Dave Hughes having died last night your story reminded me of his habit – and discipline! – in collecting bottles at every lunch, dinner, gala he went to, humble or posh. He’d meticulously remove the labels and then file it, along with the date, the occasion, who it was enjoyed with and a note on the wine. And many is the time he’d be significantly worse for wear of an evening but he never neglected his bottles and labels!
    How poignant your timing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Like our content?

Show your support.