Whine

I was in Vermont on Friday going through the cellar and giving at least half of it to someone from an auction house. On the plus side, it’s one of the few assets we own that has actually- and significantly- appreciated in value, so it’s going to make us some much-needed cash. On the minus side, I parted with some special bottles of Bordeaux, some of which I’ve had for 15 years. Back during the first semester of grad school in 1994, I found a little working color TV in the alley behind my first Chicago apartment. So I looked in the free weekly paper for moving sales to find a VCR (remember those?) that would make the little 13″ screen much more useful. By complete chance, the guy I called was also selling his wine collection; he was broker even than I, and had to move back to Austria in two weeks.

He had an excellent collection, and I bought everything I could from him. In retrospect, I should have bought more, even selling my car, since I could have flipped some of these bottles right away for a big profit. I bought a case of 1990 Mondavi unfiltered Cabernet for $7 a bottle, and some big-name Bordeaux for next to nothing. Four of those bottles- for which I paid about $30 each- are now worth about $800 each. So notwithstanding the many intervening years in which I have mulled over what occasion would prompt the opening of these precious bottles, I decided to part with them.

Wine, after all, is replaceable, and most of the stuff I sold is wine that I don’t enjoy any more. The top-notch Australian bottles- The Dead Arm excepted- are not going to be missed. The problem is that big-name Bordeaux commands the highest prices, and as a result my collection has now diminished from one bottle of Cheval Blanc to zero. The 1989 Palmer was another that it was hard to say goodbye to, and there were others (I’m talking to you, ’85 Haut-Brion). But it’s hard to argue when a mixed case of 1995 Bordeaux (Margaux, Cheval, Mouton, Cantemerle, Pichon-Baron, Pichon-Lalande, Haut-Brion, etc.) that I spent a grand on six years ago is now worth around eight times that much. These are hard times, and the art market is circling the drain. I console myself with the knowledge that this investment has performed handsomely and was bought low and sold high. Not all the way high, but far enough.

I saved some: the 3 bottles of 1989 La Conseillante aren’t fancy enough to sell for much, but are utterly sublime. I still have my mini-vertical of Lynch-Bages (’82, ’85, ’86, ’89, ’90) and the ’82 and ’88 Gruaud-Larose, and a few others. The Rhône and Italy are still intact. I’m drinking a 2000 Ascent Syrah by Terre Rouge right now; it’s making me almost regret all of the Cali Cab bottles I let go of, including the mixed six-pack of fine 1997 magnums that I had big plans for in another 10 years. And the Montelenas will be missed, without a doubt, as will the Sine Qua Non, not least due to its scarcity (but then again I kept half of the SQN stash; the dessert wines are good for 100 years, after all, and some were gifts). The Ascent is a Syrah, not a Cabernet, the second of two bottles we had socked away (I mentioned the first one here, right after we moved up) and it has an interesting sourdough toast thing happening which I normally associate with Burgundy; maybe it’s the yeast they use. In any case, it’s refreshingly lean and elegant for a Cali Syrah.

At the end of the day, this is a good thing. It’s an exercise in non-attachment, and an opportunity to make some room for Burgundy, Barolo, and other miracles. My cellar didn’t match my taste any more, and now it does. Moving forward, it will be a very different animal; there’s a $15 Riesling I plan on buying a couple of cases of, since it will age well for a long time, and when the economy improves I’ll be well-positioned to fill it back up with winners both cheap and dear. Having said that, though, I do hope that this will be the only time I call upon my collection to do anything more than taste magnificent with my dinner.

8 comments to Whine

  • cook eat FRET

    loved reading this even though i have only a vague notion…

  • Zoomie

    My brother, who is the wine lover in our family, would have wept to part with those. Let me know if you are looking for a buyer – he's probably not rich enough but I could at least tell him about them…

  • The Spiteful Chef

    Ugh. Stupid economy. Still, if you made a big profit off of them, it had to be done. Just think about how much fun it will be to rebuild the collection!

    How do you start building one, btw? Just buy a case here and there? And how do I know what's going to be good and how long it has to sit? I asked you before but you never told me, and you're the only wino I know personally.

  • cookiecrumb

    Hokey smokes, Bullwinkle! No wonder I don't do wine.

  • peter

    Claudia: Nice to have you back.

    Zoomie: I have some good Aussies left that I'm looking to sell- more affordable than the big guns for the auction. I can send you a list if you like.

    Kristie: I told you to email me and you haven't.

    CC: No, you're all about the Panama Red, right?

  • Jen of A2eatwrite

    It's good that there's anything moving in this economy.

    I try to have many exercises in non-attachment. I'm actually not kidding about that. I think it helps to also relish the important things.

  • Brooklynguy

    a sad day, no doubt, but brilliant of you to do this. wine that is likely to bring more cash than pleasure should be sold, like clothes you never wear. you can buy more of both and make yourself happier that way.

    what's the $800 bottle, by the way?

  • peter

    Jen: It's true. I'll miss some of the greats in a decade or two, but mostly I'm happy to have done some editing.

    Neil: Well, the Palmer, the Haut-Brion, and an '89 Pichon-Lalande were all in that vicinity; auction houses give you a estimated range and set the reserve accordingly. I am hoping that the '95s do well too, since it's the final year before all the machines ruined Bordeaux forever.

Yours Truly



I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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