Liquids: Wine Collecting for Anyone

If the mere sight of thousands of wine bottles reclining horizontally makes you weak in the knees (as it does me), you’ll probably need to grab hold of something to steady yourself (as I did) the first time you see the three-story glass “wine tower” at Excelsior, where more than 6,000 bottles repose peacefully in what looks like an inside-out greenhouse: The ambient light radiates from within, and the air inside is controlled to remain cooler than the dining room outside at all times.

In other words, it’s the kind of place in which I’d like to climb to the top of the mountain of Moutons and live happily ever after. Alas, wine director Eric Buxton won’t let me, but he does give me advice on how to start a modest collection of my own at home. How modest? “All you need is 50 bottles as a solid base of a good collection,” says Buxton.

Hmmm. My very own wine collection. When I say these words to myself I conjure up my imaginary butler, Jeeves, asking me, “Shall I add the La Tâche to your collection, sir? Or would you prefer I decant it forthwith?”

Of course, I have neither a butler nor a fancy Burgundy to call my own, but I’m inspired enough by Excelsior’s tower to start a collection to be proud of. One I could depend upon when unexpected guests arrive, when I plan a dinner party for eight, or when I’m eating Chinese food alone at midnight. I can have all that with a collection consisting of only 50 bottles—and so can you.

Sound like a plan? Good. Of course, if you already collect wine you probably have a system in place. If you don’t yet collect, but drink wine regularly enough to want to keep more than those few bottles you store in those wine racks kitchen designers always idiotically place in the least-cool area in the house—over the stove—you’re ready to start (cue Jeeves) a collection of your own. Naturally, if you have a butler, you’ll let him work out the details. If you don’t, here are some things to consider.

>>WHERE TO PUT IT? You need to find a cool corner in your house, or if you’re lucky, in your basement. If you’ve got the space and the dough, by all means buy one of those small temperature- and humidity-controlled wine units that hold about 50 bottles. Two I’d recommend are the Danby Silhouette for around $500 or the Rolls-Royce of wine coolers, the two-compartment Sub-Zero 424FS, which costs around $2,500.

>>MAKE A LIST To get an idea of what my collection should consist of, I spoke to Jason Irving, wine director at Harvest in Cambridge; Erik Johnson, wine director at L’Espalier and Sel de la Terre; and, of course, Eric Buxton at Excelsior. All three had very similar ideas about quantities and styles of wines.

The first thing to do, says Irving, is to have fun. “Starting a wine collection doesn’t have to be intimidating or even unaffordable—it should be downright exciting,” he says. Think about what you like to drink most often and start writing. An important consideration, says Johnson, is to consider what you’re comfortable spending for the wines you open most often. “They should all be bottles you would feel comfortable opening every day and that your family can open when you’re not there to approve it so you don’t come home and cry,” says Johnson, laughing. “There should be a ‘Do Not Touch’ shelf, and the rest is fair game.” Buxton agrees that some “special occasion” wines should be on your list, “but a collection this small really doesn’t warrant bottles that you’re going to keep around forever.”

>>CONSIDER QUANTITIES A solid collection, say our sommeliers, includes a dozen or so bottles of Champagne and/or sparkling wines, both nonvintage (under $50) and vintage, or special cuvée, (around $100). “With Champagne, the cost is somewhat prohibitive; it never goes down,” says Johnson. Look to sparkling wines from French regions outside of Champagne, such as Alsace, Crémant de Bourgogne, and the Loire Valley. “Very often they come in at half the price of Champagne,” he says, “and I’d much rather drink two bottles instead of one.” Buy the bubbly you can afford.

Next, think about a dozen “special-occasion” wines (between $50 and $100). These could be from a noteworthy producer or great vintage, says Buxton, who is a firm believer in knowing vintages when buying wines. “Look at good vintages on the market, like 2001 cabernets from California,” he advises. “Get a vintage chart and keep it handy.”

Finally, think about keeping two dozen or so bottles of “everyday” wines. They could range in price anywhere between $5 and $50. For diversity look for wines from lesser-known regions, says Johnson, who often finds wines for his lists “just next door” to a great (and therefore expensive) region.

Irving, at Harvest, suggests looking to the Southern Hemisphere for variety. Try sauvignon blancs from New Zealand (Saint Clair, Selaks, Brancott Vineyards), he advises, chardonnays from France’s Mâconnais (Louis Jadot, Domain de la Bongran, Cave de Lugny), and chenin blancs from South Africa (Indaba, Rudera) for whites. For reds, consider pinot noirs from South Africa (Hamilton Russell Vineyards, de Trafford) and New Zealand (Dog Point Vineyard, Oyster Bay, Saint Clair) and malbecs from Argentina (Bodegas Balbi, Catena, Los Cardos). Regardless of what you choose, you should expect the everydays to move in and out of your collection pretty regularly.

>>BUY THE WINE While our sommelier friends often are able to buy wine at wholesale and in bulk discounts, we mere mortals can expect our best deals—and advice—from a good retailer. If you have a shop with great inventory but less-than-great help, Buxton suggests trusting the importers or distributors whose names appear, typically, on the backs of the bottles. From Australia look for the Grateful Palate and Old Bridge Cellars; from Spain, Jorge Ordoñez Selections and Eric Solomon Selections; from Italy, Marc De Grazia Selections; from France, Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant; and from South Africa, Cape Classics. “These guys are solid, and when you see these names,” says Buxton, “you can have a reasonably high expectation of what it’s going to be like.”

After all, you’re letting the importer and distributor make the decision for you, which is sort of like what Buxton, Johnson, and Irving do at their respective restaurants. Now I want a butler and a wine buyer.