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It's mecca for collectors

Twenty Twenty in West L.A. may have the broadest and deepest inventory of old and rare vintages of any wine shop in the U.S.

September 10, 2003|James Ricci | Times Staff Writer

Just inside the entrance to Twenty Twenty Wine Merchants in West Los Angeles, a worker double-checks a case of wine to be delivered to a customer. He lifts each bottle from its thick Styrofoam cradle and reverently turns it in his hands, carefully looking it over before replacing it.

"What's that wine cost?" a visitor asks Bob Golbahar, Twenty Twenty's proprietor.

"Eight ninety-five a bottle," Golbahar replies.

The visitor suggests the worker's going to a lot of trouble for an order of $9 wine.

"It's not eight dollars and 95 cents a bottle," Golbahar explains. "It's eight hundred and ninety-five dollars a bottle. Ten thousand dollars a case. The customer's a very wealthy rich guy. It's kind of his house wine."

The visitor's surprise is understandable. Twenty Twenty's warehouse-like atmosphere -- many lesser bottles are sold from cardboard cases placed on the floor -- belies its status as a premier retailer of rare and old wines.

The wine the visitor asked about turned out to be 1997 Bryant Family Vineyard Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon, one of California's cult Cabs. And it's cheap compared with some of Twenty Twenty's other fare -- such as the 1997 Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon, another heralded Cab, at $1,895 a bottle, and the 1961 Chateau Petrus at $15,000 a magnum.

Twenty Twenty may well have the broadest and deepest inventory of old and rare wines, especially Bordeaux -- the category of wines most prized by many Los Angeles collectors -- of any wine shop in the United States. A check of the online inventories of several other storied wine shops in the country, including Zachys and Sherry-Lehmann in New York and Wally's Wine & Spirits in Westwood, shows that no other store approaches Twenty Twenty's collection when it comes to the greatest Bordeaux vintages of the 20th century. The store's thick, glossy catalog, which is mailed to 10,000 wine collectors around the world, lists 43 Bordeaux wines from the 1990 vintage, 30 from the 1982 vintage, 28 from 1959 and 31 from 1947.

"Bob has the greatest collection of old Bordeaux in the country that I've seen, and every time I go to another city and hear about a shop that has old wines, I visit it," says Lawrence Hahn, an avid collector of first-growth Bordeaux, with a cellar numbering 3,000 bottles that date from as early as the 1940s.

"The breadth of Bob's collection is among the top I can think of in the world," says Jeff Smith, owner of Carte du Vin, an L.A. firm that organizes and catalogs private wine cellars.

A small bear of a man with slicked-back black hair, Golbahar presides over the majesty of his inventory with an unassuming manner that belies his deep knowledge and wide-ranging contacts with some of the world's most exalted collectors and producers. The 39-year-old learned the trade from the ground up, starting as a schoolboy lugging cases of wine in his father's shop, the now-defunct Bel-Air Wines on Santa Monica Boulevard near Beverly Glen.

When Golbahar's father, Alex, bought the store in 1977, its biggest seller was Blue Nun Liebfraumilch at $1.99 a bottle. Within a year, Alex had transformed Bel-Air Wines, replacing much of its pedestrian inventory with fine wines. "Every business he's been in, he's gone for the best and the most exotic stuff," Bob says. "At the time, there were a handful of good specialty wine stores here, but none with great selections of anything awesome. Somehow he had a sense that great wines had a bigger place in the Los Angeles market."

The greatest of the great, the stuff of enological legend, is kept by Bob Golbahar these days behind the heavy locked door of an enormous upstairs vault at Twenty Twenty. On a recent morning, in a randomly selected drawer, there were two bottles of 1949 Chateau Latour priced at $5,000 each. One, acquired in London a decade ago, was pristine in appearance, still wrapped in original tissue paper. The other was very dusty, the level of wine inside had dropped an inch or so because of evaporation, and its label was nearly in shreds.

"People don't like tattered labels, but I love tattered labels," says Golbahar. "That tells you the wine was in a European cellar for a long time, and cellars in England and France are cool and humid. It's the humidity that eats up the label, but it also keeps the corks from drying out."

Twenty Twenty buys a lot of its oldest wines from European cellars because when the wines originally were laid down, there weren't many proper wine cellars in the United States.

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