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THE COLLECTORS : The Passion of Buying and Cellaring

July 14, 1994|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

It starts modestly enough. The merchant says: "This wine is really in limited supply, so if you like it, buy it now or you'll never see it again." So you buy three bottles instead of one.

The merchant's remark may not be intended to get you hooked, but ask any of those who watched a couple of extra bottles stashed in the closet grow into a collection that had to be moved to the back of the garage, then to a dugout under the house and finally to a rented wine locker--and soon, perhaps, to a room addition under discussion. They know better.

A bottle here, a magnum there. Pretty soon, we're talking about a collection.

People collect wine for various reasons. One is to have a fine red (or even white) wine develop the mature flavors that only age can produce. Such wines are bought young, when they are fruity and simple, and held in dark coolness until a date far in the future when they'll be served with ceremony befitting their smoothness and rare, aged character.

But there are other reasons to buy more wine than can be drunk immediately: To guarantee ownership of difficult-to-get wines. To be able to grab, at a moment's notice, a bottle of Rose for a friend who pops by unexpectedly.

Wine collectors usually share their treasures with friends at dinners; occasionally they stage simple tastings with bread and cheese. Often these turn into small, private "gourmet societies" in which three or four couples agree to get together on a rotating basis for dinner.

A few collectors are speculators who buy rare and expensive wine with the aim of selling it at a later date at a profit. Such schemes are difficult to undertake (selling wine usually requires a license), and often such speculators end up losing money.

Collecting wine is seen as a hobby of the rich, and it's true that a case of the great 1990 Chateau Latour would set you back more than $1,500 today. Serious collectors who bought that wine early paid only half that price, but that's still more than $60 per bottle--a lot of money.

Yet collecting wine needn't be expensive. Many $10 wines will mature nicely. Years ago I bought Louis Martini Cabernet Sauvignons for $6 a bottle; a decade and a half later they have become glorious examples of how a lighter but perfectly balanced wine can improve just as interestingly as more expensive wines.

The following stories of three collectors are pictures of different approaches to collecting wine. Each collector profiled here loves wine with a passion, and each finds the hunt for great wine as fascinating as the tasting of it.

Not one of them regrets anything about the journey that got him here, except that each wishes he had started sooner.

Related Story: The anto-wine collector. H27.

On the Cover

When Beringer Vineyards was acquired by Wine World in 1970, the new owners walked through the hand-dug aging caves behind the famed Rhine House and discovered a cache of some 4,000 bottles of old Beringer red wines dating back to Prohibition days.

The bottles hadn't been touched in decades and retained all the old cobwebs and dust of the ages. However, in March of 1993, the winery realized that some of the wines were undrinkable, and that the remainder would soon lose their corks through deterioration.

So a team of winemakers cleaned out the old bins and recorked some 1,800 bottles that were considered to be drinkable, including the pictured bottle of 1937 Cabernet Sauvignon.

The remainder of the wines were spoiled and were discarded.

Incidentally, one perfect bottle of 1937 Beringer Cabernet was the first bottle ever sold at the first Napa Valley Wine Auction in 1981. The bottle was purchased by Marvin Shanken, editor and publisher of the Wine Spectator magazine, for $400.

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