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Story by Heather Irwin
Illustrations by Keith Negley
I have a grand total of about 30 bottles of wine in my “collection” (read spare kitchen cupboard and borrowed space in my grandmother’s wine refrigerator), only three of which are worth more than $60. The rest hover in value from “leftover from a dinner party” to the $12 to $45 range. They’ve been collected over three years, bottle by bottle, as funds allowed, and probably are worth about $800 total.
The thought of spending inordinate amounts of money on a wine collection might seem a little crazy to those of us who get pretty darn excited about coughing up the cash for a special $60 bottle of Napa cabernet once in a while. But we still collect in our own modest way and, in truth, there are legions of us out there, quietly squirreling away one or two prized bottles at a time for our growing collections. I know because I see you at wineries and wine stores, Costco and BevMo, pondering your next purchase alongside me.
For those of us with limitations like budgets and available storage space, starting a wine collection isn’t really about finding the perfect resting spot for prized bottles of obscenely costly auction wines. It’s about figuring out what we like enough to want to buy a bottle—even a case or two—to put away for a special day. A wine collection is about “going deep” and buying not just a single vintage, but multiple years of a winemaker’s best wines; and it’s about creating a cellar—or just a nice closet full—of wines that you want to enjoy for years.
1. Decide on a Budget
Decide how much you can spend on this hobby—not always an easy thing. “Telling someone how much to put aside to start their wine collection is like telling them how much they should spend on their first car,” says Alder Yarrow, creator of vinography.com. “However, aspiring collectors may be surprised to know that as little as $300 or $400 can be enough to buy some excellent bottles that will [last] the next 20 years.” For more flexibility, a great starting place is about $1,000. If you’ve just broken into a cold sweat, don’t worry—you can spread out the spending over months or even years.
You’ll likely spend more on some bottles that are highly collectible, but wine writer and TV personality Leslie Sbrocco says there are plenty of great values in the $25 to $30 range. “Good California cabernets—not cults—are findable in that range, as are Argentine malbecs, a few Oregon and New Zealand pinot noirs and Washington state merlots,” Sbrocco says. “French Bordeaux dubbed ‘cru bourgeois’ are great deals too. With $1,000 you can really do some nice things.”
2. Buy What You Like
Having a wine collection is about enjoying your wine. Think about which wines you like to drink. Are they Old World wines, like those from traditional regions in Bordeaux, Burgundy or Italy, or do you enjoy bright, fruity New World wines from California or Australia? Ideally your collection should be varied, but to start, stock what you most enjoy. Keep in mind that Old World wines often are made to be aged. New World wines—while sometimes made for aging—are often best drunk within three to seven years.
Also think about whether you’re a white or red person. A few white wines—some sauternes and gewürztraminers— will age for a decade or more, but whites don’t typically age as long as reds, which can take decades to reach full potential. In your collection, generally think reds for long-term storage and whites for short-term drinking.
3. Professional Refrigeration Isn’t for Everyone
Do you want to collect for fun or investment? If it’s just about having some nice wine to pair with dinners or share with friends, without longterm cellaring, you probably won’t need to invest in heavy-duty refrigeration or a storage locker. If you plan to cellar for years, or possibly sell your bottles down the line, you’ll need to make sure you’re storing the wine at its optimum temperature: a constant 55 degrees. “Wine likes to be stored at a cool temperature,” says Joe Padulo, owner of Portland Wine Storage in Portland, Ore. “Fifty-five degrees allows a wine to develop and age gracefully. Too cool slows down the aging process; too warm makes for a short life span. But the most critical factor is that a wine is kept at a constant temperature; spikes and fluctuations are what kill wines prematurely.”
If you’re serious about long-term storage for a large quantity of wine, consider a wine storage locker. Small units start at about $40 a month, and your wine will be professionally maintained. Drawback: No lastminute trips to the cellar; you’ll have to plan ahead, because most keep 9 to 5-ish business hours. You can find a list of storage lockers in several states online at wine-searcher.com/storage.lml.
4. Storage, Storage, Storage
Before you buy that first bottle, you need to figure out where you’re going to store your stash. A good rule of thumb is to estimate the number of bottles you plan to collect, then multiply that by three. Often a basement will maintain the steady temperature your wines will need, though you should take some temperature readings at different times of the day to be safe. “In the short term, [temperature] fluctuation has little noticeable effect on a wine, but in the long term it’s the kiss of death,” Padulo says. A closet in the northeast corner of your home can be a good choice (it stays cooler than the rest of the house). Whatever you do, never put your wine on top of the refrigerator or above the stove or laundry area, where heat and vibration will wreak havoc on your collection. Humidity’s also a factor; if a space is too dry, the cork will dry out and ruin the wine.
Purchase some inexpensive wine racks or build your own. There are several reasonably priced kits available. You may also want to buy a small refrigeration unit for your kitchen to store bottles you want to serve.
5. Ready, Set, Taste
You’re almost ready to start buying. Almost. The next step is to taste to see what you like. If you live in a region with tasting rooms (and wines you want to collect), make an appointment with the winemaker or go to public barrel tastings to see how the wines are shaping up. If not, local wine stores usually offer tastings where you can sample their wares. Avoid buying wine based merely on scores or tasting notes because they’re based on someone else’s palate—not yours. It’s a starting point, but certainly not an end-all.
If you find a winery you really love, joining its wine club or mailing list is sometimes a good value. But proceed with caution—unless you are totally committed and want multiple vintages, you can sometimes get stuck with clinkers.
6. Triple Up on Favorites
The price of a case of wine can sometimes be prohibitive for new collectors, ranging from a few hundred to nearly $1,000. But here’s why cases are good if you can afford them: Knowing the perfect moment to open a bottle of wine can be a dicey thing—too early and it might not show well; too late and it might have lost fruit and character. If you have a case, you can try a favorite wine over the span of its life. An alternative, if you can’t afford a case, is to buy three or four bottles at a time.
7. Find the Deals
Here’s where winery clubs or mailing lists come in handy. Before wines are bottled, wineries often offer discounted “futures,” selling their upcoming vintages at 10 percent or 20 percent below the final bottle cost. If you’re willing to take a chance on a wine, not knowing its true bottled character, this can be a great deal.
Local wine auctions and the Internet can also be a source of great values, but be wary; you can’t always be sure how the wine was handled—if it got too warm or the cork was jostled—when ordering from folks you’ve never met. “It’s just too easy to get ripped off,” Yarrow says. Best bets are to get the wine directly from the winemaker, or, Yarrow suggests, establish relationships with nearby retailers or reputable Web retailers like vinfolio.com, which caters to collectors. In addition, Sbrocco recommends looking for deals at larger retailers like Costco and BevMo.
You can often get a discount on wines if you buy by the case or take advantage of sales and end-of-vintage deals (at that point, however, there might be a reason the wine hasn’t sold out—proceed with caution).
8. Go Deep
True collectors want to show breadth and diversity in their assemblage. Try to gather multiple vintages of a single wine (like the ’97 though ’01 Caymus) to see how a wine develops over time, through different winemakers, growing conditions and hang time. Yes, it’s a bit geeky and you’ll annoy your friends with your encyclopedic knowledge of a single vineyard or wine, but if you’re a collector, they’ll understand.
9. Think Twice About Trophies
The crowning jewels of any collection are rare, hard-to-find trophy wines. Their appeal comes from incredible care in cultivation and bottling, limited availability or the star-status of the winemakers (sometimes above all else). These are wines that collectors are willing to spend anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars for.
In California, Screaming Eagle, which is almost impossible to acquire—and if you do get it, insanely expensive (think thousands)—is a good example of a trophy wine. But you don’t have to think that big. Wineries like Williams Selyem or Colgin Cellars are also considered trophy wines; you may have to wait several years to get a bottle, but it will be worth it.
Still, be wary of trophy-wine hype. Often the cultish trophies are a bit overplayed, and you can find equally magnificent wines for much less. “People should always buy wines for their collection that they have tasted and actually like,” Yarrow says.
10. Keep Learning
Remember that the fun in collecting isn’t just the purchase, but everything leading up to it. Do the research, read reviews and books, taste, talk and ask questions. When you do end up pouring that magical first glass from your newly created collection, you’ll enjoy it all the more—whether it’s a $10 chardonnay or a rare German riesling—because you put the time and effort into finding it.
Want this article for your personal library? Pick up the July/August 2006 issue of Imbibe.