The Collector's Addition

Starting a wine collection, from the ground up

People always ask me "How did you get into wine?" It's a simple story.

After college I got a job in sales, and had to entertain clients. Since I was ordering the wine I thought I should know something about it. And that, my friends, was the start of a now 20-year experience.

Since I am officially a "wine collector" I thought I'd share some advice on starting a wine collection.

First, knowledge is power. When I first started collecting, I couldn't afford to buy wine to store. However, I could afford wine books and magazines. I now subscribe to a dozen wine publications and have over 200 wine-related books. So before beginning, I suggest you get some book learnin' (as we say in Tennessee).

Here are a few books to start with. The first is Wine for Dummies. After that, read Karen McNeil's Wine Bible. I found it to be very useful and a good reference. One other book I'll mention is Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia.

If you want to keep up on the latest developments in the wine world, then Wine Spectator magazine is the best, and even offers an online class at Other great resources are wine-tasting classes. They provide hands-on experience while you drink and discuss. Next time you dine out, ask your sommelier where classes are offered.

The next step is to decide what kind of wine you want to collect. There is no point in collecting Beaujolais, Rosé, or Proseco, as these wines were meant to be drunk immediately. Remember, the idea of collecting is to consume at a later date once the wine has improved. Generally, these are the most collectible wines: Grand Cru Bordeaux, Grand Cru Burgundy, both white and red, premium Champagne cuvees (like Dom Perignon), Rhone wines (both white and red), and California Cabernets and Cabernet blends.

Pick your sweet spot. I started with California and moved to Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone, and then Italy. The vintages make a difference on all these wines, so learn what deserves to be put down and what deserves to be drunk now.

In California, every vintage of premium Cabernet or Cabernet blend for the last 10 years would generally improve by cellaring (that means storing). This is not true of other regions. In Bordeaux, I cellared these vintages: 1982, 1985, 1989, 1990, 1995, 1996, 2000, and 2001. In red Burgundy it's 1990, 1995, 1996, 1999, and 2002. For white Burgundy it's 1990, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2000, and 2002.

Now to purchasing. The first stop should be your local retailer. Find one you like, trust, and is knowledgeable. I just can't say enough about getting professional help when you start collecting. If you live in a state that allows direct shipping, you can get wine directly from the winery, or again depending on state law, you can buy at auction. Another idea for collectible wines is charity wine auctions. You kill two birds with one stone -- get great wine while helping others.

Now that you know your sweet spot, you know something about wine, and you know where to get it, you're ready to store it properly. Know this: Wine hates light and heat. It also hates really cold temperatures, but the first two are the deal breakers when it comes to storage.

If you are going to collect, you need a temperature and humidity-controlled cellar. You can buy one at appliance stores, or search online with keywords "wine storage units." You can also build your own if you think your collection will surpass 600 bottles (trust me, it will). I started in a damp natural cellar, built a cellar to hold 1,500 bottles, then another to hold 3,000 bottles, and now I have three fairly large cellars where I live. You'll fill the space you have.

Finally, set a budget. You can start a great cellar for $3,000 or less. Most wine will not depreciate, so you can always resell collectible wine if need be. One final thought from an old Italian saying; "It is around the table with wine, that friends understand best the warmth of being together."

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