The Path to Wine: Sometimes Bumpy, Sometimes Paved with Gold

A serious wine hobby is not just about drinking. Sorry, but that's the truth. If you're obsessed by wine, it's because you love the wine, one hopes. Along the way, however, there is the thrill of the chase, discovery and, yes, compulsive behavior. Collectors are people who spend inordinate amounts of time tracking down the wines that they want. For some, this is agony. For others, the journey to the wine, literally or figuratively, is half the fun. For everyone, it is a process that spawns stories and legends of all types, from happy to sad, from infuriating to miraculous. These are a few of mine.

So, there I was, on my first tasting trip in the Finger Lakes in the late 1980s. I tried some nice sparklers from Lamoreaux Landing and Glenora, among others. Eager to try some more, I stopped into Chateau de Rheims. If you want sparklers, gotta like that name, right? I heard it had been there quite a while, it had French roots and its specialty was sparkling wine.  Not long after, according to the New York Times, the owner was sued by eleven French producers over the French-sounding name. In settlement of the suit, Chateau de Rheims "agreed to sell or otherwise dispose of its 10,000-bottle inventory of wine bearing the trademark..."  All that was to come, however. I tried a bottle, and it seemed mediocre. Hopefully, I tried another...and it simply was the worst wine I can ever recall tasting. Sweaty and foul, it provoked the worst tasting note I have ever written. It tasted like it had been used to marinate dead rats. (Of course, that is a figurative analogy...I do not think there were, in fact, any rats or animals involved.) First lesson to be learned: adventures in wine do not always turn out well. Or, to put it another way, no one ever died of boredom.

Wine is not always a safe hobby even when near home. I bought some 1986 Bordeaux futures from a well-known store in New York way back when. My Château Margaux arrived with the corks badly pushed up. I have since seen this store too hot too often, but I momentarily bought the store owner's patter to the effect that the wines were, no doubt, overfilled at the Château. What can I say? I had only been collecting at that point for about five years. A quick email to Robert Parker confirmed all my suspicions. I would like to repeat for you what he said, but that would require this site to be x-rated. I took the wines back, and begrudgingly they accepted them. And no doubt sold them to someone else since they did not concede anything was wrong with them. I stopped doing business with the store. I heard the owner wonderered later why. Hey, maybe it was the condition of the '86 Margaux. Maybe it was the attempt to make me take bad bottles. Maybe it was the time several years later when I wandered in out of boredom on an unusually warm spring day and the store was hotter inside than New York was outside. Pick one. Or all.  Note to retailers: the smell of steaks being seared on the grill may sell steaks, but cooking wine probably isn't going to sell wine.

Sometimes you bite the bear, though, instead of vice versa. One day I was sitting at home minding my own business when a friend in the wine business called and said he was brokering some 1959 Château d'Yquem. I had a passing interest, but noted that I wasn't really inclined to spend the bucks that such an acquisition would require at the moment. He said, "Well, look at the bottles. I'll drop them off to you. Make an offer. I can't say more." He dropped them off and the reasons for his reticence became clear. The wine was in terrible condition. The fill was base neck on one, slightly worse on the other. The color was very dark. The capsules were cracked. The wines appeared to have leaked at some point. They looked like they had been stored on a radiator for 40 years. I called my friend back and said, "Pass."  He said, "Make an offer."

I said, "I can't imagine offering anything but curiosity value."

He insisted, "Make an offer."

Bemused, and intending to make a point, I said "$25.00 each." He said, "Sold!" I now wondered why I wanted to waste $50.00. The labels weren't even in good shape.

On a lark, I opened one double blind with some friends, including a well-known importer. He guessed that it was a Tokaji Essencia. Everyone loved it. The guess was actually a good one under the circumstances. Whatever the wine was at this point, it surely was not Sauternes any more. It was oxidized, but the air had seemingly enriched it. As one person said later, shaking his head, "You cannot kill this wine." Indeed. My second bottle became a hoarded treasure, to be opened only as a special event wine. Go figure.

Then, sometimes you just get lucky. Wandering around a store I frequented in my area, I saw 1994 Hermitage La Chapelle for "14.99." Even then, it was a $40+ wine. On the other hand, it wasn't a highly regarded vintage. A sale, maybe? I had the cashier scan the bar code. $14.99!  Hmm. I went back and stared at the rest of the case. Along came a salesman I knew. I looked at him and said, "Bill...$14.99?" He looked at me. Shook his head. "Not possible," he said. He took a bottle to the register, scanned it. $14.99. "This can't be right," he said. Hmmmm. He looked at me again. "Well, Bill," I said, "it seems to come up at $14.99. How many overpriced bottles have I bought here anyway?" He grinned.

"Ok. Here." He handed me the bottle. "How many of them do you want?"

"I'd be happy to take all of them," I said with an innocent grin.

Pause. "Ok," he said, simply.

I still have some left. Best little mid-90s Côtes du Rhône-priced wine I've had in a while.

Sometimes, however, you aren't in the right place at the right time. Call it a "day late."  One day in the 1980s I called Groth to inquire about their 1985 Groth Reserve. It was about 5:30 p.m. EST, and I got very lucky as Dennis Groth himself answered the phone. I said that I really had liked the 1984 Reserve and I had vowed to get some of the '85 when released, and I was wondering when it would be. The somewhat exasperated reply was that it had been just released and was already sold out. Huh? He said, "You haven't heard?" I wondered what it was I was supposed to have heard. Evidently some guy named Robert Parker had just given it the first 100 point score ever for a California wine. It vanished in an eyeblink, leaving Groth besieged with eager collectors. Oh, well. "I just liked the '84 Reserve," I said wryly. Judging it over time, I'd say the '85 Reserve has not lived up to 100 points, but is still a pretty good wine. I would've liked some. Oh, well. It was the only time in my wine-buying life that something like that happened.

Sometimes the wine road is literal, not just a figurative path on the way to enlightenment. In the Berkshire Mountains, circa 1988, I was learning to ski. (Or, more accurately, learning to fall down without killing myself.) I had spent most of the afternoon on my butt, when my frustrated teacher/friend suggested that we head to the top of the small mountain and ski down. This seemed about as good an idea as swallowing live leeches. Although someone with a modest IQ actually did that on Fear Factor once, I decided that, well, maybe one more bunny slope try would be a better idea. I came whizzing—relatively speaking—down that bunny slope and found myself unable to stop. I looked up from my feet long enough to realize that I was about to plow into a six-year-old (who, unlike me, had learned to stop). I tossed myself over and wiped out just in time. That was the last straw, though.  I announced, "We're going wine shopping." The Big Y in Northampton, which had about the biggest floor selection I had ever seen, was nearby. I had heard of it and always wanted to visit. (Its successor, Table and Vine, finally closed in 2007.) I was wet and tired and couldn't fathom why any hobby that makes you wet and tired would be so popular. So, ok, I would've gone browsing through Mickey Mouse collections at that point. The Big Y was a no brainer.

We entered the store. Let's just say—new ballgame. I may not be able to ski, but I'm pretty good at wine shopping. About 20 minutes and 58 bottles later (all 3s of this and that, except where less was available or a hideously expensive bottle presented itself), we headed back to my friend's ski house. His wife awaited us at the top of the hill. Alas, we hadn't quite thought this through. We couldn't leave the wine in the car. It would freeze overnight. On the other hand—the car wasn't going to get up the snow-and-ice covered hill. So, case by case, across the snow and ice, we lugged the wine up the steep, slippery hill. At the end, since it was sometimes hard to carry a full case while staggering in the snow and slipping on the ice, we had made several trips each. My friend had an asthma attack. His wife gave me dirty looks. I had 58 great bottles. Is skiing a wonderful sport, or what?

The best of wine people are generous and warm. Yes, let's be honest. Many of the wine proffers smack more of "show off" tendencies than generosity, but sometimes the real thing shines through. The first significant vertical tasting I organized was of Ducru-Beaucaillou. It included older bottles, particularly the 1961. The tasting went great—except, predictably, the 1961. Under Murphy's Law, it was corked. C'est la vie. I typed up notes of the event and sent them to Jean-Eugène Borie, the late owner of Ducru. He warmly wrote back, thanking me. He added, "Next time you're in Bordeaux, stop by and I will replace the 1961." In fact, I had a trip scheduled. I stopped by. He was true to his word, a fine gentleman. The new bottle was lovely. 

One of the nicest winery owners I've ever met is Jean-Michel Cazes, of Château Lynch-Bages. In 2003, I talked him into being the honorary chair of the Alliance Française's 100th Anniversary Bastille Day celebration in Philadelphia. He donated most all of the wine, including many cases of Lynch-Bages and Ormes de Pez. However, the delivery service had some problems with the new Constitution Center in Philadelphia, the venue of the event. It's a long story but the result was that, with the event only a couple of hours away and several hundred people planning to come, we had no wine. Monsieur Cazes sprang into action, buying replacements from local distributors, and making sure he got it there in time. Subtitle: "How Jean-Michel saved Bastille Day."

Stories of generosity abound, if you know where to look. A famous, since deceased Philadelphia collector, had an enormous cellar. As he grew old, he realized that he did not have any rational chance of drinking even a small part of it and he began to think of ways to give some away. He was perhaps best known for inviting newlyweds or young couples in love to tour the cellar—and handing out 1929 Calon-Ségur as a parting gift. You know Calon-Ségur, don't you? It has the big heart on the label.

And that's what happens sometimes on the path to wine treasures great and small. There are lessons learned, a pitfall here, a pot of gold under the rainbow there, all combining to make stories to write about years later. These are just a few of those that can actually be reprinted.

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