For the wine lover with no collection of his or her own, the handsome cellar sourced from the world’s great (and obscure) regions—with bottles inching toward maturity in ideal conditions, just waiting to be pulled for the perfect dinner match—can seem daunting. It’s the domain of the savvier student of enology or the intrepid explorer willing to give over outsized chunks of life in the pursuit of producers and offerings out of reach of mere mortals.
Jamie Ritchie, Worldwide Head of Sotheby’s Wine, begs to disagree. In spite of the reach of Sotheby’s, whose auctions famously delve into some of the most storied cellars in the world (or maybe because of that), he lays out concrete advice that explodes the aura of mystery—what you need to consider before randomly buying bottles, resources available for anyone to tap, cellar space itself and great opportunities in the marketplace right now. We also tapped Melissa Smith, founder of San Francisco Bay Area–based Enotrias, whose wine cellar management consulting services include “organization, inventory, tracking software, valuation, brokering, wine curation for investment and consumption, and collection maintenance,” as well as seasoned wine collectors for their own takes on the principles and pitfalls of acquiring wine. Collectively, their advice makes it clear that a great wine cellar is within reach.
Start by Assessing Your Personal Goals for Your Wine Collection
There’s no single “right” way to build a collection, but you also don’t want to go about it in a scattershot manner. The key is being in tune with your own interest and needs, so Ritchie encourages asking yourself a series of questions:
- What is your budget?
- Is your priority drinking now as compared to laying down for later, for yourself or buying as an investment (more on investing later)?
- What regions and varieties do you gravitate to most?
- Are there any special years your collection should cover? (Anniversaries, children’s birthdays, etc.)
- When it comes to your consumption habits, how much will you need for everyday drinking vs. dinner parties vs. special occasions?
Your answer to these questions will help you balance the contents of your cellar to best meet your needs. For instance, if you’re planning to do a lot of entertaining, don’t just think about only the wines you like to drink, but also stock up on bottles that will cater to the tastes of your friends and family. “The cellar becomes a resource, because wine is a social lubricant and such an amazing way to bring people together,” says prominent collector Ryan Nagle. “I have a lot of stuff in my cellar that I know somebody else is going to love to drink—it’s going to be a draw for us to have a conversation, even if it’s not the best wine for me and my palate.”
And if you want to have a cellar filled with amazing vintages for special occasions, start buying wines young that you can age yourself. You’ll find incredible value this way as opposed to always having to chase older wines on the secondary market.
Make a Plan for The Cellar Itself So You Store Your Wine Properly
Strategy abounds for procuring wine, but don’t lose focus on how you’ll store it once the bottles are in your possession. “For sound longevity, wine needs to be kept at a constant 55° F (ish), with no fluctuations; 60 to 80 percent humidity; dark; and vibration-free,” Ritchie says. “A home cellar is clearly best, as it gives you the closest access to enjoying your wines, with the greatest advantage of being able to choose what you want to drink at the last minute.” Smith agrees, with a couple of caveats to note: “Onsite means you have direct access to your collection, but the upfront cost and utilities are high.” That brings her to the option of offsite storage, for when you don’t have a dedicated room to spare or your collection is too large to effectively maintain at your home. Fortunately, there are numerous reputable wine storage facilities, like Phenol 55 in Seattle, Ideal 55 in LA, San Francisco Wine Center in (of course) San Francisco and Vino Vault, with locations in California and now New York.
It’s Important to Track Your Collection Effectively
If you’re keeping your cellar at home, you’ll want an assist with inventory, especially if you’re laying down wines to drink later. “It will help you keep track of what you have and watch out for wines that need to be consumed before they get too old,” Ritchie says. Smith rues the consequences of lax oversight: “Far too often I work in a cellar where at one time there was a system, but as time went on, chaos ensued and wines were just placed wherever there was room. This leads to a number of issues—you can’t find the right bottle, you grab (or someone else grabs) a very valuable bottle by accident, you lose track of wines that were meant to be drunk upon release and of course, if anything happens, you have no record of the wines you had.”
Online services like Cellar Tracker and Wine Owners will help you manage it on your own quite well. And if you are going with an outside facility to store your wine, the better ones will be of great help in this department. For instance, Phenol 55 has an app that will let you browse your collection, view professional tasting notes and tell you the best drinking window for your bottles. And Ideal 55 will appraise your collection as well as offer consultation services on purchasing and selling bottles.
Find the Wine Critic You Connect With
For the cinephiles out there, you know there are certain critics you always check in with when a new movie comes out. You may not always agree with an A.O. Scott or Dana Stevens, but you’ve come to recognize your tastes have aligned. That’s the same story with wine critics. There are many talented ones to look to—Robert Parker Wine Advocate, Jasper Morris Inside Burgundy, Jane Anson Inside Bordeaux, Antonio Galloni Vinous and many, many more. It helps to find one seeking out and reviewing the types of wines you gravitate to, as they can be an added source of inspiration in your pursuit of bottles. And, hey, I recommend a lot of great wines too!
Build a Personal Network of Trusted Sources to Steer You Toward Wine You’ll Love
The wine market can be convoluted, opaque and ad hoc, because you’re not just buying a commodity off the shelf. It’s a limited, specialized market where demand can be fierce. “It’s very hard to get allocations of some of this stuff—maybe you’re buying all of these other things with the hope of getting the wines you really want,” Nagle says. “You end up with all this junk from the seller because you’re trying to get something else from them.”
But knowing the right people can go a long way to connect you to the wine you want. “For information and acquiring, build a relationship with a local person you can trust—a sommelier, a reputable wine merchant, an auction house,” Ritchie says. “They have an interest in investing in you, and you in them. Their advice is generally free, and if you are loyal, you will be rewarded with the best access to limited available wines.” Smith puts a lot of stock in a great retailer. “Finding an established wine shop,” she says, “where the owners and sales people are passionate, knowledgeable and have first-hand experiences with the wineries and winemakers is essential to the enjoyment of wine. They will open your eyes to new producers, educate you on vineyard practices [that affect the style and quality of bottles you’re considering] and in the best cases, be able to arrange winery visits.”
Beyond just merchants, engage with other collectors as well. They’ll introduce you to new wines and also be able to share intel with you on how to source bottles better.
Don’t Get Scammed
As mentioned above, when chasing coveted wines, it can be difficult to know if what you’re getting is the genuine article. It helps to cut out as many middlemen as possible and know the provenance of the bottle.
“There are lot of counterfeits in the wine world, so you’ve really got to be careful where you get your wine from. I encourage everybody to buy as direct as they can—I tend to buy direct from the domaine if I can,” says Wais Jalali, a collector with more than 60,000 bottles. “And if you don’t buy direct, deal with someone who really gets into the provenance of the wine.” Jalali should know that even seasoned pros can be burned, as he purchased wine from Rudy Kurniawan, the famed wine counterfeiter the documentary Sour Grapes is based on. So Jalali will also buy from auction houses and other dealers he trusts with their authentication procedures and have assurances that he’s not receiving fakes.
Smith cautions that “research has to be done even when dealing with auction houses, to guarantee authenticity and provenance.” Ritchie offers some trusted auction and retail sources: “Sothebys Wine & Spirits (of course!), Berry Bros. & Rudd, Lay & Wheeler and Justerini & Brooks.” Smith’s go-to source, both for online and in-person purchases, is K&L Wine Merchants, which, she says, has “longstanding relationships with wineries all over the world, as well as an excellent auction department.”
But building your own well of knowledge will help you spot a fake. “For instance, if you were going to buy something around the war years or pre-war, the color of the bottles is going to look different,” Nagle says. And Nagle always likes to remember that these wines may be treated like treasures today, but in the past, they were just normal, everyday things that weren’t babied. “Sometimes you have to look and say, ‘Does this make sense?’ This wine has had a 70-, 80-, 100-year voyage, it shouldn’t look pristine. I’ve had plenty experience looking at a bottle and saying, ‘That’s a little too pretty.'”
Looking rough and ready isn’t a virtue either. Provenance of the wine is important so that you can ensure the juice inside is still good because you can be confident it has been treated well through the years. “It’s not just that it’s fake,” Nagle says. “It’s also about one has to be stored in perfect conditions.”
And as you get ready to buy a bottle, do your research on pricing by looking to sources like Wine-Searcher, Wine Market Journal, and Liv-Ex. They will help you know the ballpark price for a particular wine. “If it looks too cheap, there’s probably a reason,” Ritchie says. And finally, Smith advises you should be aware that “transporting wines is done seasonally by reputable sources because of extreme temperature fluctuations. You don’t want to go the cheap route after making expensive wine purchases and compromise what’s inside the bottle.”
How to Approach Wine as an Investment
Entrepreneur offers a strong argument for considering wine as an alternate investment to the stock market. “Fine wine,” it reported in August 2021, “has a long history of strong returns on investment. The non-traditional investment has yielded a 13.6 percent annualized return over the last 15 years.… Just look at the Liv-ex fine wine indices since 2003. Nearly all of them have tripled in value.” Telling stats on the stock market follow: “The Dow Jones has registered a 7.8 percent annualized return over the last 15 years, 10.47 percent for people that reinvested their dividends. The S&P didn’t fare much better at 8.58 percent and 10.66 percent, respectively.”
So as you start building a collection for your own consumption—short-term and long—the investment “bug” is healthy. Bottles with appreciation potential will present themselves, through savvy advice and growing knowledge, and from fellow collectors. It’s important to retain documentation of your purchase price—and provenance, if you have that from an auction house or rare-wine merchant. And when you consider selling, professionals from the major auction houses, merchants and wine management firms (such as Melissa Smith with Enotrias) are available to value wines and whole collections—and act as broker.
Smith suggests one more safeguard. “Stay on top of wine insurance. Home insurance does not cover loss, breakage and theft. And with offsite storage, it’s just as important. If there is a power outage that results in refrigeration failing, an earthquake that decimates your collection or mysteriously missing bottles, you have no recourse if your collection isn’t insured.”
What Varietals, Vintages and Regions to Buy Right Now
When it comes to promising segments of the wine market to chase at any given time, the aforementioned relationships you’ve developed with savvy merchants are an invaluable resource. The pros understand pricing fluctuations, supply, and value (to say nothing of general deliciousness).
Ritchie is clear with thoughts on current market opportunities. “Bordeaux is great value right now,” he says. “I would buy 2016, 2015, 2010, 2005 and 1998. Piedmont, the Rhône and Champagne are also still good values. Buy 2008 Champagne—it’s a great vintage.” All is not lost in his view, though, when it comes to scarcer regions. “Burgundy is seeing incredible demand, so buy the best growers you can in the best vintages you can. Full cases are hard to find, so don’t worry if you are picking up two to five bottles of some wines.” Jalali weighs in, too, on collecting Burgundy: “I used to be able to buy a case of Romanée Conti—a six-case—for $400 back in the ‘80s, and now that could set me back 75 grand. It’s crazy. So one of the unfortunate things for me is that a lot of people can’t afford to buy the wines anymore—you have to be super-ultra wealthy to enjoy good Burgundy. But there are a lot of good young winemakers producing Burgundy at reasonable prices, like Charles Lachaux.”
Smith takes the long view on the world’s great wines: “Bordeaux, Burgundy, vintage Champagne, cult Italian wines and ‘First Growth’ California wines will always fare well as an investment.” But, she says, “following emerging winemakers is a great way to get in early. There’s a lot of talent out there that will only continue to get better. I like to focus on smaller and lesser-known regions within the US that are focusing on sound vineyard practices and making balanced wine with minimal intervention. France, Italy and Spain also have so many smaller regions with incredible wines that we rarely see, but that the right wine shop can turn you on to.”