Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Who gets to drink this?

Over the past month there were a couple of auctions of note in the wine world. Hart Davis Hart in Chicago sold the largest single cellar collection in the US for 2009 and Piasa hosted a massive garage sale for La Tour d'Argent in Paris. Both houses had solid numbers and sold some pretty incredible wine including a bottle of pre-revolution (1788) cognac in Paris, and some extremely rare 59's and a veritable lake of merlot with all of the Petrus in Chicago. (A bit of disclosure; for the past two years, I had worked for Hart Davis Hart. No longer, but on to better things hopefully...) While listening to the news regarding these sales, my wife brought up a concern. "It seems unfortunate that so many people wanted to drink these wines, but with all of the collectors looking to tuck these away, the prices became too high. Who gets to drink these anyway?"

She wasn't the only one who wanted the bottles to end up in the hands of drinkers instead of professional collectors. David Ridgway, la tour d'argent's chief sommelier was reported in the Guardian as saying "I would like to think that other people will enjoy them rather than just collect them. Wines for me are meant to be drunk with people you love preferably. There are too many hoarders." I know I felt the same while watching lot after lot of beautiful wine disappearing into collections, knowing that the buyer was not going to drink them, but turn around in a couple of years and resell. At the auctions, it tended to be a pretty easy guess as to who was who in the drinker vs. buyer category. I watched one individual sit through the majority of one auction to bid on six out of about eight-hundred lots. He and his companion shared a bottle of wine with lunch and was obviously jubilant when he won, and crestfallen when he didn't. (He won half of his lots, two 1990 red Burgundies and a late 90's Chateauneuf, losing out on three bordeaux from the morning session.) As he got up to leave, his nose was red from his lunch bottle, and cheeks flush with the excitement of winning.

Hell, he should be flushed! He picked up some great bottles that he was going to enjoy with friends over a great dinner. At least, that is what I like to think. maybe he was going to have them while laying down in a dirty closet, crying about how much he spent. Regardless, I love the idea of wines actually being consumed. After one auction, I pulled an order that was just over a quarter million dollars worth of wine, that I knew was going nowhere near a Laguiole. It was going somewhere cool, dark and still, and was not to reappear until the market had an uptick or this gentleman needed to buy his company back after the crash of 2008.

On one hand, I was very disappointed with the future of the wine in front of me. It was like looking at a prize racehorse put out to stud, but it was too expensive to get in your mare's sack. It was going to sit around, be pretty, talk about how incredible it should be according to past performances, but when was it going to get laid?

The one nice thing is that there are lots of collectors out there, paying for proper storage, aging wines without the thought of knocking the neck off of any of them. This means, yes, someday these wines will be available for the rest of us to purchase, though at a serious premium. A look around at any of the fine wine retail websites will show how it is becoming prohibitively expensive to get into some of the vintage wines. Not to mention the absolute joy of seeing how much your favorite fine dining establishment will charge for said bottles. Paying for storage isn't cheap! After all, there are so many things that can go wrong while a bottle is aging. Corks dry out, seepage, bottles break, labels fall off... really silly things to think about, but these are horrible risks for the investor. Honestly, how would you want to set a bottle upright with the intention of having something special with friends, only to find the cork floating on top like an unflushable?

I won't say that I encourage all of these wines to be opened before their time; in fact, I prefer a wine that has had a little time to develop the nuances that come with a little age under the belt. But, at the auction house, or at the restaurant, I am indeed chagrined that so many beautiful bottles will be enjoyed by so few, if enjoyed at all. I have seen bottles that have made me want to cry because they had gone nowhere and were now little more than pretty paperweights.

To this end, I celebrate and tip my hat to friends who purchase with an eye toward drinking. Perhaps a case to save and flip all with the goal of using the profit to purchase more to drink! We could all use a little flushing of the cheeks, and a good bottle of wine always helps.

Monday, June 22, 2009

break it down

Working in the wine industry obviously has its perks; great dinners, visiting vineyards in California, meeting collectors and enthusiasts, and occasionally popping some special corks with friends. The truly special moments are when friends discuss what is happening with the industry; both in and behind the glass. Lectures on terroir and winemakers, brewmasters and regional specialties, roasters and seasonality... it can get heated, it can get funny, it can get serious, or it can be opinionated blowhards running their mouths.

I have been in the "professional beverage industry" for eighteen years, starting with my first position as a barista at the tender age of fifteen. I took up with serving wine and beer along with my coffee duties at nineteen, and was lucky enough to spend these formative years in the Pacific Northwest where the artisans behind the craft still made themselves available. Talking and learning with producers from this area solidified my decision to stay attached to the industry when I moved east with my wife to Chicago. Here, I have taken that love of all things beverage and developed wonderful relationships on the other side of the fence; distributors, restaurateurs and retailers. All this and also some fantastic friends who consider themselves nothing more than lucky consumers. They can have any opinion they want, not swayed by any professional allegiance, and I find a lot of truth within their comments.

As important as it is try and convey the most accurate information I can, I also need to stress that all of the stress, ego, and BS that can go along with these sort of discussions will need to be checked at the door. I love what I do, but as we all know, it's all just a drink you are going to be passing along to the sewer within a couple of hours. I will do my best to treat these discussions with all seriousness, but with a lighthearted touch to it. After all, with the constant evolution within the beverage industry if you think you know it all, you're wrong. That is why there is so much discussion, and why it is so much fun. When I say something incorrect, I certainly hope there will be someone there to correct me. Please do.

In the meantime, please get a cup of tea, or crack a beer that you've been holding onto for a while. I look forward to writing and sharing what comes around. All best.