Collecting Wine for the Love of it

Man’s love affair with wine goes back at least 5,000 years. Tutankhamen was buried with it; Jesus turned water into it; and many a mystery novel’s victim has met his demise by drinking arsenic slipped into a glass of it. Throughout history, wine has served as a medicine, an instrument of religious rites, and sign of social status. Indeed, the Greek historian Thucydides said in the 5 th century BC, “The peoples of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learnt to cultivate the olive and the vine.”

It’s no wonder, then, that modern man’s enthusiasm for collecting should intersect with his continuing romance with wine.

Wine holds a unique place in the collecting world. In a certain way, it is an “invisible” collectible. Other antiques, such as paintings, glassware or furniture, might be displayed throughout the home for all to see. But wine must be cellared, away from light and away from the temperature and humidity fluctuations of a typical house.

And while other collectibles might survive for centuries if properly cared for, wine ultimately will spoil, no matter how rare the vintage or how expensive the bottle. It’s partly this ephemeral nature of wine that makes it an intriguing collectible for so many.

“Wine collecting is similar to other types of collecting,” said Paul Wisnyi, whose cellar includes thousands of bottles of Bordeaux, “except eventually there’s an end point with wine because it’s perishable.”

In fact, sharing wine with friends is one of the few ways for a collector to share his passion. “There’s no remorse when you open a bottle from your collection,” Wisnyi said. “You buy it to drink it. That’s why you should always collect what you like to drink.”

This sentiment represents a slight shift in the philosophy of wine collectors, who in the past often collected wine as an investment.

“Investing in wine is not as prevalent now,” said Frank Martell, Director of Fine and Rare Wines at Bonhams and Butterfields. For one thing, “release prices are skyrocketing,” Martell said, making speculating less lucrative over the short term. And while there is a small group of people who buy wine as a safe place to put their money (wine being a much more stable “currency” than the Euro or the dollar, for instance), these individuals do not reflect current attitudes about wine collecting.

“Wine collecting is about the experience of being a wine lover,” Martell said.

In fact, were Martell advising the novice collector on what to buy, he’d have no specific recommendations. “I think for people who are beginning to collect, it’s important to sample a variety [of wines]. Expose yourself to Bordeaux, to Burgundy, to Australian wines,” he said.

This exposure to different varieties of wine can help you decide what you want to collect. A rare, expensive bottle of Montrachet might look impressive in your cellar, for example, but it’s wasted if you don’t like white wines. Instead, you should hone in on the type of wine you like best and then work on understanding the character of particular vintages. Martell recommends two ways to accomplish this: sample wines made by the same producer or vineyard in different years and then sample wines from the same vineyard and year made by different producers.

“For example, if you sample an ’82 Chateau Mouton, which isn’t nearly mature yet, you’ll discover what a young wine from this producer tastes like. Then, if you taste an ’85, you’ll find it’s lush and ripe – drinkable right now. And, again, if you try the ’96, you’ll see it’s also still young but big and fresh,” said Martell. Learning the character of different vintages in this way will help you make buying decisions later on.

Martell may offer excellent advice, but be forewarned you may find yourself frustrated if you waltz into a wine shop looking for older vintages. Before you start collecting, it pays to know a little about how wine is distributed.

Each year, wine producers assess the quality of the grape harvest and plan their production accordingly. Many wines require aging before they’re released to the public. When the winemakers decide the wine is ready for release, that vintage is sold, via various channels, to retailers and collectors. In other words, virtually the entire vintage is sold within months of its release. So, assuming that ’82 Chateau Mouton you tasted earlier was released in 1984, it probably was “out of stock” at your wine merchant’s by 1985 at the latest.

How, then, does a collector acquire wines?

According to Martell and Wisnyi, there are only a few places to buy collectible wines: auctions, brokers, and a small group of retailers who are good at ferreting out old bottles that have been stored properly.

The storage issue is critical for collectors, who often pay several hundred dollars for a single bottle. Before you buy, make sure to verify what conditions the wine was stored in before the auctioneer, broker or retailer got it. Also, take steps (such as asking for references) to verify the reputability of the seller.

“The validity of the wine seller is very important,” Wisnyi said. “I think Butterfields is the best place to buy because, for one thing, the wines are lotted out so you don’t have to buy what you don’t want to. Also, they inspect the cellars the wines are coming from.”

Probably the most popular place to buy collectible wines is at auction. Keep in mind that, unlike other auctions, wine auctions do not include a preview period, nor are the wines displayed during the auction itself. Because storage is crucial for maintaining the quality and value of the wines, they’re cellared before and during the auction.

Wisnyi added, “At auction, you buy strictly by the catalog description, which is all right because looks can be deceiving anyway.”

Read your catalog closely. For each older bottle, the description will indicate the fill level, any possible defects (such as the cork condition or sign of seepage), and even the condition of the label. But don’t let a dirty, scuffed or tattered label deter you from buying.

“An ugly label can be a sign the bottle has been stored properly,” Martell said. “I mean, leave any paper in that environment [a wine cellar at 75% humidity] and it gets moldy, it gets dusty. It gets dirt on it that won’t wash off.”

On the other hand, don’t rely on the condition of the label to determine a wine’s viability. “Generally, seepage, fill level and color are indications of whether or not a wine has been stored properly,” Martell said. However, it pays to remember that some seepage can occur without damaging the wine, and loss due to evaporation is not uncommon with older wines.

Beyond condition, how do you know which are the quality wines you want to add to your cellar? “Buy the best wines you can afford,” Wisnyi advises. “Rely on the ratings of Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator.” Noted wine critic Parker publishes his tasting notes and ratings in a variety of media, and often the auction catalog includes Parker’s comments about specific wines. Of course, subscriptions to publications like Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast, that offer ratings and notes, are easy to obtain.

Once you’ve acquired your wines, how should you store them? Ideally, wines should be cellared. For the casual collector, with 10-50 bottles on hand at a time, wine refrigerators are widely available at prices ranging from $300 to over $1,000. These units generally offer temperature adjustments but no humidity control.

For the more serious collector, true cellars of varying sizes can be custom built. The sky’s the limit when it comes to the cost of these, but the most important thing is building a cellar that provides ideal storage conditions for your wine investment.

With winemaking coming into its own around the world, more opportunities than ever before exist for creating a collection of wines unique to your specific tastes. Whether you prefer shiraz from Australia or cabernet from Napa Valley, let your palate be your guide to collecting.

As Paul Wisnyi says, “Wine collecting is like art collecting. You’re going to be living with your choices every day, so you’d better get something you like.”

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