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THE COLLECTORS : Joe Smith: He's Got to Have It

July 14, 1994|DAN BERGER

It was 1964. Joe Smith, then an executive with Warner Bros. Records, was in Paris to close a recording deal. One evening he dined with executives of an affiliated record company.

"I had never ordered a bottle of wine in my life," recalls Smith. "The first course of the meal was foie gras and Chateau d'Yquem. I loved the way the wine and food went together.

"I said to myself, 'What have I been missing?' "

Smith vowed never to miss anything like that again. He had just completed a memory course, so he bought a copy of Frank Schoonmaker's "Encyclopedia of Wine" and memorized the contents. "And then I called Roy Kavin (at Greenblatt's Deli on Sunset Boulevard) and told him I wanted to buy a little wine," he says.

Kavin sold him bottles of 1961 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild for $9 each and bottles of 1962 Chateau Lynch-Bages at $3.

By 1971, Smith was a dedicated wine collector. That year, he and his wife, Donnie, moved to Beverly Hills. He air-conditioned the attic and set up the wine "cellar" there. That same year he discovered Beaulieu Vineyard Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, and soon his collection included 11 cases of the famed 1970 vintage. Eventually he ran out of room in his attic and was forced to convert the pool cabana into a formal wine storage facility with a tasting room.

Once the collection reached 8,000 bottles, however, Smith realized his mania was ruling him; he was in danger of buying more than he could ever drink. So instead of curtailing his wine buying, he simply started buying less of each great wine. Say, two cases instead of four.

"My collection today is very eclectic," he says, over a bowl of berries at Citrus restaurant. "I buy the big names and I seldom get a bad bottle. I love La Tache, so I buy it."

I ask whether he buys only wine from great vintages.

"The thing that gets me," he says, his voice escalating, "is when you tell me I can't get something. Then I go berserk."

He was told, for instance, that he would not be able to get much, if any, of Guigal's 1985 Cote Rotie "La Turque," and that if he found any, it would cost him $250 or more per bottle. He took this as a personal challenge and went out and found a case.

At age 65, however, Smith now says, "At some point we have to face our own mortality, and I bought these wines to drink, and there's a lot of them . . . "

Smith is now retired from his position as chairman of Capitol/EMI Music, but he did much to educate musicians about wine.

In the 1970s, he visited the Eagles backstage after a concert and found a scene that appalled him.

"They had been sipping some awful wine," he says. "I pulled out a bottle of '62 Lafite, opened it and poured it for them, saying, 'Now, this is wine.'

"Well, they loved it. So they put into their contract that after each concert they had to have '62 Lafite. The concert promoters hated me."

Another time he poured a bottle of Chateau Petrus for Steve Ross, the late chairman of Time-Warner. "Steve liked the wine a lot," he says, "and the next time I visited him at his place in New York, he showed me his cellar. It was filled with cases and cases of Petrus! Nothing else!

"I said, 'Steve, there are other wines.' "

When Smith was chairman of Elektra/Asylum and president of Warner Bros. Records, wine was an escape from the notorious show-biz treadmill. "If you're in the entertainment industry in this town," he says, "it can envelop you. You're scrambling for 'the deal' so much you're missing life. There's a screening one night, a party the next night. . . .

"But this," he says, lifting a wine glass, "this means more to me than a lot of that. It's not what I do; it's who I am."

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