“The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather, it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for every one else the proper pleasure of ritual.”
- C.S. Lewis
As wines age, insolubles agglomerate and precipitate in the form of dusty-looking sediment. If the wine has been correctly stored, which is to say horizontally, this sediment will have collected in a crop-row along the length of the bottle. And so the first step to decanting is to stand the bottle upright, gently so as not to cause too great a plume, and for several hours until the sediment has resettled in the ring at the bottom. Uncorking the bottle without disturbing the sediment requires a steady hand, or—and it pains me to admit this—one of those high-tech lever-action screw-pulls. The decanter itself need not be one—any wide-necked glass or crystal pitcher will do—but it must be absolutely clean. The other, rather more exciting accessory is a light source illuminating the bottle’s neck so the pourer can see and prevent any sediment from escaping. This can be done dramatically with a low candle, but the flashlight function on a smart phone is just as effective. The decanted wine will not just be sediment-free, but opened up from its long stay in the bottle.
The other type of decanting isn’t just a less refined process; it demonstrates quite effectively what is meant by that particularly obtuse term, opened up. Younger, less complex wines also benefit from leaving the bottle before drinking, but the reason isn’t sediment—it’s air. In the virtually airless environment of the bottle, a young wine might take several years to find a pleasant balance of tannin, varietal flavor, alcohol and acid. The introduction of air—oxidation—speeds things up considerably, toning down astringency and amplifying the rounder, fruit flavors lurking just below the surface. I also find the strong ethanol nose some warm-weather wines can have disappears altogether after decanting. The method is blessedly simple: unceremoniously uncork a bottle and pour it vigorously into a clean carafe. Let sit for some unspecified amount of time and drink.
I might be unique in drawing the comparison, but I’m always reminded of decanting wine while laying out my clothes. I rarely remove something directly from a closet or armoire and pull it over my head. Folded sweaters or polo shirts usually need some mild reshaping; trousers always benefit from a quick shake and smoothing; shirts I snap into life with a flourish. The practice also affords the opportunity to inspect for marks, missing buttons or creases—those minor emergencies, correctible as they are, still better discovered at home. But the main purpose is to knock some of the drawer and closet shape out of the garment before wearing—to allow the garment to breathe.
Like old wines, more formal clothes require significantly greater attention. If a suit is needed, I remove it to a hook for inspection. Despite precautions, lint and dust settle on shoulders and lapels—something remedied by a few gentle sweeps of a quality lint brush. If a shake doesn’t release the errant wrinkle, out comes the iron and board. Shirt, tie, handkerchief, socks and shoes are chosen, each carefully inspected and no less subject to brush or iron. I arrange the various components; an hour later the results have either found a natural harmony or require some minor adjustment. Either way, it’s the time spent out of ordinary enclosure that reveals.
The truly devoted rotate their wardrobes and regularly inspect their wine collection; they shine shoes religiously and faithfully note cellar temperature. These activities are executed in the name of practicality, and the tangible benefits—fresh suits and wine—suggests that practicality alone is motivation enough. But it would be foolish to deny the ceremony; hobbyists are always aware of ritual. As C.S. Lewis infers, forgetting oneself is the point.