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WINE-COLLECTING TIPS

Avoiding a vinferno

by William Campbell

Midway through our life’s journey as wine collectors, we found our wine refrigerator almost lost, its engine straining desperately against the summer heat. Delving into the dark wood of the cabinet to remove all the bottles would provide a chance to catalog and glorify years of strategic acquisitions — or so we hoped.

Yet what we found made our blood run cold. Too many bottles of the same wine from the same vintage or producer, and too many bottles that could only quite charitably be described as having seen better days.

So that others might avoid the nine levels of vinous hell into which we had stumbled, we sought the advice of more experienced collectors, asking for their guidance straight and true.

We were expecting prescriptives, but the best advice of all came in the form of “beware these mistakes all ye collectors who enter here”:

* Don’t buy on other’s taste.

The most common lament of longtime collectors was having bought based on point scores, historical reputations or friends’ advice rather than on their own personal tastes. Some people love the acidic bite of Italian wines, while others absolutely hate it. Just because a wine scores extremely well within its class doesn’t mean you’ll find it to be pleasurable drinking.

Buying without tasting is fraught with risk. After one friend fell in love with a bottle of 1986 Cos d’Estournel, he quickly bought up different vintages of it, as well as other wines from the St. Estephe region of Bordeaux. Only later did he realize that it was only the ’86 Cos that moved him, not the region, and not the chateau.

Another old but now wiser (albeit poorer) drinker recently described buying a large parcel of ’95 and ’96 white Burgundies, based upon the very positive reviews the wines received on first release. As he quickly discovered, however, over the last few years these specific vintages have been dogged by frequent claims of spoilage. Upon tasting, he found that his parcel, in his opinion at least, was mostly undrinkable. The result of not tasting before buying — literally thousands of dollars down the drain.

* Don’t overfocus.

It’s hard to find anyone who hasn’t heard the adage, “Variety is the spice of life.” Yet one of the most common laments we heard was having bought too much, too soon, and too narrowly.

“Tastes evolve, particularly when you first get into wine,” one collector cautioned. He added that focusing early-on on a very narrow range of wines is like buying a holiday flat in the first spot you enjoyed a good vacation, and then realizing years later that your current and future holidays are forever bound to the preferences of your distant past.

In inventorying our own spluttering wine fridge, we found not a single bottle of Pinot Noir or cool-climate Syrah — because those are the wines that we’ve consistently found ourselves reaching for and drinking over the last few years.

Instead there was a plethora of old Zins, mid-level Bordeaux, and California Cabs, all wines which used to make our hearts race, but which now just leave us rummaging around for “something else.”

Of course, there is the undeniable urge to lock in stocks of wines you’ve liked in order to avoid the “one-that-got-away” syndrome. But in the joy of the hunt, it is sometimes easy to forget that an endless stream of new wines, new producers, new appellations and new vintages are constantly arriving on the market.

Regularly testing your preferences can help you realize when your current tastes no longer match your historical buying patterns, and hopefully give you a chance to change course.

* Don’t overbuy.

A friend was wild on early ’90s California Chardonnays when he bought his first wine fridge 10 years ago. Shipping in a dozen cases seemed like a good idea at the time. But as he recently reflected, “It really was a lot of work to drink them all, and I probably missed some great new producers and vintages just because I was already full-up on must-drink-now bottles.”

While there is the old collectors’ warning, “It is easier to buy a case of wine than it is to drink it,” the feedback from most of the vinophiles we spoke with ran more along the lines of “fewer and better bottles.”

One prodigious collector of Bordeaux confessed, “I wish I had bought more expensive, longer-lasting wines from the beginning. As it is, I ended up with too many that needed to be drunk sooner rather than later.”

Of course, buying by the case can often result in substantial discounts, but consider splitting your purchase with a friend (hint: Japanese law requires that every bottle sold here must be labeled with the importer’s contact info, and many importers will sell directly to private customers who contact them, albeit on a case-only basis).

* Beware of overaging.

Being told to “drink your wines before they get too old” may raise the same levels of incredulity and envy as hearing Paris Hilton saying, “One must put on the right diamond before a big night out.” Yet we have been surprised how many vinophiles expressed regret at having let bottles slip over the hill, regardless of whether the size of their collection was measured by the dozen or in the thousands.

Two factors come into play here. First, less wizened collectors believe that because some wines can improve with age, then all wines will, and will continue to do so in perpetuity.

Those who’ve seen cases of wine go South recommend sampling a bottle every two or three years and, once a wine has stopped improving, to enjoy it frequently, lest they wait until it is too late.

Regular sampling and relying on your own tastes to decide when a wine is ready — rather then blindly following wine reviewers’ recommended “drinking windows” — is important, as the example of the ’86 Mondavi Reserve Cabernet attests. Rated 95 points and chosen by the Wine Spectator as one of the “Top 100″ wines released in 1989, it was initially given a “best after ’92″ drinking window. Reviewed again in 1991, it scored the same, but the advice was shifted to “best after ’94.” However, in the next update — a 10-year retrospective held in 1996 — the tasting comment noted that the wine was “drying out just a tad” — the window was moved to “drink now” and the score was downgraded to 89 points. Pity the poor collector with an unopened case who never had a chance to enjoy the wine in its vibrancy.

Of course, it is impossible to monitor your collection if you don’t know what is in it. Another surprisingly frequent lament was of not having kept better records, particularly for those with cases stashed in various countries.

“The way out of vinous purgatory,” one formerly tormented soul told us, “is to keep a written record of every wine that you plan to store for more than three years, build an estimated maturity schedule, and then sample and update it regularly.”

* Layer your cellar.

To create a flow of great wine over a lifetime, it helps when making buying decisions to think of your cellar not as one, but as many separate collections, each with its own time-frame for drinking. These concentric circles of vinous pleasure can be labeled: now, within three years, over a decade, and long-term/milestone wines (such as great Bordeaux, Sauternes, or Port from a birth or anniversary year).

By depleting and restocking each level independently, you can ensure balance and a constant stream of exploration and pleasure.

Of course, the most important point of all is to remember that collecting is a means to an end. As Canadian publisher Natalie Maclean noted, “Building a great cellar to share with friends is not about investment, vanity bottles, or one-upmanship. It is about sharing all that wine encompasses: taste, history, science, friendship and intimacy.”

And as one well-loved friend added, “The best collecting decision I ever made was to start collecting.”