Monday, August 25, 2008

If I Had a Million Dollars....

If you had $5,000 to start a wine cellar, what would you buy?

This may seem like a pie in the sky question – much like the oft asked “what would you do if you won the lottery?” But readers thinking of starting a cellar frequently seek my suggestions on what wines they should stock.

Personally, I’ve never had the good fortune to have five grand in my jeans to spend on a wine shopping spree. But I know of people who have made such deliberate investments in a quest to build a cellar from scratch. One such individual was Robin Mines, a fellow wine critic from Vancouver, who more than an decade ago sunk that amount in a wine collection in a concerted effort to become serious about the subject and educate her palate.

That might seem like a lot of cash to, well, liquidate, but at today’s prices you might be surprised at how stark your racks still look when the money’s spent. A 750 ml bottle of decent Bordeaux will set you back easily $200 – $600-plus is not unheard of – while Italian Barolos range $50-$100.

Do the math. If you spend an average of $30-$50 a bottle – which is modest when you factor in the big guns – you’ll only end up with 100-166 wines. Thus I don’t recommend you simply grab a shopping cart at the local liquor store and fill it willy-nilly, as tempting as that may be.

It would be prudent first to do a little soul searching and researching. First, think about the main purpose you want your cellar to serve. Do you want to buy wines as a investment? Are you planning to age them for extended periods? Or do you simply want a stash of everyday drinkers so you don’t have to make frequent trips to the liquor store?

One blogger on the Wine Spectator online discussion forum asked for wine buying suggestions for long-term cellaring with an eye to spending upwards of $2,500. After fielding recommendations in favour of first-growth Bordeaux and chewy Chateauneuf du Papes, the poster declared that he was not prepared to pay more than $50 for a bottle and that he preferred sweet wines to “leathery, magic marker, tobacco, or nasty flavors.”

A fellow forum member suggested he hadn’t done his homework. “Your description of what kind of wine you like seems at odds with the point of long-term cellaring. Most people buy long-aging wines for cellaring purposes in order to eventually obtain complex and nuanced wines, often with leather, tobacco, earth, graphite, and other such flavors. If you like ripe, lush, fruit-forward wines (and that's perfectly fine if that's what you prefer), there is neither much need nor desirability to cellar wines. For the most part, you're best off buying wines like that within the year or two of when you intend to open them.”

Indeed, not all wine improves with age, a myth I’ve been trying to bust for years.

If this is your first cellar and you are what can be described as a fledgling aficionado then an “all-purpose” collection is your best approach. Suppose your initial target is 100 bottles – then a good breakdown would be 50 red, 30 white and 20 being a mixed lot of rosés, sparklers and other specialty wines (desserts, sherries, ports, maderias etc..). Within this collection, one quarter should be everyday quaffing wines of low to moderate value, another quarter should be ready-to-drink wines of higher quality and value and one half should be a mixed bag of assorted value wines of various age-ability.

On the Wine Spectator forum, one man offered this very sage advice: “Spend your money gradually by buying a wide range of wines from different regions, different grapes, in different styles. Most of your buying at first should be good value wines in the $10-30 range, most of which should be capable of being opened and enjoyed young. Don't try to skip ahead into buying expensive wines and/or wines which you'll need to hold for many years before opening, or you'll end up spending your money on a small number of bottles to stare at for years instead of on trying lots of good wines and learning what you like and don't like (and keeping in mind that what you like and don't like will change significantly over the years).”

If you don’t know what you are doing, don’t leap into the wine-as-an-investment gig or you may end up with substantial losses. It’s a high-stakes game because wine is not only tradable commodity, it’s a perishable food item and most “investment wines” are already outrageously pricey.

When choosing what wines to buy, set goals in the following areas:
* By region, wine category, varietal, color, wine type, quality level and score
* By aging period
* Cost
* Favorite years to target (birth years, anniversaries, etc.)?

Here are some tips on buying wines for your cellar:

Develop a good relationship with one or two local wine retailers and government store product consultants – Besides providing advice and recommendations, if they get to know you they will often contact you when great products come in. Although you will want to pay government store prices wherever possible, some of the rarer, most desirable and unique wines aren’t carried in the provincial liquor stores, thus private retailers are invaluable. A B.C. VQA wine shop is also a good resource and make sure you are on the mailing lists of your favourite local wineries.

Taste before you buy – Learn to trust your own palate and don’t always rely on critic ratings for your wine investments. Be open to experimentation. Don’t just keep buying those tried and true favourites.

Pace your purchases - Your taste preferences will change over time so if you’ve squirreled away a wine nest egg, don't try to spend it all in six months. While you may be tempted to backfill your new cellar with mature vintages and to give it a “full” look you can get hosed. Ideally, you should buy new releases annually and lay them down.

Perform quarterly inventories - While you may scoff at the idea that you might forget a wine, it happens and bottles will sometimes surpass their prime unnoticed and be undrinkable. Also these quarterly check-ups will alert you to areas in which you may be getting low or high – such as having too few white moderately priced drinking wines and too many high end cellar dwellers – so you can adjust your buying habits to suit your consumption rates.

Target cellar size - How much do you consume annually? How much do you entertain? Consider your budget constraints and your current age.

Plan storage requirements - Whether you're installing a home cellar, cave, refrigeration unit, or expect to store your wine at a professional storage facility, figure it out before you invest thousands of dollars in wine. There's no point creating a wine collection if you're can’t store it properly.

Consider insurance - If you amass a collection worth tens of thousands of dollars, the last thing you want is to lose it all in a fire or burglary and not be compensated for it. Many basic homeowners’ policies, however, don’t provide coverage for wine collections of high value so you will want to check with your insurance broker for details of your policy or to acquire additional coverage.

Wine Notes

Noble Ridge Meritage 2004 (0) ***1/2
Heavily weighted on the Merlot with a kick of Cabernet Sauvignon, this two-grape blend has heady aromas of plum, black cherry, vanilla bean with black pepper and savoury notes. Plush on the palate with tangy black fruit flavours, hint of menthol and a slightly hot and peppery finish. $25
Remarks: Still needs a bit of age, but silky texture and loads of dark fruit make it one worthwhile for the cellar
Cellaring Recommendation: Drink now with food, cellar up to four years
Where to Find It: VQA shops or order direct from winery

Nk’Mip Cellars Qwam Qwmt Chardonnay 2006 (0) ****
Aromas of baked apple, honey, spice with leesy and oily notes. Flavours of pear, apple, honey, spice and a creamy, fat, sweet, nutty texture in the mouth. Quite yummy. $25
Remarks: One of the bigger, creamier B.C. chards with. Appealing to those who like fat, juicy wines a touch on the sweet side.
Cellaring Recommendation: Drink now to retain maximum freshness
Where to Find It: VQA shops and government liquor stores

Burrowing Owl Syrah 2005 (0) ***1/2
A robust Syrah with aromas of roasted coffee bean, vanilla, black cherry, plum, licorice, sage and a touch of leather, earth and herbaceous notes. Silky, supple on the palate with smoky, black cherry, coffee, vanilla and mocha. Spicy dry finish. $38
Remarks: Has all the chewy, earthy, bold character you want in a Syrah.
Cellaring Recommendation: Drink now to 2011
Where to Find It: Winery wineshop, private retailers, restaurants.

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