by Elaine Smith
Posted on October 26, 2006
“She just doesn’t understand,” moaned Jake, whom I was helping to amass a collection of wines for his cellar. Jake’s wife couldn’t figure out what had come over her normally level-headed husband, whose occasional interest in wine had become a raging oeno-obsession.
As a wine consultant, I see many people like Jake: No longer happy to just grab a Chardonnay from Raley’s end-of-aisle display to be quaffed that night, they start paying attention to which wines will “pair” with dinner. Next, they find a good wine shop and get to know the clerks. Soon they begin taking wine classes, learning to swirl, sniff, sip, serve and store. Before you know it, they’re buying tickets to charity wine-tasting events and auctions that feature wine country getaways and oversized bottles of status brands. At some point along the way, a wine lover has turned into a wine collector. That’s where I come in. As a professional wine consultant, I help budding collectors assemble custom wine cellars. Collecting wine should be fun, intellectually stimulating and hedonistically satisfying, and if you do it right, it needn’t require a lot of money or kissing up to snotty wine clerks. Here, I’ll explain how you can get started on your own collection. Curl up with a glass, and perhaps you will be inspired to tuck some wine away for another day.
To Spend or Not To Spend
That Is the Question When someone hires me to help create a custom wine collection, I always ask if he wants to learn something as we go. That way, I know whether to bring him along on shopping trips, let him in on my thinking and explain things like how Rosé can be a hip choice.
Some clients skip the lesson plan; they just want me to do my work and call them in the morning. For example, a builder of luxury condo developments wanted to outfit the cellar of a model unit. “Fill it with whatever you want,” he said. So I created a small cache of California blue-chip labels, wines recognized and revered by the type of people who would be considering buying into this property: white wines like Kistler Chardonnay, reds like Silver Oak and dusty BV Georges Latour Cabernet Sauvignon. With a generous budget and access to the Internet, I assembled my luxury-condo cache quickly and painlessly. Once I made an initial outline of the brands, vintages and quantities, I got my mouse clicking and spent almost $6,000 in about 40 minutes. Then it was just a matter of waiting for the UPS truck to arrive the next day. But while that assignment sounds like a dream gig, it’s not what really flips my pancake. I don’t love spending madly on big names—with each rare, precious bottle I bought, I could think of at least five wines from lesser-known sources that I’d personally rather drink, at far saner prices. What’s more fun is using my expertise to gather an exciting bunch of up-and-coming labels from around the world, awesome stuff that hasn’t hit the media radar yet. Not many of my clients are interested in “unknown” wines—until, that is, they start tasting some of my suggestions. And then they usually say, “I’ll take a case of that stuff, too.” I’ll tuck in brash choices from Galicia, Provence, Paso Robles, Umbria, Mendoza, Paarl Mountain and even the Sierra foothills, and they’ll get along great with the confident bottles from Napa and Tuscany. Occasionally, I’ll meet a client who honestly doesn’t give a fig for ratings and auction performance. Such independence moves me to tears of joy. I take a thorough inventory of her tastes and habits, and create a fun playground of wine that is uniquely hers. You might think this type of collector would be young and adventurous, but usually it is someone older, who has learned the hard way that famous names and outrageous price tags do not necessarily mean good taste. Such collectors live for freaking their friends out by covering up an inexpensive bottle with a paper bag and getting raves before revealing it to be a savvy buy. One client, Jerry, once strung along his country club buddies at a dinner party. They were guessing his mystery Cabernet Sauvignon came from some “cult” California winery, and that it was from the critically acclaimed 1997 vintage, known for powerful flavor and sky-high prices. When the bag came off, my client was holding a Cabernet-Merlot blend from a boutique producer in New Zealand, bought at less than half the price of the Napa names. He was roundly booed, but guess which bottle on the table was finished first?
A successful collection usually starts with a plan, an as-you-like-it road map that can be as rigid as L.A. to New York in three NoDoz days or as loose as a graduation road trip with no job waiting.
First off, your interests should drive your collecting, and I mean your interests, not the preferences of wine critics or, ahem, consultants. I love assembling mini-collections based on personal themes, such as wine harvested the year a couple met, or wine labels with certain kinds of artwork, from Celtic to cats. When building a collection, you can choose from the classics such as Bordeaux or Burgundy, Germany or Italy. Or you can go farther afield, buying cellar-worthy selections from Spain, South Africa, New Zealand and Argentina. Go deep, with comprehensive coverage of a certain area or even a single winery, or go wide, with an eclectic diversity that spans the globe. But be warned: Your interests will change over time. (That’s the fun part.) Almost all of my clients have evolved and expanded their tastes, and few of them are drinking or collecting the same wines that got all their pocket money 10 years ago. So practice restraint as you follow new regions and new winemakers. You don’t want to be left holding a lifetime supply of pricey Napa Cabernet when your tastes have moseyed over to Burgundy. With surprising regularity, most wine lovers’ preferences move from fruity, robust styles of wine to complexity and finesse. For instance, I personally went from White Zinfandel to Beaujolais and Côtes du Rhône, then on to fun Spanish and Italian reds, followed by Australian Shiraz, boutique California Cabernet and Syrah, and Super Tuscans. Nowadays, I cry and kick if I can’t have real Champagne, certain Russian River Pinot Noirs and Burgundies, Pouilly Fumâ¯ with a couple of years on it, and old Barolos and Madeiras. I’m afraid I’d be lying if I left out the part about my tastes becoming more expensive. But honestly, I still go back to my college friends Beaujolais Villages and Côtes du Rhône, plus a variety of appellations from Spain and Italy and crisp, aromatic white wines like Sauvignon Blanc and dry Rieslings from New Zealand because they are inexpensive, food-friendly and easy to find. And with world winegrowing and winemaking practices becoming better and better, I constantly find “bang for the buck,” as it is so often inelegantly said.
How Much Is Enough?
Your daily habits will determine what kind of wine supply to lay in. Are you primarily a special-occasion imbiber, dipping in for the perfect vintage to bring to an intimate restaurant or holiday dinner party? If so, your collection will be premeditated and disciplined, oriented toward blue-chip vintages at their peak. Or do you cook at home most nights, availing yourself of less-expensive, early-drinking wines to grab for the pot, the cook and then the meal? If so, your collection will have a faster rotation time, with cutting-edge savvy buys as well as the big guns you are holding on to for a celebratory treat.
How much wine should you buy? The most maddening thing I tell clients, besides the skyrocketing prices of Russian River Pinot Noir, is to allow for twice as much storage as you think you need. It is a simple truth that wine lovers’ acquisitive eyes are even bigger than our oversized Riedel stemware. To calculate the optimal size of your collection, multiply your consumption by your average aging time to get an estimate of how many bottles to shelter. If you use about a dozen bottles per month (don’t forget to figure in parties, gifts and charity) and you expect an average turnaround time of three years in the cellar, your dream collection would need to house 36 cases of wine, or 432 bottles. Your acquisition plan should include how fast you aim to achieve your goals. Are you up for a lifetime journey, or do you want your cellar or wine fridge loaded in time for the housewarming party? In wine collecting, as in many quests, time boils down to money. The most cost-effective strategy is simply to buy current releases and hold them. But with luck, persistence and a wad of cash, ambitious collectors can time-travel by bidding on past vintages at auction. If well-funded, I could do a lifetime of collecting for a client in 48 hours—minus the memories, of course.
With my retired clients, I delicately suggest they consider their own ages as well as that of the wine.
Unless they consider the collection a treasured bequest to their children, I advise pulling back on substantial long-term investment in the later years. One older gentleman I know only looks at his Chateau Montelena vintages, since his long list of medications precludes drinking them.
Lastly, no discussion of wine collecting is complete without a mention of significant others. In my practice, I find that rarely are there co-collectors. Most often, there is a collector and his or her partner, who ranges from supportive to “Are you out of your mind?” and who often gets jealous as the collector becomes more entranced with the collection. Involving both parties in the planning helps couples with differing styles, goals and commitment. In several cases, I have been surprised when a formerly reticent spouse morphed into a wine geek once she found the wines that flipped her switch. And even emphatic nongeeks can find their own way to participate through cellar décor, record keeping, food matching or gamely helping to drink the stuff. Hey, the couple that holds their wine together holds together. Let’s drink to that.
Top 10 Reasons To Collect Wine:
1. You get to drink mature wines at their peak while paying only the release price.
2. You can have at your fingertips diverse wines to fit any occasion.
3. You can stock up on sales and savvy buys, taking advantage of case discounts.
4. You get a firsthand understanding of the aging process by sampling the same wine over the years.
5. You can deepen your knowledge of favorite wineries by collecting their lines over time.
6. You can give aged wines as special, relatively inexpensive gifts.
7. Charities love “name-brand” aged wines for auctions; you get the tax write-off.
8. You can justify subscribing to glossy magazines such as Wine Enthusiast and Food and Wine as “research.”
9. You can fantasize about taking fabulous “buying trips” to worldwide wine regions.
10. You can admire all those pretty labels in the privacy of your own home while whispering, “My precious.”
Yes, that was me on my hands and knees, stone-cold sober, actually lapping up the dropped bottle of 1985 Petrus. (Well, I’d never tasted it before!) Slips are inevitable, especially mid-celebration, so cover the floor of your cellar with a mildew-resistant buffer, such as bamboo mat or hemp carpet, and you won’t have to hear the sound of shattered glass and grown men crying.
Here’s a look at some other common wine-collecting mistakes and missteps:
Buying too much: There is such a thing, and you know you’ve done it when you’ve got more wines at their peak or headed south than you can drink yourself. That’s when it’s time to have a clear-the-cellar party. Invite friends and let each one pick a bottle to open. They’ll think you’re Bacchus and Santa Claus rolled into one, and hopefully they’ll bring a plate of appetizers to share.
Investing in big names: If you’ve paid big bucks for bottles from famous-name wineries, only to find that they don’t thrill your palate, make a donation to your favorite charity auction. Sacramento is full of great causes. You know those wines you bought, thinking they’d outperform the Dow Jones? Move ’em out of your cellar to where they can do some good. Websites such as winebid.com can give you an idea of their value.
Buying birth-year wines: I plead guilty to sentimentally holding on to wines from the vintages of my husband’s and my wedding and the birthdates of our offspring. Even an amateur should know that the 1996 Preston Dry Creek Barbera on my third shelf could taste pretty nasty if I wait until Jr. is of legal age to drink it. So what? We’ll drink it soon, thanks, as we survive the journey of parenthood. If you want a wine that truly will last the years until your child’s graduation or wedding, then splurge on good Sauternes or a vintage Port. Their beautiful balance of sweetness and acidity will taste wonderful on your milestone.
Not keeping records: For personal interest, education, insurance and tax purposes, many collectors take great satisfaction in keeping records of their collections. Even hasty scribbles will jog happy memories of a trip abroad, a wine shop now out of business or an idyllic winery visit, as well as ridiculously low prices from long ago. So sue me, I’m terrible at this. I don’t scrapbook, either. I’ll be sorry.
Keep It Cool
Wine is a living, breathing entity that changes according to its environment. Help your treasures age gracefully in a dark place with just enough humidity to keep the cork supple, but not enough to cause mildew on the labels. Experts say to keep it between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and to avoid temperature fluctuations from season to season.