Down in the Cellar with the East End’s Finest Wines

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Sommelier Michael Cohen in the wine cellar of The 1770 House in East Hampton. Lori Hawkins photo

If you fancy yourself a wine collector, you will already know that there is an intangible art to collecting wine, one that is neither quantifiable nor qualitative. In the broad parlance of wine speak, we like what we like, without reason or explanation, and our personal tastes and touches are what make a wine collection an intensely personal endeavor.

Still, the burgeoning collector can learn a thing or two from a wine professional. How should wine be stored, for instance? How does one go about starting a collection? How is wine purchased? The answers to these questions are as varied as personal taste. Some might begin to amass a collection with a single bottle. For me, it was a handful of bottles, actually, inherited from my father, a motley-if-well-cared-for collection of 1982, 1989, and 1990 Bordeaux. Those wines had value on the open market, yes, but they were also valuable because they had been passed on to me by someone I loved, by someone who loved wine.

Sommeliers agree on this: A wine collection begins before it is actually born. “Foundation-wise, you have to start with proper storage,” offered Julie Berger, general manager of East Hampton’s Highway Bar & Restaurant and former sommelier at Jean-Georges Vongrichten’s esteemed Columbus Circle restaurant, Jean Georges. Wine thrives in a cool environment — 55 degrees is thought to be the magic number — and in a cellar that treads the line between humid and dry. A moisture-less cellar will cause porous corks to crumble, allowing for premature oxidation (the beauty of wine is that it accepts air gradually, over time, which helps it to mature — but too much air will spoil even the sturdiest of bottles).

North Fork Table & Inn owner Mike Mraz with a 2008 Chateauneuf-du-Pape Chateau Rayas from the Rhone Valley. Michael Heller photo

Mike Mraz, co-owner of Southold’s North Fork Table & Inn and Long Island wine representative for T. Edwards, agrees.

“If I were considering putting together any sort of collection, I would probably first invest in protection,” he said. “Humidity control. Temperature control. If you don’t start with that, you’re done. Before I would even consider what I was going to buy, I would start with building a cellar, and I would make it a monster, so that I could adjust as I grew.”

Establish a footprint, outfit it appropriately, and then move on to the nitty-gritty business of stocking your cellar with juice.

So, you have your cellar. What comes next? According to Julie Berger, it’s all about the relationships. Since high-caliber wine can be difficult to source — especially if its production is limited — the burgeoning collector might consider working with a sommelier or broker, someone who can clarify the system and assist in procuring coveted wines. Many luxury wines are “allocated” (a term no longer used by wine representatives, since it’s technically not legal) to on-premise establishments, which is why you may find it challenging to find that incredible Burgundy you drank last night at Nick & Toni’s at your local wine store. This elemental challenge, when it comes to wine buying, is why working with a knowledgeable source — preferably someone with entrée and leverage — is necessary.

Once you’ve enlisted help, building a great cellar is like anything else: beautiful in the eye of the beholder. A well-curated cellar should reflect a person’s individual taste, and personal sense of value. Still, these qualities are difficult to quantify.

Julie Berger of the Highway Restaurant. Michael Heller photo

“It’s like telling someone your recipe to your dish,” Berger said of wine collecting. “Maybe you don’t want people to know your strategy and your style, because it’s kind of secret, in a way. If someone asks what’s in the drink, I’m never going to give them the exact recipe.”

One person’s recipe for collecting may differ greatly from another’s, even if there is a commonly agreed-upon baseline regarding a wine’s worth.

Wine collecting can feel, at times, like sanctioned lawlessness. Buy what you like! But what if you like nearly everything? In order to build a collection with appraised value, consider a diverse portfolio. You may love the wines of northern California, but building a cellar on a sub-region is narrow. Instead, collectors should consider the merits of diversity.

“Diversity in vintage, diversity in where the wine comes from… I think having diversity is the best,” Berger said. If buying and collecting wine still feels like an intellectual challenge, don’t hesitate to call in the reserves for another opinion. “It would be as foolish for me to buy stocks and bonds as it would be for someone who didn’t know anything about wine to spend money on it,” Mike Mraz said.

And what makes a wine collectible, anyway? For something that is an agricultural product, understanding the wide arc that separates good wine from extraordinary wine can feel impossible. Sommeliers recommend paying close attention to vintages — growers in a given region are likely to assess their wines in the press, and wine critics like the recently retired Robert Parker, Jr. are overt about their feelings on particular vintages. As the planet warms and growing seasons become more predictable, vintage variation is less of a collectible concern, but it is still worth paying attention to. A great vintage will be sunny and warm, with a balance between excessive rain and drought. Hail, humidity, and other natural occurrences can be make-or-break for a vintage’s productivity.

Collectors should look, too, to producers. Smaller production wines from well-known winemakers can be more valuable than large production wines created on a commercial scale. That is not to say that large-scale wines are not valuable. Bordeaux and Burgundy, as categories, can feel over-the-top expensive, but these wines also make worthwhile additions to the cellar. In good vintages, their values tend to appreciate. A look at Michael Cohen’s incredibly built wine list at East Hampton’s 1770 House demonstrates the breadth and painstaking detail that can go into a collection. His wine list represents most of the world’s major winemaking regions, with substantial nods to major, world-class wines, as well as smaller, less represented producers. Such a list points to how diverse a collection can be, even within a single category.

In the end, your collection, should you choose to establish it, will be your own, an intimate rendering of your tastes, your financial commitment to the art of collecting wine, and your savvy. Like any art — and, yes, collecting is truly an art — it is one of subtlety, finesse, and, if executed well, brilliance.

For Your Cellar

Twenty of the Most Collectible Wines on the East End

The wines below were selected for their rarity, vintage quality, and quality of producer. They are among the most valuable wines available for purchase on Eastern Long Island.

Sparkling

  • Moët & Chandon Brut, “Dom Perignon,”Champagne, France, 2006 ($465, Topping Rose House, Bridgehampton)
  • Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé Jeroboam 3 Liter, Champagne, France, NV ($1,000, Le Charlot, Southampton)

White

  • Didier Dageneau, Blanc Fumé de Pouilly, “Silex,”Loire Valley, France, 2012 ($275, 1770 House, East Hampton)
  • Domaine François Raveneau, “Butteaux,” Chablis, France, 2015 ($268, Domaine Franey, East Hampton)
  • Elena Walch, “Beyond the Clouds,” Alto-Adige,Italy, 2015 ($140, Sant Ambroeus, Southampton)
  • Trimbach Riesling “Clos Ste Hune,”Alsace, France, 2004 ($475, Nick & Toni’s, East Hampton)
  • Jos Prüm, Spätlese Riesling,“Bernkasteler Badstube,” Mosel, Germany, 2016 ($80, North Fork Table & Inn, Southold)
  • Lopez de Heredia, Rioja Gran Reserva Blanco,La Rioja, Spain, 1981 ($265, Nick & Toni’s, East Hampton)
  • Domaine des Comtes Lafon, Montrachet,Burgundy, France, 1999 ($1,999, Nick & Toni’s, East Hampton) 

Red

  • Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Romanée-St-Vivant Grand Cru,Burgundy, France, 2001, ($2,500, 1770 House, East Hampton)
  • Angelo Gaja, Barbaresco, “Sori Tildin,”Piedmonte, Italy, 1985 ($1,250, Nick & Toni’s, East Hampton)
  • Bruno Giacosa, Barolo Falletto di Serralunga Riserva,Piedmonte, Italy, 1990 ($1,837, Sant Ambroeus, Southampton)
  • Vega Sicilia, “Unico,” magnum,Ribera del Duero, Spain, 1994 ($2,000, 1770 House, East Hampton)
  • Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande,Pauillac, Bordeaux, France, 1996 ($299, Domaine Franey, East Hampton)
  • Château Cheval Blanc,Saint-Émilion, Bordeaux, France, 1990 ($1,980, Nick & Toni’s, East Hampton)
  • Château Lafite Rothschild,Pauillac, Bordeaux, France, 2000 ($1,999, Domaine Franey, East Hampton)
  • Château Rayas, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhône Valley, France, 2008 ($555, North Fork Table & Inn, Southold)
  • Harlan Estate, Cabernet Sauvignon,Napa Valley, California, 2013 ($1,800, 1770 House, East Hampton)
  • Bryant Family, Cabernet Sauvignon,Napa Valley, California, 1999 ($599, Domaine Franey, East Hampton)

Sweet

  • Chateau d’Yquem, Sauternes,Bordeaux, France, 2016 ($445, Domaine Franey, East Hampton)

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