Originally published in the October 2015 issue of Robb Report Collection as “Rock ’N’ Romanée”
Meet Joe Smith, the man who introduced the Eagles to Château Pétrus.
An imperial of 1961 Château Lafite Rothschild has the prime spot in the wine room of Joe Smith’s Beverly Hills home, the star of a collection that includes numerous other rare, 6-liter bottles from the likes of Château Lynch-Bages and Gaja. The ’61 is the first bottle any visitor sees, strategically placed near the entrance and illuminated just enough to read the label.
It deserves the spotlight. Beyond being the best known of the Bordeaux first growths, the vintage is considered one of the finest of the 20th century, and spotting a bottle of any size is a thrill for a collector. But serious wine lovers know these behemoths hold something even greater, a wine that can evolve more slowly, with deeper complexity, due to the minimal amount of air between the cork and the juice. The ’61 also is the only bottle of the 1,400 on hand that is not to be opened.
“It’s in my will,” says Smith, who assembled his storied collection while running three major record labels. “My children have instructions that should my eyes roll back in my head, they pour it in me, over me, or bury it with me. It’s not being left behind.”
Smith acquired the bottle like he did most of his collection: upon release, directly from producers, merchants, and importers, starting in 1964. While celebrities and the occasional movie mogul owned some bottles of note, in those days the music industry was more whiskey and weed than wine. “Dukes and the Astor family collected wine,” says Smith’s son, Jeff, “not some guy who had been a disc jockey in Boston and was working at a record company.”
After his years as a DJ, Smith became an executive at Warner Bros. Records in 1961, and then moved on to head Elektra/Asylum Records, and finally Capitol/EMI until retiring in 1993. He helped sign some of the biggest names in music—Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt. And he brought an impresario’s approach to wine collecting, too, befriending and buying directly from the best winemakers around the globe.
By the early 1970s, Smith had emerged as a wine evangelist in the music world. He turned the Eagles into fans of Château Pétrus, which they proceeded to include in their concert riders. He made Phil Walden, the Capricorn Records founder who guided the career of the Allman Brothers Band, into a collector. And he got brothers Ahmet Ertegun and Nesuhi Ertegun, partners at Atlantic Records, to embrace the Cabernets of Napa Valley.
By the 1980s, his collection peaked at 7,500 bottles—worth close to $2 million—and his Beverly Hills home was known for its elaborate parties, serious wine tastings, and a cellar that astounded celebrities, rock stars, and entertainment executives.
But today, the cellar is pared down to please just the man who collected them all.
Pick out a wine in Smith’s cellar, and odds are there is a good story to go with it. Standing in the vineyards of Barbaresco in Italy with Angelo Gaja in the early 1980s. The contest he created for EMI employees in Australia to buy up every bottle of Penfolds Grange they could find because it was not widely available in the States. Pestering Napa Valley winemaker Joe Heitz to take phone orders and then having his employees call in to buy as much as possible. The bottle of 1900 Château Margaux, a gift from Garth Brooks, that he suspects is a fake.
“I’ve made it an eclectic collection of wine,” says Smith, 87, who is also a passionate follower of the Los Angeles Lakers and has been a season ticket holder for 55 years. “It’s wide, not deep. I don’t have seven cases of anything.”
He started assembling his collection in 1964 after an eventful meal in Paris. He was on a business trip, dining at the bistro L’Ami Louis, where he tried foie gras paired with Château d’Yquem Sauternes for the first time. His reaction: What have I been missing?
Smith promptly bought Frank Schoonmaker’s Encyclopedia of Wine and, having just completed a memory course, spent two weeks memorizing vineyards, vintage reports, and producers. He made quick friends with Roy Kavin, the owner of Greenblatt’s Delicatessen on Sunset Boulevard, then known as the wine purveyor to movie stars and celebrities. His first purchase was a few bottles of 1961 Château Lafite Rothschild for $9 apiece and some 1962 Château Lynch-Bages. Those bottles were $3 each.
Anytime Kavin had something interesting, Smith would get a call. One of the most important calls began with Kavin saying, “I’m serving the best wine I have ever had and you better get over here. I don’t have very much left.” Smith was in a meeting with Jackson Browne. “I said, ‘Jackson, I have a personal problem. I’ve got to leave right now. I’ll call you at home tonight,’ ” recalls Smith.
He raced to Greenblatt’s from his nearby office at Elektra Records and joined Kavin in sampling Henri Jayer’s 1978 Vosne-Romanée Cros Parantoux. Kavin had two and a half cases of the Jayer, a limited-production wine and at the time virtually unknown. All of it wound up in Smith’s cellar. “I had never tasted a wine that great,” Smith says. Indeed, in the last 12 months, the Jayer has fetched $16,993 and $7,170 per bottle at auction.
There is still a price tag on one of Smith’s bottles: $40.
For a man who had never sipped anything but kosher wine before tasting that Sauternes, Smith fell hard for Bordeaux. Burgundy came next, then wines from the Rhône, Italy, Spain, and Australia. As Napa Valley was getting its act together in the late 1960s, Smith was there buying the soon-to-be-celebrated Cabernets: Beaulieu Vineyard Private Reserve, Heitz Cellar Martha’s Vineyard, and Joseph Phelps Insignia. Smith loved putting the BV Reserve in blind tastings, especially the acclaimed 1970, to get Francophiles such as Atlantic Records’ Nesuhi Ertegun to warm up to Napa wines.
The wines of Bart Araujo and Ann Colgin would follow, as he continued to befriend winemakers around the globe. “We were drinking everything,” Smith says, noting that while French wines were the “most interesting and complex,” he wanted to try “the best of the best” from California, Italy, Argentina, Spain, and Australia.
Ann Colgin of Colgin Cellars met Smith when she began running the West Coast wine department at Sotheby’s in the mid-1990s, a time when auctions were still attracting only a handful of music industry executives. Smith stands out as a “passionate and generous wine lover,” she says. “He wants to showcase wine and give people a chance to taste great wine. It’s not about only serving your best bottles to knowledgeable wine drinkers.”
As Smith expanded Warner Bros. Records’ reach into rock ’n’ roll, his wine adventures grew simultaneously. Smith and his wife, Donnie, and two children moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where he installed a wine storage area in the attic. When he ran out of space, he converted a poolside cabana into a wine cellar—California wines on the right, imports on the left, trophy wines on display, and a tasting area in the middle.
Every business trip, whether to San Francisco, London, or New York, became a wine opportunity. Excursions to Bordeaux became a regular part of his business trips to London; a visit to Paris usually meant a dinner with a celebrated winemaker.
One of his trips to Paris coincided with Frank Sinatra performing at the Olympia theater. He secured a healthy collection of tickets and invited an assortment of winemakers from Bordeaux to see the show and meet Ol’ Blue Eyes. “We rented a train car for them all to be there,” Smith says. “You had Mouton and Lafite and I had them all backstage. I told Frank they were music writers and disc jockeys and he posed for pictures with everybody. If you go into the offices of these guys there’s probably still a picture of them on the wall with Frank.”
By the late 1970s, Smith had begun to find other like-minded wine aficionados such as the film producer Si Litvinoff, music manager George Greif, and TV producer/writer Sam Denoff. Denoff started a wine group called WOW—the World Organization of Wine—which for decades met weekly at the Sunset Strip restaurant Le Dome for three-hour wine lunches. The get-togethers, as legendary for the quality of wine poured as for the participants’ aggressive arguments, are now monthly at other restaurants around town. Smith belongs to a couple of other groups as well—the Chazzers du Vin and the Coalition of the Willing, which his son Jeff runs.
“It’s a bit competitive—everybody wants to be seen as a winner—but Joe has all the best wine, the best vintages,” says Robert Uhl, a lawyer who joined WOW in the mid-1980s. For WOW’s August lunch, which Uhl organized, the dozen French wines served included a vertical of Domaine Ballot-Millot’s white Burgundy from Meursault, Corton-Charlemagne grand crus from Colin-Morey, Lucien Le Moine, and Henri Boillot, and the 2006 Bordeaux wines of Pichon Lalande, Troplong Mondot, and Leoville Las Cases.
While WOW has seen defections, deaths, and the ousting of a club president, Uhl says Smith remains the one member everyone gravitates toward. “Yes, the bottles are fabulous, but he’s a man who knows how to live, what to spend his money on,” Uhl says. “Fine wine, fine dining, fine travel. He is also one of the warmest people I have ever met, with a wicked sense of humor.”
Often it has been said that 1982 was a turning point for wine, the start of the modern age. The influential wine critic Robert Parker, then balancing a law career and his Wine Advocate newsletter, championed the vintage upon its release in 1983.
“He wrote that this is the best he had ever seen—he was betting on it,” Smith recalls. “I called him and asked, ‘Robert, is this serious?’ So I started buying ’82s. I bought a ton.”
Eventually, though, the stockpile of wine became burdensome. Unlike people who create cellars as a hobby or an investment, Smith’s goal always was to drink his collection.
“He realized it would take 20 years to drink the wine if he had a bottle a day,” Jeff Smith notes. “He weeded it out, but there are still decent verticals of Vega-Sicilia and d’Yquem, seven vintages of Grange, whatever the best of the best is.”
Less than two years after Joe and Donnie moved to a smaller house in Beverly Hills, Jeff Smith had client No. 1 for his new cellar-management business, Carte du Vin. But in this case, he was organizing and tracking a collection that, unlike most, lacks receipts and auction records. Smith’s daughter Julie also went on to a career in wine and owns Cent’Anni, a winery in Los Olivos, Calif., with her husband, the television executive Jamie Kellner.
Apart from those early $3 bottles of Lynch-Bages, prices generally elude Smith’s memory—and he calls himself an “oddity” in the world of wine collecting. “Nobody has collections of aged wines that have been sitting there waiting to come out,” Smith says. “It’s enough that when we go out to eat, I can bring a great bottle of wine. I’ll open any bottle of wine, that’s what they’re there for.”
That night, he was in a Spanish mood, and so he reached for a 1999 Dominio de Pingus.
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Building a Better Cellar
With skyrocketing release prices, limited supplies of Bordeaux and Burgundy, and more competition for top-tier wines, building a collection the way Joe Smith did is no longer possible. But his son, Jeff Smith, a wine consultant and cellar manager, offers tips for those who aim for a top-shelf—and drinkable—collection.
◗Follow your own bliss. “Get the kind of wine you like and don’t let anybody tell you that’s wrong.”
◗Think about the future. “When I started in this business, Robert Parker was giving Australian wines and Turley Zinfandels 96 points and people were doing a metric in their heads about cost-to-quality ratio: a 96-point Turley Zinfandel for $40 or $200 for Lynch-Bages.” In the long run, though, wines meant to age are the ones that hold their value.
◗Aim for excellence. “While you don’t want a collection that is all at a certain level—you do need Tuesday night wines—you do want to show off and take special bottles to restaurants.” Seek out a few status symbols.
◗How good is your last bottle? “Do you want the last thing you remember about wine is drinking the worst bottle in your cellar? There is some waste built into the hobby. You have to accept that.” If you make a bad purchase, get rid of it.
◗Stay current. “I put all of my clients on CellarTracker [cellartracker.com], which has user reviews offering opinions about whether something is good to drink right now.”
◗Keep an eye on auctions. “There are not great steals anymore, but there are still good values at auctions.”