If the Romans had written something about the topic of this post, it would have been called moratus vinum—delayed wine drinking. It’s a phenomenon that’s best illustrated with a story from the distant past.

When Carla and I decided to get married, it was anything but typical. More like narrowing down a date as much as anything. The conversation went something like this.

Carla: “You know, we’ve been dating for almost three years. We should think about getting married.”

Me: “You’re right. How about this summer? Maybe June?”

Carla: “No, June is busy. Too many birthdays and things going on.”

Me: “Ok, what about July?”

Carla: “July is good.”

There you have it. I don’t recall my actually getting down on one knee and proposing. I could be wrong, but the idea doesn’t resonate. What does register is our chatting about how everyone was waiting for us to get married. So why wait. At least that’s what I remember. Carla probably has a different take on it. Given the fractured performance of my memory as of late, she’s probably right.

The reason I’m relaying all this to you, and there is a reason, is because soon after we went to my parents’ house to tell them the big news. I knew there would be Champagne involved. Mind you Champagne in the parental Gaiser universe in the late 70s was about as remote as the moons of Pluto. There are five of them named Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra, for anyone keeping score. Pluto aside, I knew there was a bottle of actual Champagne someone had given my parents a few years before. It was a bottle of non-vintage Möet & Chandon White Star, a delicious brut Champagne that Möet discontinued some years ago. Not their finest hour, by the way. I say that because for many years running White Star was one of the most popular brands of Champagne. It wasn’t quite Dom Perignon, but it was almost as well known in the American market at the time. As an undergrad, I’d even heard of it—many years before getting into the wine business.

My parents kept the precious gifted bottle of White Star up high in their bedroom closet wrapped in some winter blankets. I guess they figured it would be safe there not to mention insulated. Every now and again, I mentioned the bottle and suggested we open it. After all, it was Friday or something and we should celebrate. But Mom and Dad’s response was always the same: “we’re saving it for a special occasion.” I should also mention that they drank nothing but bourbon and coke. Wine, especially Champagne, was a few parking lots away from their alcoholic beverage universe. Still I badgered them from time to time, wanting to open the bottle. But it never happened—until the magic night when Carla and I brought them joyous news that we were going to tie the knot.

Needless to say, Martin and Mary were pleased as punch we were going to get hitched. “We were wondering when you’d get around to it,” said my Mom. Subtle, but an astute observation. After the expected initial giddy responses, I suggested chilling and opening the bottle of Moet. “After all,” I said, “it’s a worthy occasion.” The parents agreed. I immediately got a foot stool and retrieved the bottle of White Star from its cozy resting place of the last who knows how long. I then stuck it in the freezer for about 30 minutes, returning when it was just cold enough to be cold.

Looking back now, my expectations for the bottle given its storage conditions should have been best defined by the acronym DOA. However, this was years before I knew anything about wine.

In particular, how Champagne is especially sensitive to changes in temperature—or being kept at temps above 70 degrees for long periods of time. But there’s still the idea of how long my parents had hung on to the bottle despite the number of times I’d suggested opening it. And that brings us to an article called “The Downside of Delayed Gratification” by Jacqueline R. Rifkin.

Rifkin begins her piece with the saying “The proverb says, ‘Good things come to those who wait.’ But could there be such a thing as too much waiting?” Jacqueline then says her interest in the idea of delayed gratification started in grad school after thinking about all the things we keep at home but never use. Like a T-shirt that was a gift, a nice-smelling candle—or a bottle of wine. Her question with all the previous was why we treated something ordinary like it was too special to use.

Rifkin and Jonah Berger at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania conducted a series of experiments to learn more about this pattern of behavior and the psychology behind it. In their study they had subjects imagine buying a bottle of inexpensive wine. They then asked half of the participants to imagine considering opening the bottle of wine that night for dinner, but then deciding not to. The other half weren’t given any instructions. After the fact, they asked everyone in the study if the wine seemed special, and how likely they would open it at the next available occasion. Turns out that those who were instructed to hold off opening the bottle were less likely to open it at the next opportunity.  They seemed to be saving the bottle for a special occasion. Then all the subjects were asked what kind of occasion would merit opening the bottle. Those who passed on opening it the first time said things like birthday dinners, a first date, or a promotion. Mind you all this for an imaginary bottle of inexpensive wine.

Turns out that putting off opening the bottle once somehow caused participants to keep putting it off, waiting for a better moment. Rifkin and  Berger repeatedly observed the same pattern in their study and named it the “specialness spiral.” When someone decides not to use something at one point, whatever it is will start to feel more special. The more the object feels special, the longer someone will wait for a better occasion to use it, making it feel even more special. In short, the less you use something, the more special it feels and the less likely you’ll use it in the future. It’s a cycle that tends to repeat early and often.

I’ve experienced the “specialness spiral” more than a few times—and always with a bottle of wine. After giving someone a bottle, they will mention it months and even years later, saying they still have it and are saving it for a special occasion. To which my response has always been “DRINK IT. NOW.” Actually, not in upper case and not in the immediate moment. More like at the earliest appropriate opportunity. These days any bottle gifted comes with the provision that the recipient within 60 days. “I don’t want to hear how you saved the bottle,” I say. Which usually prompts quizzical looks—which change after I tell them what I’ve just told you.

Now back to that momentous night long ago. After about 25 minutes, I retrieved the bottle of Möet from the freezer. With youthful and reckless enthusiasm, I peeled the capsule off the bottle and undid the wire cage—the latter which you should never, ever do, by the way. It’s usually dangerous—if it’s your typical bottle of Champagne. But several years spent at the top of an always-warm closet in a cozy blankie was not your typical bottle. Which I found out in short order.

As I grasped the cork to remove it, two things happened: the top of the cork snapped off in my hand and the bottom half dropped into the bottle. But that minor setback didn’t stop me. After all, I’d wanted to drink the wine for eons. I then poured the first of what should have been four glasses, only to see a stream of deep brown and very flat wine go into the glass. I took a sniff and it was redolent of commercial wine vinegar. I still took a sip. It tasted like commercial wine vinegar. I recall uttering a few well-chosen expletives. Then I broke the news to Carla and my parents. Memory serves that I quickly headed to a nearby liquor/wine store and procured something with bubbles, returning to open it and toast the occasion. So a good time was had by all, despite the dead bottle of Moet.

In the end, Jacqueline Rifkin’s idea of the specialness spiral is a good thing to keep in mind when gifting—and receiving. Another good thing keep in mind is not keeping a bottle of Champagne in a blanket at the top of the closet for several years. And with any wine gift, enjoy it at the earliest opportunity. Everyone will be glad you did.