I started collecting wine almost by accident. Actually, entirely by accident. I was working in the restaurant industry and frequently received wine as a gift. Bottles came from colleagues, grateful customers, friends and representatives of wineries. During this time I also worked 6 nights a week so I had a lot of wine but did not have a ton of time to drink it. I brought home more bottles than I could consume so, by definition, a collection began.
As the years went on my collection turned more into the cluster of wines I passed over in order to drink other wines. I did not have a clear idea of what I was doing and I had no idea whether the wines I had been holding onto would still be good when I got around to drinking them. The collection, such as it was, followed me around from move to move poorly stored and more burdensome than enjoyable.
When I left the restaurant world I decided to undertake wine education for real. I began a multi-year program of study with The American Sommelier Society and Wine & Spirits Education Trust and that is when I shed the old and began a wine collection for real. I started to strategize about what wines I wanted to keep, how long I wanted to keep them and why. In June, my family and I left New Orleans for a move to London and my husband and I had to put our entire collection in storage. It was at that point that I was forced to sit down and write down every single bottle we owned. We ended up putting about 20 cases of wine in storage, and while going through bottle after bottle, noting exactly where each came from, what we thought of it and then whether it could stand the next 3 years in storage, I realized I had made the successful transition from just buying more than I could drink to actually having a wine “collection.”
I love collecting wine. I am not a great accumulator of “things,” preferring the experience to the souvenir, but I find wine sentimental. Romantic. Fun. Interesting. I love the vintages, the regions, the labels and the mystery. I collect now because I want to submerse myself in knowledge and enjoy the quest to understand the world of wine one bottle at a time. I can handle occasional disappointment when wines do not turn out as I’d hoped, and I love nothing more than sharing my success and rare discoveries when they come along. I may have started collecting by accident, but I continue now with absolute dedication and discipline.
If you are interested in beginning a wine collection, in beginning a lifelong journey in wine appreciation and all the varied and wonderful experiences that come with that, then what follows is a four-step primer to doing so.
STEP ONE: Establish a budget.
Wine collection is not reserved for the NetJets and Ferrari crowd, but you do need to first confirm that your income is greater than your outgoings before you set off on this adventure. Maybe you are going to budget in other areas to create room for wine buying - eating out less, buying cheaper shoes, letting your housekeeper go or diverting your childrens’ college funds into your checking account. However you do it, make sure you have the money. Starting a wine collection is not an undertaking for austere years.
STEP TWO: Create storage
Don’t start buying before you have somewhere to put the wines. A large wine refrigerator, a wine closet or a cellar will all do. Of utmost importance is a location that is cool, dark, and vibration free. No great wine collection starts in boxes stacked on top of your refrigerator. Well, they might start there - but they won't last. For wines you plan to hold for 5+ years or potentially sell later, you should avoid taking delivery of them at all. Call the better wine stores in your area and ask whether they manage wine storage or whether they have someone they recommend who does so. (In New Orleans, we store with Martin's Wine Cellar. In the UK we store at my in-laws’ cellar.)
STEP THREE: Figure out what you like. (It is about to get fun)
Are you a New World wine drinker or an Old World budding connoisseur? Do you like heavy alcohol or light? Red or white? Sparkling or still? There are loads of options and you should have a general idea of what wines you like to drink before you start collecting. (Keep in mind not all wines age well). The best way to figure out what you really love is to drink a lot of wine. There is no way around that. (Sorrynotsorry). Attend wine tastings, go to restaurants or wine shops that offer wines by the glass or tasting portions. If you are meeting friends for a drink, suggest a restaurant instead of a bar. Show up early and talk to the bartender. Chances are he or she would happily let you try a few wines before you select the wine you want. Start a tasting group – have friends come over and each bring a bottle of white, or a bottle of French wine, or a bottle of California Cabernet so you can start to compare and contrast the wines. Drink, drink, drink, drink, drink. Spitting is optional.
STEP FOUR: Establish Relationships
Whether you go the niche route – where you study, collect and enjoy one type of wine in the hopes of becoming an expert – or you go the generalist route, where you dabble in a little of this and a little of that, it is extraordinarily helpful to purchase wines from someone you trust and who you can talk to about your goals in collecting. It is a little different if you order direct from a winery or order online, but establishing a relationship with a local wine shop will help you in many ways. They will think of you when they get special wines in. They will alert you to tastings and special events. They may even connect you with other collectors in the area. Don’t underestimate the value of a personal touch and personal connection when it comes to wine. Also remember the women and men selling wine taste far more than you are ever likely to taste. They can help steer you in the right direction when making choices.
And now the fun begins!
Begin purchasing 3 to 4 identical bottles of wine. Record your purchase (something as simple as a notebook stashed in your wine closet will work but Excel is good for this too) including purchase price and purchase location. Drink a bottle and make a few tasting notes, and then put the others aside for storage. Open another bottle a year or two later. Then try another two years after that one. Notice the difference and how the wines mellow out, get more complex or more velvety. Let your collection be about the journey, not the destination. Don’t just buy buy buy - take your time and collect for sentimental reasons, educated reasons and advice from friends. If there is an article that turned you on to a certain wine, consider clipping it and folding it into your notebook. Try to buy wine when you travel; there is little that is a better keepsake from a trip than a wine with sentimental value. If there is a wine that you want to remember trying on a certain date, hang a note from the neck (buy inexpensive gift labels and tie them on the neck of the bottle).
Once you are ready to start collecting, here are a few categories and specific wines. Remember, buy 3-4 at a time. Taste one, save three. Make notes. Be sentimental. Take your time collecting and remember it is about the journey; there is no destination.
Chardonnay can make for an interesting wine given a few years of aging. Try a mid to high-end California Chardonnay or a white Burgundy and drink a bottle a year after purchase and then two years after that. It will give you an invaluable lesson on what happens to whites when given some time in the bottle.
Sauternes (sweet white dessert wines from Bordeaux, France) can age for years – decades really. Buy them in half bottles and give them at least 5 years before you even think about opening them. Even better, stash them all the way in the back and forget about them until your kids leave for college.
Champagne. There is disagreement over whether Champagnes get better with age or should be greedily consumed seconds after bottling. I, personally, like the extra yeasty, bready feature of Champagnes when they have a few extra years on them. Many people (the French) like them as fresh as possible. Buy a few bottles of a sold vintage Champagne and try them now and a few years down the line to see which side you are on. Solid choices here are vintage Champagnes from Pol Roger, Bollinger, Deutz and Louis Roederer.
Pinot Noir from Burgundy, Oregon or California
Burgundy is a difficult region to understand but can be quickly simplified if you first understand that their red wines are made from Pinot Noir grapes. The better ones age extremely well, and keep your eyes open for wines from the Côte de Nuits. There is no cheat sheet available; you just have to experience them and learn which producers and sub regions you like the best and how they differ. Ask for local recommendations and buy the best ones you can afford. Pick up a few bottles of Pinot Noir from Oregon or California as well and notice how they compare – both with their French counterparts and also how they compare from today to 5 years down the line. Recommended American pinot noirs for aging: Flowers (any of their wines) from California, Rex Hill and Domaine Drouhin from Oregon.
Rhone Valley Reds
You can find good values in Rhone Valley reds. The area is split into Northern Rhone and Southern Rhone so if you want to try both look for Northern Rhone wines from St-Joseph (a region within the region) from large, reliable producers like Guigal, Chapoutier and Delas. For Southern Rhone Wines you are going to pay a little more, but this is worth splashing out on. These are some of my favorite wines in the world. Look for La Nerthe Châteauneuf-du-Pape, M. Chapoutier, Chapelle St. Theodoric, Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe. If these are out of your price range, try looking in Vacqueyras, a region just to the east of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and still reasonably priced.
You can splash out and join the Hedge Fund / Dot Com / Wall Street (whoever else is rolling in dough and vilified in the press) crowd and go for the extremely expensive and mostly elusive “California Cult Cabs” or you can take a chance on some mid-priced California Cabernet Sauvignons and watch how they mature over a few years. Hall Winery Napa Valley, Ramey Napa Valley, Stags Leap Wine Cellars Artemis and Frei Brothers all cost under $70 a bottle and will be a great education for you over a period of years. (Or try a recent discovery of mine, Hope & Grace Stags Leap, for $75)
The red wines of Bordeaux are, of course, famous for their ageing potential. They are also famous for their price. There are plenty that are available for under $50 a bottle though. Start out small and see how you like them. Château Brane-Cantenac, Château Phélan Ségur, Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Château Talbot, Domaine de Chevalier Rouge are wines I have enjoyed for years that have never disappointed me.
Italian wines can be even harder to understand than French – if that is possible. For a starter wine collection keep it simple and go with Brunello di Montalcino wines from Tuscany. After you begin to understand the flavor profiles and aging potential, you can then branch out and compare to other Italian wines and understand blends, regions, producers and grapes. For your starter collection look for Brunello di Montalcino from Caparzo, Sancarlo and Talenti.