So you really fell for that Chambolle-Musigny you took a chance on the other night? But ask yourself if you’re ready for a relationship, because that’s the difference between a passion for drinking wine and a commitment to collecting it. You’re taking a leap—making a long-term bet with your time, your money, and your enthusiasm. And, as with any kind of partnership, it helps to know what you’re getting into.
Paul Grieco, the general manager and wine “overlord” of New York City’s Hearth Restaurant and Terroir wine bars, is not a man who is short on opinions. He suggests you develop some yourself. “The biggest mistake is people not figuring out why they are collecting and what they should be collecting,” he says. Other common pitfalls, according to Grieco: Buying too many trophy wines, and forgetting that wine is for drinking. “Do not buy based on scores,” he says. “This is not a beauty contest. You are buying an agricultural product.”
“The allure is to be able to just dash down to the cellar, like some nobleman at his country manor, and pick out something interesting for the evening’s meal,” says David Lynch, the coauthor of Vino Italiano and the wine director at Quince and Cotogna in San Francisco. Figure out what kind of collector you want to be, he says. “If you’re a show-off, then collecting gives you a chance to show off. If you just love drinking wine, it basically reduces the number of times you have to settle for whatever you can find at the supermarket because you didn’t think about what to drink with your steak tonight until too late.”
"The allure is to be able to just dash down to the cellar like some nobleman at his country manor and pick something interesting for the evening's meal"
– David Lynch
Anthony Giglio, the prolific writer, lecturer, and demystifier of wine, is a bit of a collecting skeptic. “I figure, either I’ll die or the wine will die,” he says. “I’d rather commit what some critics deem infanticide and drink a young and vibrant wine while I’m sure we’re both still sound.” That said, he’s got solid advice on how to balance a reasonably sized beginner collection: “I think that maintaining around three hundred bottles, or twenty-four cases, is a good place to start,” he says. “I’d break it down this way: Six cases of collectible wines, the stuff the critics tell you to put away for ten to twenty years (but you’re going to start trying them in five years to make sure they’re developing, not dying!). Then twelve cases of Saturday night wine, the stuff you keep for yourself and someone special or for small dinner parties, if you’re generous. And six cases for spontaneous grabbing.”
Temperature and humidity control are key. If you don’t have access to a naturally cool stone cellar or don’t have the budget to build an elaborate wine room, a small wine refrigerator (with separate temperature zones for red and white wines) can make a big difference. Giglio says he keeps about one hundred bottles in his city apartment, split evenly between his hallway and a fifty-bottle Sub-Zero wine fridge. “I keep the whites at forty-two and the reds at fifty-three. I’ve left a couple of bottles in there for a year or more, and they keep beautifully,” he says. Robert Bohr of Grand Cru Wine Consulting also suggests using a wine fridge and recommends an off-site storage facility for bigger collections: “As a New Yorker, my advice is framed by the tight quarters most of us live in,” he says. “You can use an off-site account as the default shipping address for online purchases, auction houses, and mailing list deliveries, so you can manage the limited wine-fridge space more efficiently.”
“If you’re not big-game hunting, you can find some deals in online auctions,” Bohr says. “I also find good value on great wines at retail stores that get caught holding too much inventory, and they offer unbelievable prices to move through stock.” Bohr suggests wines from top estates in Piedmont, in northwest Italy, both Barolo and Barbaresco. “They’re incredibly undervalued when compared with their peers in Burgundy and Bordeaux. And I’ve said for years that I believe Chablis is not only a great value in relation to its quality but also one of the great wine regions that is still far too underappreciated.” Paul Grieco’s list of undervalued wines includes the reds of the Loire Valley and the Languedoc-Roussillon region in France; cabernets from the Margaret River region in Australia; and anything from Germany.
Michael Madrigale, the wine director for Daniel Boulud’s Bar Boulud and Boulud Sud in New York City and an active collector himself, is bullish on bubbles: “Champagne is the greatest undervalued blue-chip wine region out there,” he says. “People only buy it for celebrations, but that’s wrong. The wines truly transform over time. Go deep on the ’02s, which are in the marketplace right now. There’s this airtight club of twenty-six small growers called the Special Club. They’re all required to grow their own grapes, and their ’02 club wines—namely the ones from Vazart-Coquart, J. Lassalle, and H. Gotourbe—are truly some of the best of the vintage.” What about buying ’02s from the big houses? “Cristal all day,” says Madrigale.
“Wine is like food: It spoils,” warns Anthony Giglio. “Unlike a Purdue chicken, there’s no little white button that pops up on the bottle to indicate it’s ready.” So how do you know if the critics were right that something can age eighteen years? You open it, drink it, and hope for the best. “My advice is to buy a case of something with the understanding that the entire case is not going to be there in 2018, when Robert Parker [the influential wine critic] says it’s set to expire. Check on these bottles every year or so, beginning around five years after purchase. Open a bottle or two on special occasions to see if it’s still holding on. It might be good one year, better another, then weird the next. You don’t want to regret holding on too long.”
“You can clean up at auctions, but you can also get hosed,” cautions Madrigale. “I like to compare it to a casino: If you don’t have parameters in place, you could find yourself under a bridge.” His advice for newcomers navigating the auction waters: “Don’t go for the great producers in the great years. There are learned [read “ruthless”] collectors who will stop at nothing to get these wines, and unless you’re bidding by phone from your compound in Gstaad, I’d back off. Look for off vintages from great producers, or lesser known producers in better years. The key is to always do your homework.”
"Look for off vintages from great producers, or lesser known producers in better years. The key is to always do your homework."
– Michael Madrigale
“The hard-core collectors always end up chasing the holy grail that is Burgundy,” David Lynch warns. “It’s an expensive and emotional affair. I’d start with a case of good red Burgundy—Premier or Grand Cru—which you should be able to find for about a thousand dollars. There are still values to be found in ’99 and ’01 and ’06.” One word of caution: “Don’t get in deep with Burgundy. It will consume and destroy you,” says Lynch.
It may be a few years before you’re ready to dust off the prize possessions you’ve stored in your cellar, but it’s never too early to start sounding like a connoisseur. “The most intimidating thing you can do to demonstrate your newfound oeno-expertise,” advises David Kamp, the coauthor of the note-perfect The Wine Snob’s Dictionary, “is to use the most pretentiously unpretentious word for wine: ‘juice.’ Just start talking about all the good juice you’ve got cellared, and people will assume you know more than they do.”
Adam Sachs, a former GQ staff writer, is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit and Food & Wine, among many other magazines.