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THE COLLECTORS : Wine Cellars From the Ground Up


If someone tells me, "I have a wine collection," I look carefully to see whether the speaker shows signs of the same affliction I had many years ago.

The signs are subtle, but the trained observer can make a diagnosis without asking embarrassing questions.

Look at the fingers. Are they slightly redder than yours? Perhaps this is a sign of having just come from a wine tasting (red wine dripping from glass). Look at the pants. Are the knees a bit worn? Could be an indication the person has been rummaging about on hands and knees in convenience stores that once had a wine section, looking for a long-forgotten prize.

Other signs: purple-stained teeth, a fascination with old Chenin Blanc, an inability to chat about dates in history without bringing up how good or bad a vintage it was.

Persons so afflicted are unlikely to know they are suffering from a mania that a psychotherapist might term "obsessive-compulsive."

For most people, collecting wine starts the way it started with me: with the taste of a great wine that I just had to have more of. In my case it was 1970 Oakville Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon "Van Lobel Sels." In 1976, it was $10 a bottle, almost as expensive as Chateau Latour.

I found six bottles. I called a friend, not really to gloat. OK, to gloat. He was blase. He said if I was starting a collection, I should get 1970 Simi Cabernet. It was only $6.50 and it was better.

I froze! Better? I dashed down to my local store.

"Do you have 1970 Simi Cabernet?" I asked, hopeful.

"I think we're out," said the clerk. "Look on that shelf."

I was crestfallen. Cases of the 1971 Simi were there; no '70. I started pushing the boxes around. There, way in back, was a case of the '70! It was in my trunk in seconds. I had won my first treasure hunt. I now realize that was a seminal moment in my fixation.

One thing led to another--a few bottles of 1973 Diamond Creek, a bottle of 1973 Mouton, nine bottles of 1974 Caymus Cabernet bought one at a time. I started going to my favorite wine shop every Saturday, then to wine tastings, then to wine auctions. I joined a small wine club.

At the same time, my car began acting strangely. It automatically stopped at every store that had a "Liquor" sign on it. I had nothing to do with it; the car was possessed. Once I was an hour late getting home. I walked in with two bottles of 1976 Chateau Laville Haut-Brion.

"How much . . . ?" asked my wife.

I replied, "Eleven doll . . . ."

"A bottle ?!"

I know people whose lives are consumed by collecting. Not to mention their closets, cabinets and garages. Pretty soon there is serious discussion about using other space in the house to store wine. ("Does Cindy need all that space in the nursery? She's only 2.")

There is, however, a way to manage the mania, to keep it under control and to assemble a respectable collection of wine without losing a sense of reality. But it must be done with a sense of proportion. If collecting gets out of hand, you could be in trouble: Few therapists specialize in treating vinomania.

* DECIDE WHAT YOU LIKE: Start by deciding what kind of wine you like. Then see if you like that wine with age. No sense aging something if you like to drink young wine, and many people do.

Should you buy a wine newsletter to help you find such wine? Newsletters typically tell you only what someone else thinks of a young wine now, not how you will like this same wine in a decade. Your best bet is to see if you can find an older version of it and try it alongside the youngest version available.

Sure, the older bottle may set you back a few bucks, but it's a surer and cheaper way to see if you should be investing a lot of money in young wine that you intend to consume later. If you buy now without knowing how the wine ages, you may pay later too.

To find an older version of a current favorite, phone your local wine shop and ask to speak to the wine buyer. Good wine shops have a specialist; great wine shops have many.

* BUY IN MODEST AMOUNTS: Once you know that you like a certain type of wine and have a good idea of what is worth buying in quantity, buy a small amount of the wine, perhaps six bottles at most. Sure, I bought full cases of wine years ago, but I found that I usually ended up buying too much. And although it's tempting to buy a case of something when it's young, in most cases within five years you can usually find the same wine at a price not much more than it originally sold for, factoring in inflation.

This may not be true for something like Chateau Latour or one of my favorite wines, Chateau Margaux, but the aftermarket for fine wine--other than certain highly sought items--is pretty broad, and these days a lot of collectors are selling off older wines through wine shops.

My best advice is: If you plan on having a good-sized, broad-based wine collection, start with small amounts of very good wines.

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