I have the collecting gene. As a boy, I collected stamps, coins, baseball cards, etc., during various phases of my youth. I even remember collecting movie stars’ cards when I was very young. Stamp collecting had the longest run, until my ‘20s, when I turned to wine collecting. I discovered wine thanks to my then wife’s Italian parents, who drank wine nightly with dinner.
And I am still collecting wine in my senior years --although at this phase of my life, I’m drinking wine more rapidly than I’m collecting it. I have reached the inevitable conclusion that I can’t take it with me. At my collection’s peak, about ten years ago, I owned about 3300 to 3400 bottles. Now I am down to 2600 to 2700 bottles, certainly enough to last the rest of my life, even if I never buy another bottle.
This column marks my 10th year anniversary of writing for Wine Review Online. I thought it would be an appropriate time to reveal some of the mistakes I made collecting wine over the past several decades, so that you perhaps can avoid my errors. You might be saying to yourself that you will never collect so many wines. And to that I will answer, “You never know.” In my ‘20s, I had about 30 wines in my collection, resting in three small, portable wine racks in my home office. Even by the time I reached 30, I probably owned no more than 50 bottles. But look what happened to me.
One reason for the small wine collection at that time was surely economic: I was a struggling young teacher, and the primary financial supporter of my growing family. By that time, wine had become my main hobby. I read books on wine, and took courses on wine (my first teacher was the late Alex Bespaloff). My idea of what to do in my recreational time was to visit wine shops, as far north as Boston, and as far south as Washington, D.C. (I lived in New York, then and now).
One wine shop in New York, Quality House, was owned by a man named Bernie Fradin. Bernie had a huge following with wine geeks, because he was a great teacher, and a Bordeaux buff. It was from Bernie that I first really learned about Bordeaux. Although I still love to drink mature Bordeaux, I don’t drink it nearly as much as I did in my younger days.
And this leads to my first tip: Our tastes often change as we age, and as we make new wine discoveries. Therefore, DO NOT load up on only one type of wine, no matter how good you think it is. At one time about half of my wine collection consisted of red Bordeaux (close to1500 bottles). I did sell some at one point, but today I still own about 400 bottles of red Bordeaux. The good thing about this is that I have lots of mature Bordeaux in my cellar--and all wine buffs know that Bordeaux, like many other great wines, is at its best when it is aged to its mature peak. Bordeaux, in particular, ages extremely well in a cool cellar; I have seldom consumed a Bordeaux that was too old.
I now also own a huge collection of Italian red wines, especially Barolos and Barbarescos. Barolos alone, by my last count, added up to over 600 bottles.
Another large group in my collection are California Cabernet Sauvignons (probably about 400 bottles). I also have about 150 Zinfandels, too much as it turned out, as my taste for Zinfandel has changed with time--although I must admit that they have aged well. I have about the same number of California/Oregon Pinot Noirs. They also matured nicely in my cellar.
You can guess by now my biggest wine-collecting error: About 90 percent of the wines resting in my wine cellar are dry reds (over 2,200 bottles). My cellar is top-heavy with dry red wines!
There is a myth about white wines, namely, that they do not age well. This is incorrect, in my experience. The better white wines, well kept, will last for decades.
Ironically, as I have aged, I have grown to love white wines much more than when I was younger. I remember, about 15 years or more ago, reading an article by Dr. Marvin Ovington, a great wine collector from Texas. He stated that his biggest error in his wine collecting was not buying enough white wines. Those words stuck with me, because I had great respect for Ovington, as a wine taster and a collector. And the words hold true for me today. I have about 90 dry white wines in my cellar, and that number is shrinking rapidly. Why didn’t I buy more white wines?
One problem is that really good Côte d’Or white Burgundies are so expensive; I have just a few left. But on the other hand, Chablis wines, excepting a few top ones, are still very affordable, and I recommend them to you. I also like Alsace Rieslings, and should have bought more. But they remain affordable (excepting Trimbach’s Clos Ste. Hune). White Hermitage from the Rhône Valley is another one of the great white wines that ages remarkably well.
A fairly recent white wine discovery has been the many great Italian white wines that exist, all of which remain in my price category. I am talking about Sicily’s Mt. Etna whites, based on the superb Carricante variety, which grows on the slopes of Mt. Etna; one example is Benanti’s Pietra Marina. Also look for the white wines of Friuli (Riboola Gialla is a leading variety) and the white wines of northern Alto Adige, featuring two Germanic varieties, Kerner and Müller-Thurgau, both of which do even better in Alto Adige than in Germany.
I made another serious mistake with red wines: I didn’t buy enough red Burgundies. These wines are drinkable sooner than red Bordeaux, and I drank them! At one point, I owned over 200 red Burgundies. I have about 20 percent of that left, and I am hoarding them, because good red Burgundies are expensive.
In my case, I bought too many Vintage Ports (or Portos, as the Portuguese call them). I still have about 100 of them. I know they are really great wines, but I seldom drink them. The same is true of Sauternes; I occasionally drink half-bottles of good Sauternes, but I still have about 55 bottles. I should have bought more half-bottles of both Sauternes and Portos, rather than 750ml bottles.
The one error I avoided was with Champagnes. I bought a lot (about 10 years ago, I owned more than 450 bottles of Champagne). I now own 145 bottles. I drink them regularly, and bring them to friends’ houses. I am very happy that I bought a lot of Champagne!
For everyday drinking, I buy inexpensive Italian wines, mainly Nebbiolos, Barberas, Dolcettos, Soaves, and other Italian whites.
To sum up:
--Don’t buy too much of one kind of wine. Don’t buy cases of 12. I recommend 3 bottles of any particular wine, if you know that it’s good. If you really love it, perhaps six.
--Don’t overload on red wines at the expense of whites. Often, what you are eating will be better-suited for a white wine.
--Diversify your wine collection. Don’t overlook Italy, Spain, and Portugal.
Buy red Burgundies, if your budget can handle them. Even less expensive red Burgundies can be delightful!
--Don’t buy too many dessert wines, unless you know you are going to drink them.
--Buy Champagnes; their price swill only grow higher. Champagnes age well, when well kept. If you love Champagne, you will drink them. For me, my Champagne collection sank the fastest, even though I replenished it often. You will not regret stocking up on Champagne.