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A Thirsty Passion - Building a World-Class Wine Collection: No. 1 In A Three-Part Series

Anthony Dias Blue

In the course of a recent conversation, one Napa winery owner confessed to me with some relief that he suffered from “an obsessive-compulsive disease that’s finally under control.” I thought at first that his comment would segue into an embarrassing discussion of ablutomania or closet smoking. I was wrong. This recovering neurotic (who, understandably, prefers to remain nameless) was referring to the precarious ailment of wine collecting.

I suppose I am lucky that I am not a collector—not in the obsessive-compulsive sense, at any rate. Over a three-decade career as a wine writer, I have accumulated more than a few bottles of wine. Still, I do not consider myself an echt wine collector, given that most of my collection was amassed at random: a DRC here, a Screaming Eagle there, and quite a few lesser bottles in between. My holdings might be, for some, considerable, but they hardly bear the stamp of systemic compulsion that characterizes the true collector.

 

Genuine collectors thrive on an invigorating blend of passion and discipline. Their collections are designed. Real wine collectors have an almost hivelike sense of order, stocking their cellars with the determination of bees loading the cells of a honeycomb. As John Tilson, a Montecito, Calif.–based collector and founder of The Underground Wine Journal, remarks, “The trick is not to build a cellar and fill it with just anything; the trick is to put the right stuff into it.”

Taste Experience
What constitutes the “right stuff” for an individual cellar really depends on the collector’s personal taste. Los Angeles–area cardiovascular surgeon Dr. Aziz Khan, for instance, began collecting casually in the late 1970s, yet his forays into wine acquisition bore no discernible signs of a methodology until the early 1980s. For Khan, diversity defines the ideal collection. His 5,000-bottle cellar holds a wide spectrum of wines from Burgundies and Bordeaux to German Rieslings. “Decide what you like; taste for yourself,” Khan recommends. In other words, years of pleasurable dabbling generally precede the plunge into full-scale wine collecting. As James Orr, a Los Angeles screenwriter and collector, admits, “I knew about great wines before I actually experienced them.”

Few serious collections begin with a fully realized thesis. No one wakes up one day and decides: “I think I’ll start a wine cellar and specialize in deep verticals of châteaux from the left bank of the Gironde!” Wine lovers grow into wine collectors, and education is a crucial part of the process. Of course, Bordeaux and Burgundy still tend to form the backbone of many serious collections. These wines age well and have proven track records for both their long-term drinkability and resale value. Palm Beach–based businessman and America’s Cup winner Bill Koch, widely regarded as one of the most important collectors in the country, buys deeply in both regions. His 30,000-bottle collection (divided between his homes in Florida and Cape Cod) includes verticals representing 150 years of Lafite, 120 years of Mouton, 100 years of Latour, and 90 years of Pétrus. Given these august accumulations, one wonders what Koch drinks as his everyday quaff. “The 1982 Mouton,” replies Koch without hesitation.

The status associated with these two great regions has not blinded collectors to the appeal of less dazzling varietals. Khan, for example, is particularly fond of older Rioja, which he sees as one of the great bargains still left for collectors. His favorite vintages are the 1954, 1965, 1970, and 1981, and he prefers wines from the venerable Cune and the notably age-worthy Marqués de Murrieta. Orr, on the other hand, is a self-styled “Syrah freak.” He holds several Guigal Côte Rôtie single-vineyard bottles in his collection but shows a distinct preference for New World versions of the classic Rhône varietal, especially Australian Shiraz.

Ed Lazarus, a veteran Los Angeles collector whose 5,000-bottle cellar includes pre-phylloxera Bordeaux from 1870 and classic Inglenook Cabernets from Napa, says his tastes continue to evolve: “Most of the wines I buy now are Brunellos.” And Bill Koch admits that, in spite of his passion for Bordeaux and Burgundy, “I’m trying to branch out to other wines—to Chile and Argentina, for example.”

Cult Allure
California’s premier Cabernets follow Bordeaux and Burgundy for their power to inspire pure lust in the hearts of collectors. Nascent collectors are especially susceptible to the blandishments of cult Cabernets—wineries whose annual productions are bought down to the last drop by loyal groups of enthusiasts. Like the tulip mania that struck 17th-century Holland, the mania for Napa cult Cabernets in the dot-com-fueled heyday of the 1990s created skyrocketing prices for these exotic specimens. To arriviste collectors in the cybergentsia, triple-digit wine prices became as familiar as HTML code, and they loaded up on cases of Colgin as nonchalantly as if they were buying a new pair of Nikes. Although the rising price spiral has abated with the current economic downturn, stickers remain well up in the ionosphere for many of California’s darling cult wines, with bottles from the great 1997 vintage now fetching four figures.

Questions loom in the minds of some collectors about whether these wines are, in the long run, worth their high prices. Although some collectors bite the bullet and pay up, others have reached a spending ceiling. Labels such as Araujo, Bryant, Grace, and Harlan still send frissons up some spines, but many experienced collectors say they eschew cult wines. Khan, for one, considers triple-digit prices for some new releases “exorbitant,” and his collection is conspicuously lacking in this breed of wine.

Rather than grapple with the competition, Orr prefers to find wines that are still under the radar, long before they achieve cult status. “It’s very easy to worship at the altar of expensive, legendary wines. Anybody with money can buy a Picasso. The trick is to find the next Picasso.” In fact, he is even willing to share his latest find, the Shirvington Shiraz from Australia’s McLaren Vale. And he’s not afraid of getting scooped: “I’m covered,” Orr says slyly, having already moved on to the next find.


Christian Wyser-Pratte, a retired investment banker based in New Paltz, N.Y., agrees that certain wines are overhyped as collector’s items. “I’m not the least bit interested in cult wines,” says Wyser-Pratte, who says his collection is for drinking, not for show. “There’s simply no reason to step up to that market,” he says, throwing down a challenge: “I dare you to put a classic Shafer Hillside Select or a B.V. Georges de Latour Private Reserve alongside some of those overpriced cult cabernets.”

The Vine as an Investment
Regardless of personal predilections, all collectors love the thrill of the hunt: Bagging a top-notch vintage can be as exciting as bringing down a charging rhino, whether it is a Harlan Estate Proprietary blend, a rare Burgundy, or an exemplary Brunello. Marin County, Calif., technology entrepreneur Eric Greenberg has one of the country’s largest and most important cellars, including the largest private collection of coveted producers such as Jayer and Coche-Dury, not to mention German bottles dating back to the 18th century. “I find stuff nobody else can get their hands on,” says Greenberg, who clearly goes after the big game. “In any given region there are only 10 or 12 producers who really matter,” notes Greenberg, who even has an import license so that he can score otherwise unobtainable bottles. Like most serious collectors, Greenberg follows a systematic approach: “Scattershot is not the way to do it. Buy deep in things that are absolutely exceptional.”

Following this advice demands considerable investment. But whether collectors should select their wines with the same adherence to value that they apply to their stock portfolios is a point of contention. Khan, for example, collects only for his own personal use and enjoyment, without anticipation of financial return. “I don’t really think anybody should collect just as an investment,” he advises, “the wine market is not a predictable thing.” Orr says that “investment is not my first order of business,” but he admits, “In the back of my head, I do watch my wines increase in value.”

Wyser-Pratte, too, says that buying wine as an investment “never crossed my mind,” but Greenberg notes that the investment aspect is built-in to wine collecting. “I have a passion for the best wines,” he says. “The best are always in short supply, and therefore they’re investment-quality.” To prune his ever-expanding 45,000-bottle collection, Greenberg had part of his cellar auctioned at Zachys in New York earlier this year. Among the offerings was an 18-bottle selection of the 1990 vintage from the one-hectare Cros-Parentoux vineyard in Vosne-Romanée, which fetched $24,360, the top lot in the auction.

One point of consensus among collectors is that wine collections are dynamic, not static. Tilson compares his cellar to a garden: “You always have weeds you need to get rid of, and flowers you need to pick.” According to Tilson, these choices are based on the collector’s own changing mindset: “You’re constantly evolving with your collection.”

It is also safe to say that most wine collectors have a more emotional attachment to their holdings than shareholders have to their investment portfolios. The danger is that collections may grow too large, too fast. “We buy by the case, but we drink by the bottle,” cautions Wyser-Pratte, who at the top of his game was spending $35,000 to $40,000 a year on wine. “The real question,” he says, “is this: will I outlive all this wine?” This seasoned collector reminds us that, no matter how impressive the collection, the bottom line is that wines are for enjoyment. “The most important list is not your inventory; it’s your ‘Drink Soon’ list.”

 

Winemakers on Collecting

Genevieve Janssens, Director of Winemaking, Robert Mondavi
Janssens is responsible for some of Robert Mondavi’s most highly prized bottles, including the To-Kalon Reserve Cabernet and the exclusive “I Block” Fumé Blanc. Yet in cooperation with her artist husband, Luc, she is also a garagiste, producing 220 cases of very collectible Cabernet annually under their Portfolio Limited Edition label. The Portfolio wines are sold in three- or six-bottle boxes, and Luc produces handmade prints to accompany each vintage. “We wanted to join artistic talent with our passion for wine,” Genevieve explains, “and most people buy both the wines and the artwork.”

Alex Golitzin, Founder, Quilceda Creek Winery
Golitzin founded Washington State’s acclaimed Quilceda Creek winery in 1978, and his production, part of which is sold exclusively by mailing list, always sells out. The collectible Quilceda Creek wines are still growing in reputation, boosted by rave reviews from the likes of Robert Parker. Golitzin, whose uncle, legendary oenologist André Tchelistcheff, helped him vinify his first barrel of Washington State Cabernet back in 1974, says that Washington is “stylistically halfway between Bordeaux and Napa—the best of both worlds.” His favorite older Quilceda Creek vintages are the 1983, 1998, and 1999.

Tony Soter, Winemaker/Consultant
Soter earned his reputation consulting for boutique Cabernet producers such as Araujo and Dalla Valle in Napa Valley, and the exclusive Moraga in Bel Air, but he is also a committed fan of Pinot Noir. For his own Etude label, now part of the Beringer Blass portfolio, Soter crafts impressive Carneros Pinots such as the 2000 Heirloom Pinot Noir, based on plant material from Burgundy. His latest all-Pinot estate venture, Soter Vineyards, takes him back to his native Oregon. “There’s no better study of the craft of winemaking than the fickle and finicky Pinot Noir,” Soter contends. He notes that avid collectors who followed his successes in California now make up a significant portion of his Oregon mailing list, suggesting that the collectible appeal of certain wines may be based as much on the cachet of a particular winemaker as on the wines themselves.

Heidi Peterson Barrett, Winemaker, Screaming Eagle
Barrett, who makes the grail-like Screaming Eagle Cabernet and other highly collectible California wines (including her latest venture, the pricey new Amuse Bouche Cabernet), is herself a “collector by osmosis.” She feels that her varied collection helps her to be a better winemaker. “It’s gratifying to see people collect the wines I make,” Barrett says, but she admits that she does not start with the intention of making bottles that will be collectors’ items. “I just set out to make the best wine I can.”

Gary Figgins, Winemaker Leonetti Cellar
Gary Figgins, owner and winemaker at Leonetti Cellar in Washington State, feels that collectors may start turning to Pacific Northwest wines as an affordable alternative to Napa cult Cabernets. “Collectors throw our wine into blind tastings with California bottles and are surprised,” Figgins says. “Friends have suggested that I raise my prices, but, honestly, up here, it doesn’t cost us nearly as much to produce a great bottle of wine as it does in Napa.”

Collectible Vintages Of The Past 25 Years

Burgundy
Top Recent Vintage: 1999
Our Recommendation: Bonneau du Martray 1999, Le Corton ($65–$100)
Top Older Vintage: 1988, 1990
Our Recommendation: Domaine Leflaive 1990. Chevalier-Montrachet ($375–$500)

Bordeaux
Top Recent Vintage: 2000
Our Recommendation: Chateau Ausone 2000, St.-Emilion ($600–$1,000)
Top Older Vintage: 1989, 1990
Our Recommendation: Château Lagrange 1989, St.-Julien ($100–$150)

Rhône
Top Recent Vintage: 1998
Our Recommendation: Guigal 1998 Côte Rôtie, La Landonne ($300–$355)
Top Older Vintage: 1985, 1990
Our Recommendation: Delas Frères 1990 Hermitage, Marquise de la Tourette ($40–$60)

Piedmont
Top Recent Vintage: 1998
Our Recommendation: Ceretto 1998 Barolo Bricco Rocche ($180–$350)
Top Older Vintage: 1989, 1990
Our Recommendation: Gaja 1989 Barbaresco Costa Russi ($275–$350)

Tuscany
Top Recent Vintage: 1997
Our Recommendation: Biondi-Santi 1997 Tenute Il Greppo, Brunello di Montalcino ($140–$250)
Top Older Vintage: 1985, 1990
Our Recommendation: Antinori 1990 Solaia, Toscana ($320–$350)

Spain
Top Recent Vintage: 1996
Our Recommendation: Bodegas Muga 1996 Rioja, Torre Muga, Reserva Especial ($60–$100)
Top Older Vintage: 1990, 1994
Our Recommendation: Alion 1994 Ribera del Duero Reserva ($50–$70)

Germany
Top Recent Vintage: 2001
Our Recommendation: Dr. Loosen 2001 Riesling Spätlese, Wehlener Sonnenuhr, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer ($30–$40)
Top Older Vintage: 1988, 1990
Our Recommendation: S. A. Prüm 1988 Riesling Auslese Graacher Himmelreich, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer ($30–$40)

California
Top Recent Vintage: 1997
Our Recommendation: Stags Leap Wine Cellars 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon,
Cask 23, Napa Valley ($150–$300)
Top Older Vintage: 1985, 1991
Our Recommendation: Araujo 1991 Cabernet Sauvignon,  Eisele Vineyard, Napa Valley ($350–$500)


Oregon
Top Recent Vintage: 1999
Our Recommendation: Chehalem 1999 Pinot Noir, Rion Reserve, Willamette Valley ($29–$60)
Top Older Vintage: 1992, 1994
Our Recommendation: Domaine Drouhin 1992 Pinot Noir, Cuvée Laurène, Oregon ($75–$125)

Washington
Top Recent Vintage: 2000
Worth a Search: Waterbrook 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon, Ciel du Cheval Vineyard, Red Mountain ($28–$40)
Top Older Vintage: 1994, 1996
Worth a Search: Leonetti Cellar 1994 Merlot, Washington ($120–$200)

South America
Top Recent Vintage: 2000
Worth a Search: Tikal 2000 Jubilo, Mendoza, Argentina ($45–$55)
Top Older Vintage: 1999, 1997
Our Recommendation: Casa Lapostolle 1997 Merlot, Clos Apalta, Rapel Valley, Chile ($60–$75)

Australia
Top Recent Vintage: 1998
Our Recommendation: Yalumba 1998 Shiraz, The Octavius, Barossa ($80–$120)
Top Older Vintage: 1986, 1990
Our Recommendation: Penfolds 1990 Grange, South Australia ($500–$700)

Coming next month: Anthony Dias Blue’s three-part wine-collecting series continues with the second installment, “The Quest for the Rarest of the Rare Vintages: A Buyer’s Guide.”

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