Local Wine Experts Weigh In On How To Get The Most Out Of Fine And Rare Wines
We humans love our wine. It’s been a part of our history for at least 9,000 years—since we first discovered that grapes ferment deliciously. Wine was found in King Tut’s tomb; it’s essential to the Eucharist in Catholicism; and it has been a vital element of global commerce and the culinary arts for as long as there has been recorded history. In the United States alone, the 2017 estimated economic impact of the wine industry is on pace to reach more than $200 billion.
It’s no wonder the many ways to make, store and collect fine wine have become passionate pursuits for many, like Ted Mandes, chairman of the Palm Beach Wine Auction, which takes place in February. Mandes has spent more than a decade thinking about the best wines in the world, and how selecting the right ones and properly caring for them makes all the difference for the annual event.
“We have built a marvelous cellar of wines we’ll serve and sell in the years to come that are rated between 92 and 100 points,” Mandes says. “It’s pretty rarified to be able to do that at an event where 250 people are handed a glass of Krug Champagne when they walk in the door, and served five different wines with dinner. But nothing can be left to chance. We have an enormous investment in our wine, because that’s what makes our event unique.”
Gambling on the Best Grapes
Mandes travels each year to Napa Valley and France, meeting with vintners, tasting wines and brokering purchases and donations that make up the Palm Beach Wine Auction’s collection. It’s a delicate dance of spending money to make more money later, as well as building strong relationships so that when a just-bottled cabernet shows its potential, Mandes gets an early buying nod.
This is an important aspect to collectors of fine or rare wines, as many of the best bottles in the world never see the inside of a wine shop or liquor store. They are bought by investors, through auction houses and restaurateurs, sometimes just on the vintner’s reputation alone or the expectations from a good harvest. Many wineries sell only to people who have purchased a membership, or they sell only on-site in the winery’s tasting room.
“One of my favorite stories is from a trip to Napa in 2015,” Mandes says. “I was tasting Mark Carter’s three top wines that September—the Beckstoffer To Kalon G.T.O., O.G. and The Grand Daddy—and I said to Mark, ‘I’d love 72 bottles of each of these.’ Mark turned to his winemaker and said, ‘Do we have that much wine?’ They did, and he agreed. That December, Robert Parker gave all three of those wines 100 points. I’m thrilled that we’ll be able to serve and sell those at the 2020 and 2021 auctions.”
Working with Mandes on selecting wines to be served at the Palm Beach Wine Auction is Brian Chamis, sommelier for Café Chardonnay in Palm Beach Gardens and co-owner of The Vine Post, a wine shop and tasting room in Juno Beach he runs with business partner Tom Battaglia.
“Mostly, I tell people who are interested in collecting wine they should buy what they want to drink,” Chamis says. “Yes, there are wines that certain buyers would look for as an investment, but usually, those bottles are never opened. For most people, a personal collection should be about wines they want to enjoy. And of course, these wines can be expensive, but they don’t have to be.”
West Palm Beach resident Roderic Fink is an enthusiastic wine collector who mixes investment wines with those he likes to drink. During his 40-year career in cryogenics and since his retirement 11 years ago, he has amassed thousands of bottles, housed between a modest home cooler and a storage vault at Imperial Wine Storage in Riviera Beach, where bottles he views strictly as part of his portfolio are kept secure and at optimum temperature and humidity.
“There are some wines that I will not drink because it’s part of a certain collection, and if I drink it, that would ruin what they call the ‘vertical,’” he says. “A vertical is when you have every year since the wine started being made, and to be a vertical, they have to be consecutive. It’s also more valuable to have the large-format bottles, because the wine ages better in larger bottles.”
Among Fink’s most prized vintages? A set of five, 6-liter bottles from Europe’s most famous Châteaus: Haut-Brion, Lafite Rothschild, Latour, Margaux and Mouton Rothschild. He muses at what they could be worth these days, but to him, collecting is more about the interesting history of the wines and the social aspects that make it a worthy pursuit.
From Provenance to Party, the Right Way to Store Wine
David and Laura Wrightson are the owners of Imperial Wine Storage, where Fink’s wine and the wine for the Palm Beach Wine Auction are stored, along with that of numerous other serious collectors from around the country. It’s a nondescript former manufacturing facility in an industrial part of town, but what it lacks in charm it makes up for in solid concrete construction, beefy security, diesel generators and redundant commercial refrigeration systems to maintain the ideal temperature. And one other key element: David and Laura’s devotion to maintaining the “provenance” of their clients’ wine.
For collectors, provenance is imperative. It means being able to show that a valuable bottle has gone from the winery, auction house or private seller directly to storage while being kept at the proper temperature and humidity (about 55 to 60 F and 70-percent humidity is optimal for red wine, Chamis says.) The Wrightsons also own and operate The Wine Mover, a national wine transportation service that uses refrigerated trucks door-to-door, ensuring the wine’s provenance. So critical is this element that when Hurricane Irma was bearing down on South Florida, the Wrightsons secured two additional backup air conditioning units—just in case both the main system and their redundant backup systems went down.
“We like to say we’re not pretty, but we’re effective,” David says. He is a former Oracle software engineer who got into the wine storage business after designing a wine collection-tracking software for one of his uncle’s friends, who happened to be billionaire businessman and elite wine collector Bill Koch. “Before the hurricane, we were getting calls from all over the state from people who wanted us to take in their collections for safety.”
The Wrightsons now use CellarTracker to manage their clients’ collections, and while it’s serious business, it’s also a lot of fun to help a client prepare for the perfect party, Laura says. Often, she will take a call from a local client and then head deep into the 55-degree vaults with a jacket and a motorized hand truck in order to pluck just the right bottles for an upcoming dinner party to be delivered directly to the client’s home.
“There’s a huge amount of trust in the relationships we have with our clients,” Laura says. “And we not only value that trust, but we truly enjoy being the stewards of their collections, which can represent a lifetime of experiences and memories associated with the wine.”
Food, Friends and Enjoying Wine Now
Wine has always been part of social gatherings, but modern life has created new interest in ways to gather and enjoy it, from boutique storage facilities that offer elegant tasting rooms and smartphone-linked temperature controls, to wine shops with communal tasting tables, to new restaurant concepts that encourage guests to not only drink wine, but also learn about it.
Local facilities like Store Self Storage & Wine Storage in Palm Beach Gardens and Loomis Wine Cellars in West Palm Beach offer clients wine cellars with features like advanced security systems with cameras and biometric locks, but they also have tasting rooms to hold wine events and where collectors can gather with their friends. Restaurants such as Cooper’s Hawk at The Gardens Mall offer monthly wine memberships and sell their own wine in a shop/tasting room attached to the restaurant.
At Chamis’ The Vine Post, the motto is “Come As You Are,” and a long communal table sits beneath a wall-mounted flat-screen TV, where co-owner Battaglia and Chamis’ wife, Tish, regularly host “Skype tastings” between customers and vintners who tune in from their wineries in California.
“People used to say they wanted to learn about wine, but they really didn’t, they just wanted to drink it,” Chamis says. “Now, they seem to really want to feel knowledgeable about the wine they’re drinking and learn more. They see it as part of the experience. It’s like the craft beer movement. People aren’t satisfied with just drinking Budweiser anymore.”
Fink says he agrees, and has sought out ways to enjoy his hobby with friends. He and his wife, Madeline, belong to a wine club in their community that hosts monthly dinners, as well as an Italian club that hosts similar gatherings. Fink also serves as president of the Palm Beach chapter of The International Wine & Food Society, which calls itself “an independent gastronomic society, which has been run by enthusiastic volunteers since its inception in 1933.” The society boasts more than 6,000 members in more than 30 countries.
“It’s about drinking wine with friends and enjoying food,” Fink says. “Wine takes on a different taste and character when you have it with a great fish or steak. And wine is a great topic of conversation because you’re enjoying different types. It’s interesting how each person has different tastes. It’s a lot of fun, especially when you talk with other collectors.”
“People used to say they wanted to learn about wine, but they really didn’t, they just wanted to drink it.” - Brian Chamis
If You Go
11th Annual Palm Beach Wine Auction
When: Thursday, Feb. 1 at 6 p.m.
Where: Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts
What: Celebration of the auction’s 11th year, featuring a live auction and five-course dinner paired with select wines from around the world.
Price: $1,000; by advance reservation
Why: The Palm Beach Wine Auction benefits the children’s arts education programs at the Kravis Center, serving more than 2.2 million school
children since its inception.
Wines to Buy Now, Drink Later
Brian Chamis, co-owner of The Vine Post in Juno Beach and sommelier for Café Chardonnay and the Palm Beach Wine Auction, says if you’re looking to start a collection of wine to age, seek out advice from wine shop owners and sommeliers who can offer insight into which wines will improve with time. There are a lot of gray areas in deciding which wines age best. While a big, bold cabernet sauvignon can soften and become rounded by a few years on the shelf, a Zinfandel might be better to drink right away, when its bright, juicy notes are at their peak.
“Most wine is meant to be drunk the year it’s made,” Chamis says. “But certain reds, especially, can improve with five or more years of bottle aging.”
A few whites make that list, as well. Champagnes and certain sweeter wines, such as Rieslings and Sauternes, develop more complex flavors with aging.
While home wine cellars can be elaborate rooms with their own cooling systems, stand-alone units like those made by EuroCave and others work well for most collectors. Another favorite tool in Chamis’ kit is the Coravin, a $200 device that allows you to pierce the cork of an unopened bottle of wine and pour a single glass while keeping the cork in place and protecting the rest of the wine from oxidation. It’s a great way to enjoy a more expensive bottle over a period of weeks. Another tip? Download the CellarTracker app to your smartphone to keep track of purchases and see changes in value. Vivino wine scanner is a popular app, too, allowing users to photograph wine bottle labels and instantly learn pricing, ratings, reviews and food pairing suggestions.
Here, Chamis shares his favorite wines-of-the-moment for buying now and serving later, with their average retail pricing:
• 2013 Antinori Family Antica Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($55) – A classic Napa Valley cabernet made by the Antinori family, the makers of the iconic Tignanello, Guado al Tasso and Solaia.
• 2014 Vineyard 7 & 8 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain ($150) - Martha McClellan is the winemaker. It’s a great value, considering she also makes the amazing Checkerboard ($300) and Sloan ($500).
• Jean-Louis Chave Selection Hermitage ‘Farconnet’, Rhone, France ($65) - Jean-Louis Chave could arguably be the benchmark producer in Northern Rhone. His Hermitage is in the $250 to $400 price range. The Farconnet is a newer offering.
• 2013 Poderi Aldo Conterno Bussia, Barolo DOCG, Italy ($75) - Aldo’s Bussia Barolo is his entry level Barolo. It’s showing well now but some cellar time would shed some of those firm tannins.
Sparkling & White
• Krug Brut, Champagne, France NV ($225) - This is the quintessential non-vintage Champagne. In general, non-vintage Champagne is meant to be consumed as soon as you buy it, but Krug is a different story. You can drink now or cellar it and some of those toasty brioche characteristics start to come out. Delicious!
• Chateau Rieussec ($55) – This Sauternes received 95 to 97 points from Robert Parker and is a great wine to drink now or cellar for 20 years. Dessert wines like Sauternes have enough concentrated sugar in them to make them last for decades. If you’re going to buy white wine for cellaring purposes, other ideas are Grand Cru Burgundy, German Riesling and Vintage Champagne.