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Building a World-Class Wine Collection: The Quest for the Rarest of the Rare Vintages

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Since before the knights errant set forth in search of the Holy Grail, the juice of Vitis vinifera has furnished the inspiration for many a human quest. Though the first sips were imbibed by Neolithic connoisseurs in Hajji Firuz in the Zagros Mountains of Iran, mankind’s most unquenchable thirst was formed by the ancient Greeks in 300 B.C., when wine from Magna Graecia was in tremendous demand across the Mediterranean, from Asia Minor to as far away as the Iberian Peninsula. Carried aboard ships’ terra-cotta amphorae, this precious libation underwent strict quality control that included the first known appellation designations, thereby guaranteeing the origins of the wine to nervous buyers, who nevertheless often mixed it with spices, seawater, and sometimes even cheese, before serving. When Athens fell to Rome in the first century B.C., the essentials of Greek viticulture and oenology had been solidly established across Western Europe. Many citizens of the Empire prized wine above human life: The Gauls (not coincidentally, precursors of the modern French) traded slaves in exchange for the winemakers’ bounty, which was usually strong and seldom aged longer than a year.

But not all ancient wines bore the impetuous flavors of youth; the most widely sought and costly Roman concoction, Falernian, made from the Aminean grape, was a white wine that was aged for at least 20 years. The first-growth white wine of the Roman epoch (their Château d’Yquem, Cheval Blanc, and Pétrus combined, if you will), this amber elixir was supposed to carry such a high alcohol content that it could be set aflame. Just as contemporary wine collectors will clamor after 1961 Château Margaux, denizens of the day would part with any sum to make a conspicuous display of an amphora of the legendary 121 B.C. vintage of Faustian Falernian (the very best), a 160-year-old goblet of which, the historian Pliny claimed, was once served to Caligula.

The world of wine indeed evolves slowly, and it is curious to reflect, if tastes for other rarities have changed in the past 2,000 years, how little our taste for fine wine has altered—and our desire to acquire it. The true difference between now and centuries past lies not so much in the manner in which we appreciate fine wines, but in how we procure them. No longer must collectors send carefully packed crates back by steamer from their world tours—nor, thankfully, unload cumbersome amphorae from Greek vessels in the port at Carthage.

Probably never before in history have so many sources for fine wine (whether retail, the Internet, or auctions) been available to so many collectors, and yet collectors still must search the globe with all the resolve of a wind-tossed Phoenician trader to obtain certain trophy vintages. The following resources, profiled by critic Anthony Dias Blue, should guide the modern connoisseur in obtaining the very rarest and most obscure bottles. We doubt, of course, that any of these providers will carry the Falernian 121 B.C.; however, searchers can console themselves with Pliny’s own assessment: that no commodity appreciates in value faster when it has been cellared 20 years, nor depreciates as precipitously thereafter.

The Retail Angle

The local retail wine shop is probably the outlet wherein most serious wine collectors get their start, and to be sure, retail buying does have its advantages. The sheer presence of hundreds or even thousands of bottles in a high-quality retail space gives plenty of play to the imaginations of novice collectors, who will find among the bins and shelves not only new discoveries, but education and inspiration.

London’s historic Berry Bros. & Rudd represents one end of the retail scale, the traditional shop, where a clubby, wood-paneled ambience prevails and members of Parliament might be overheard debating the respective virtues of competing vintages of claret. While this establishment’s prices tip to the higher end, selection is both wide and deep, the cellars literally extending beneath St. James’s Street.

At the other end of the scale, one finds the racier discount houses, whose

ambience is decidedly warehouse-oriented. Ron Loutherback, founder of The Wine Club, a retailer with three California locations, is the doyen of discounters. Loutherback says that his low overhead allows him to cut the markup on wine by a significant percentage, passing the savings on to the customer. The company grossed $42 million in 2002, its third-best year ever. “When I went into business 30 years ago,” Loutherback says dryly, “my customers told me they wanted the best possible wines—for free—and they wanted to be able to taste them first.”

Although his wines are not quite free, Loutherback has fulfilled at least part of his clientele’s expectations with tasting facilities at all three locations, and the floor-stacked crates do not deter serious collectors from shopping there. “If you spend $100,000 a year on wine, are you a serious collector?” asks Loutherback rhetorically, referring to more than a handful of his customers.

The Auctions

Even collectors for whom price is no object still love bargains, and the one tried-and-true method is to purchase wines at auction. James Christie’s very first auction, held in London in December of 1766, included “a large quantity of Madeira and high flavoured Claret, late the Property of A Noble Personage (Deceas’d).” Wine has been a staple at auction houses ever since.

Competition among auction houses is fierce, creating a favorable environment for sellers and buyers alike. Richard Brierley, head of North American wine sales at Christie’s, reports that although auction houses have worked traditionally for the seller, he now works just as hard—or harder—for the buyer. “The more you know about a collection, the better you can represent it to a potential buyer,” Brierley says. He enjoys matching older collections with younger collectors. “We have to keep both the sellers and the buyers on our radar screen. We should do some work for our money!” he quips.

Christie’s holds regular wine auctions in both New York and Los Angeles, as well as in London, Geneva, and Amsterdam. The house has garnered a reputation for Burgundy in particular, which now constitutes 40 to 50 percent of Christie’s wine sales. Brierley acknowledges, however, that “the next thing to come might be Alsace and the Rhône. These wines are making better money at auction now.”

Sotheby’s, likewise, has an active wine department, although U.S. auctions are now held only in New York. Zachys, the noted Scarsdale retailer which had previously partnered with Christie’s, recently reestablished its auction program independently in the relaxed ambience at Restaurant Daniel in Manhattan, where registered bidders can enjoy a buffet lunch matched with wines from Daniel’s list. “We really try to create a fun atmosphere,” explains Zachys President Jeff Zacharia, “and people seem to respond to that.”

America’s hottest wine auction house at the moment happens to be America’s oldest wine shop. Acker Merrall & Condit, the venerable retailer founded in 1820, took to the auction floor in 1998 at the insistence of its young president, John Kapon. Acker Auctions took in $17.1 million in 2002, a big jump over the previous year and ahead of established rivals such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s. “I work a regular group of core collectors,” says Kapon, who also reports that after-auction events, such as Bring Your Own Bottle parties, are helping to boost attendance and sales. “Some of our heaviest collectors are incredibly cool people!” Kapon enthusiastically exclaims.

The Wine Consultant

Consultants definitely make life easier for busy collectors. Christian Navarro, a partner at Wally’s Wine & Spirits in Los Angeles, has consulted for Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, Sharon Stone, and Michael Ovitz. Navarro takes the idea of a “personal shopper” to a whole new level. “We don’t do cookie-cutter consulting,” Navarro explains; “custom requests are our specialty.” Aside from helping customers select from Wally’s massive inventory, Navarro frequently facilitates the purchase of private cellars, evaluates collections, acts as a proxy at auctions, helps select wines for major entertainment-industry parties, and meets with architects to consult on the design of private cellars. Navarro even occasionally flies to Europe to supervise the creation of special cuvées for his best customers.

Kevin Swersey, former auction director at Zachys, formed Manhattan-based The Connoisseur’s Advisory Group in 2000 to help high-net-worth individuals to obtain and manage their fine art and wine collections. Swersey has a worldwide client base to which he provides white-glove services, such as vetting collections prior to auction and managing cellar inventories. “We once received a last-minute phone call from a client who was flying from the West Coast through Washington, D.C., on his way to Italy to meet the Ferrari family,” Swersey recalls, “and he wanted to have a bottle of 1945 Château Mouton-Rothschild to hand-carry as a gift. We had to acquire a bottle of excellent provenance on his behalf and then hop on the next flight to Dulles, where I handed him the gift-wrapped bottle as he jogged between gates to catch his connecting flight to Italy.”

The Mailing Lists

Increasingly, wineries have begun to undercut the traditional marketing infrastructure by selling their wines directly to consumers. As interstate shipping regulations relax, this trend will continue. With many producers, direct sales are made at the winery itself or via the Internet. But the most highly collectible wines are available direct to collectors only through tightly controlled mailing lists.

Williams Selyem, a Russian River Valley producer specializing in much sought-after, vineyard-designated Pinot Noir, has a mailing list of about 9,400 active customers. Winery spokesperson Rebecca DeSart explains that customers are considered “active” if they order once in every four vintages. The wait for inclusion on the list is currently six months to one year.

As is the case at many cult wineries, Williams Selyem gives preferential treatment to clients with a regular buying history, offering larger quantities to longtime customers. “But our allocation system is a projection, not a guarantee,” DeSart cautions. “Orders are still filled on a first-come, first-served basis. True collectors know that they need to turn their order form around quickly.”

The Futures Market

“Ninety-five percent of futures is Bordeaux,” explains Todd Hess, wine director of Sam’s Wines & Spirits in Chicago. “The whole concept of futures results from the way the Bordeaux trade is organized.” Bordeaux negociants release pricing in May or June after each harvest, enabling retailers to offer these wines en primeur, two years before the wines are actually bottled. Savvy playing of the futures market can result in substantial savings because futures are offered only for very good or great vintages, such as the phenomenal 2000 Bordeaux, or when the wine is in short supply. These are the wines that will see the most appreciation in value between the time you pay and the time the bottles arrive.

The Wine Club, which now sells more Bordeaux futures than any retailer in the world, sold $15 million worth of the 2000 vintage wines in the four months that they were offered. According to Ron Loutherback, this included an astounding $3 million worth in a single hour early in the feeding frenzy. “With the 2000 vintage,” Hess reports, “we saw people buying way more wine than they could ever possibly drink.”

The Internet

The 1990s saw new wine-related Internet start-ups popping faster than corks on Krug Clos du Mesnil at an embassy reception. Only a few of these concerns have survived. WineBid.com is currently at the top of the Internet wine sales charts, with $14.2 million in sales in 2002. Jerry Zech, WineBid’s soft-spoken CEO, notes that collectors appreciate the convenience of online auctions. “We’re open 24/7, and the recently revamped interface is easier than ever to use.” WineBid currently opens a new auction every two weeks, sometimes grouping lots by theme.

In spite of the Internet’s youthful appeal, Zech explains that WineBid’s clientele (which is 97 percent male) is “not necessarily younger than that of traditional auction houses,” although he admits they are “more technically wired.” The transactions may be digital, but every bottle offered for auction online at WineBid is physically inspected at one of the company’s brick-and-mortar facilities. Proprietary appraisal software is used to provide high and low estimates for each lot and to help the seller set a reserve. Reserves are usually kept low to encourage active bidding.

One distinct advantage of online auctions is that the primary market is by-the-bottle rather than by-the-case. “It’s a niche we’ve focused on,” says Zech, “and it’s a great way for people who are getting into wine to obtain older vintages. You can find some real bargains.”

Coming next month: Anthony Dias Blue’s three-part wine-collecting series concludes with the final installment, “Stellar Wine Cellars: Showcasing Your Vintage Masterpieces.”

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