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In Divorce, Wine Cellars Yield to Grapes of Wrath

Custody disputes over huge, vastly expensive collections can turn into bar brawls. Emotions revolve around vintages difficult to appraise.

March 05, 2006|Abigail Tucker | Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — Almost 300 cases of the finest wine, and it evaporated like morning mist. Five-hundred-dollar bottles. Thousand-dollar bottles. The French Bordeaux from his children's birth years, which he planned to uncork at their weddings. The 1966 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild he wanted to share one day with his brother.

The only vintage that remained in his ransacked office, Doug Eisinger said, was a single bottle of 1990 Dom Perignon. "I plan on drinking that on the day of my divorce," he said.

Eisinger, who lives in Maryland's Anne Arundel County, contends that his estranged wife, Elizabeth, absconded with his $200,000 wine collection in November, breaking into the office of his construction company where the wine was hidden, then loading about 3,500 bottles into a Thrifty rental truck.

Elizabeth Eisinger's attorney said that she had her own key to the office, that she took much less wine and that she made nowhere near $200,000 upon selling it wholesale (and not through a ritzy Washington auction house, as her husband contends).

Who gets to keep the money won't be sorted out until the divorce -- a particularly messy affair filled with charges and counter-charges -- is settled, probably in the summer. Until then, all that both sides can agree on is that the booze is gone for good.

The Eisinger saga is more dramatic than most, but custody disputes over huge, vastly expensive wine collections are bubbling up in a growing number of divorce cases nationwide, lawyers say, as some Americans' cellars age better than their marriages.

"It's really been in the last decade," said Sheila Sachs, a Baltimore divorce lawyer who specializes in high-net-worth divorces. "People are spending a lot on wine. It's almost more of an asset of influence now than jewelry."

Although these disputes often are settled amicably, they can turn as vicious as bar brawls -- and not just because wine is difficult to appraise and evenly divide.

"People have an emotional relationship with their wine cellars," Sachs said.

And Americans are becoming more infatuated than ever with their Shiraz and Sauvignon Blanc. Last year, for the first time, wine surpassed beer as the country's alcoholic beverage of choice; in 2005, Americans consumed an estimated 712 million gallons of the stuff, according to San Francisco's Wine Institute.

As the nation's palate grows more refined, consumer tastes become more expensive and sizable cellars are increasingly common: The Wine Spectator reports that about 200,000 American aficionados now have collections of 500 bottles or more. These racks can cost tens, and even hundreds, of thousands of dollars, and represent an investment in future gains as serious as a stock portfolio.

Moreover, as a shared asset, wine carries a greater emotional charge than stocks and bonds. Wine can be a lubricant for courtship, and cellars can mark milestones in a marriage: wedding night whites, Valentine reds.

"Wine is incredibly central to people's relationships throughout marriage, and even in the years before," said Alder Yarrow, the founder of Vineography, a wine blog. "Food and wine have been the sort of centerpieces in romantic relationships as far back as cave paintings. People fall in love under the influence."

Take the wine-stained liaison of "Love by the Glass," the romantic memoir co-written by the Wall Street Journal's wine columnists.

But then again, there's "The Cask of Amontillado," Edgar Allan Poe's classic tale of inebriation and revenge, which suggests the elixir for love can swiftly turn to vinegar.

Tony Foreman has never actually seen violence at the private wine lockers of his Baltimore restaurant, Charleston, but he remembers some fairly grisly dismemberments of wine collections. Sometimes the precious vintages are sold off out of financial necessity, other times for spite. Almost always, though, divorce is the driving force, he said.

Foreman recalled one particularly unpleasant incident a few years ago when a woman showed up on a Saturday morning and demanded her husband's wine, allegedly for use at a party. Five minutes later, Foreman fielded a frantic call from the husband.

"Don't let her touch what's in the locker!" the man pleaded.

But it was too late. Foreman gets indignant just thinking about it.

"If my wife were to do something like that, I can't tell you what would happen," he said. "There's no reasonable thought that crosses my mind."

Actually, it's fairly common for feuding spouses to poach at least a few bottles in advance of a divorce settlement, to sell over the Internet or elsewhere, said Steve Bachman, CEO of Vinfolio, a California-based wine-collector services company.

Others -- though they're seeing Merlot red -- manage to wait until after the divorce to savor vengeance. Cleaveland Miller, a lawyer and part-owner of Calvert Fine Wines in Hunt Valley, Md., knows of a woman who waited patiently for her half of her ex-husband's beloved 100-bottle stock, then poured every last drop down the sink.

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