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Confessions of a Former Wine Shopaholic

2011 May 13
by Mike

All this chatter about Château Lafite, crazy prices, and selling prized bottles made me realize something the other day: I’m cured. Truly, fully cured. What do I mean? I mean this: I no longer care about adding to my cellar, maintaining verticals, obtaining the latest and the greatest, or any of the other things that used to drive me to buy wine—compulsively. There are no longer any must-have wines in my life; in fact, I haven’t added to my collection in months. Apart from everyday quaffers, my buying habit has been broken. And guess what? I am fine with that. I don’t miss the hunt. Perhaps that’s a strange admission coming from a wine writer, and one who in the not-so-distant past demonstrated a willingness to travel vast distances in pursuit of tasting pleasures. But the thrill of the chase really is gone.

Granted, I haven’t stopped collecting by choice; I’ve been sidelined by circumstance. Journalism is not exactly a lucrative profession, and with two young children, lots of bills to pay, and the looming specter of college tuitions (“keep working on that Title IX forehand, Ava; the coach at Stanford is gonna love it!”), I can no longer afford to stock up on my favorite Burgundies, Barolos, Northern Rhones, etc. I am out of the game. Given the zeal with which I used to pursue my quarry—scouring Wine-Searcher.com for d’Angerville, Fourrier, Dauvissat, Chave, Allemand, Giuseppe Mascarello, etc.—and the rush I would experience whenever I’d score a coveted bottle, I am surprised at how well I’ve adjusted to austerity. I haven’t lost any of my passion for wine and, sure, I’d still be buying if I had the dosh. But I don’t and I can’t, and it just doesn’t bother me.

I own probably three bottles of 2005 Burgundy. Yes, I was a little sad when the 2005 d’Angerville Clos des Ducs, a wine I had been collecting since the mid-90s, came out at $250 per bottle, but I quickly got over it. Discontinuing my vertical of Mascarello Monprivato hurt, too, but I moved on. I don’t own a single bottle of 2005 Bordeaux and couldn’t care less. Those delicious 2007 white Burgundies? Nada. 2004 Barolos and Barbarescos? Zilch. 2002 Champagne? Rien. Oh, I’ve squirreled away a few 2009 Beaujolais, and Huet is as affordable and irresistible as ever. But otherwise, my wallet is closed for business, my wine stash in a state of arrested development.

No question, the fact that I’m a wine writer has made it easier to curb the buying; because of my work, I still get to taste a lot of great wines. If I were being shut out completely, I might feel differently. I also think the glut of outstanding vintages that we’ve seen of late has helped. It is a bit of a paradox: all the buzz and hype has actually reduced my desire to buy. Nowadays, you can miss out on one epic year confident in the knowledge that another will materialize soon enough. I wouldn’t say I’ve become a more virtuous, mature, or enlightened grape nut (although the buying moratorium has certainly helped on the domestic tranquility front); that sounds sanctimonious, and again, if money were not an issue, I would still be loading up on Burgundies. But I must admit that it does feel pretty good to be able to walk into a wine shop now and not feel any temptation to whip out my credit card.

How about you? How have your buying habits evolved? Are you able to sit out great vintages, or does the call of the wine still get the better of you?

21 Responses leave one →
  1. May 20, 2011

    I can’t help myself. I have to make a couple comments about what I’ve always found curious: the psychology behind wine collecting/hoarding/shopping behavior. I’ve sometimes wondered if amassing a cellar stems from a competitiveness. In my experience, it’s rare that a conversation among wine enthusiasts doesn’t go something like this:
    Speaker 1: “Last night I opened a bottle of (fill in the blank with old/rare/expensive)”
    Speaker 2: “We opened a bottle of (fill in the blank with older/rarer/more expensive)”
    And so on.
    It’s not like when you tell someone about a book or movie. With wine there’s always an almost one-upmanship that happens.

    And I’ve also thought to JJ’s point about buying new bottles instead of taking one from the cellar can be the consequence of being afraid to open a bottle that can’t be replaced or fear of remorse or worse the fear of opening something you’ve saved for that perfect occasion only to discover it’s corked!

    Too bad Oprah is leaving the air. A show on wine collectors and former wine collectors could have been a hit!

    And one final comment, Mike, the 6’3″ son: I’m hoping mine will stop there. My husband is 6’4″ and our little guy is showing potential to hit that. He too has had a few tastes of wine. Once after a sip of an extremely expensive Champagne he declared, “This is my favorite.” A chip off the old block…

  2. May 20, 2011

    “Quite apart from financial factors, does fermented grape juice really merit this kind of obsessive behavior? I certainly wrestle with that question.”

    I think if one ever becomes a collector of anything there’s usually a slight obsessive trait to that person’s personality. You’re a hoarder. You might justify your hoarding instincts by wine’s investment potential but essentially you taken those stamp collecting skills as a kid to a new adult extreme. With that, you’ll always be reminded by people who are not into wine but are into you, that your obsession is an obsession. Fortunately, I think most of these phases in your life peak and die down but the lovely thing about wine is that at the core, most hoarders of wine are also sharers. As a parent, you’ll know that one of the first things we teach our kids is to be good at sharing. Its part of building community. A great thing and what I love about wine. So if you’re questioning yourself and your buying habits then, maybe its time to cool it but at least you can be thankful that you’re not obsessing about guns and artillery.

  3. May 20, 2011

    *aspire* to (damn autocorrect)

  4. May 20, 2011

    Have really enjoyed this discussion. Serge that’s a very nicely put insight and I found it very salutary coming from such an experienced taster as yourself. (Your TN on cellartracker on the 1989 Larose still remains my non plus ultra of what a tasting note should adore to). I would love to hear more about your whole wine journey. It is also interesting to note how many CT commenters on the forum there state they’ve taken breaks from wine of five or six years.

    Mike – thanks for the note about the 99 La Tache. Like someone said on the Lafite thread, virtually every bottle in my cellar has an implicit price tag for which it will find itself travelling East. But not those three bottles. If their worth is ever the margin of difference in my life, then that’s probably the best time for me to appreciate them.

  5. May 19, 2011

    Thanks, Lori. Living in Napa, surrounded by a vibrant, free-spending wine culture, undoubtedly makes it harder. I live outside of Philadelphia, so I’m not surrounded by it every day in the way that you guys are. I have a nine-year-old son and a six-year-old daughter. My son already has a taste for the good stuff–foie gras, caviar, etc. So even without the wine, we’re screwed (all the more so because the pediatrician tells us we can expect him to be around 6 ft 3 in. by the time he’s 18. How I am going to pay for that luxury appetite, I have no idea). And as he seems quite interested in wine already (I permit him a small sip over dinner if he asks), I suppose we’re going to be doubly screwed.

  6. May 19, 2011

    Interesting question. I’d say he’s adapted, with grace, and yet because wine was such a huge part of his dialog with other people I think not spending/buying/collecting the same wines he once did is a sort of secret shame. Where I might boast about the fun of discovering a great bargain bottle, he would never. We live in Napa Valley and 80 percent of our friends are in the wine industry so wine is a big part of our lives and conversation. He has a reputation for having great wines in his collection and for sharing them. When we entertain, we dig deep into our collection for the expensive and/or impressive bottles to “keep up appearances.”

    All that said, he understands the trade off between being a bachelor with unlimited wine spending and being the father of a now six-year-old who thinks the sun and moon rise on him. Of course once our little guy turns 21 and my husband wants to teach him about wine, we’ll be in trouble then…

  7. May 18, 2011

    Serge, thanks for stopping by, and that’s a great point. Quite apart from financial factors, does fermented grape juice really merit this kind of obsessive behavior? I certainly wrestle with that question. As I said, I’m passionate as ever about wine, still get a charge out of tasting rarities, etc. But wine is not war and peace, and as with any hobby, it’s easy to get carried away. I can literally no longer afford to get carried away, and I suppose the buying moratorium has given me perspective that I lacked in the past.

    Lori, thanks for sharing your story, and does it ever hit home! As I said in my post, one benefit of being sidelined is that wine is no longer the source of friction in my household that it was before. I definitely don’t miss those “conversations.” Obviously, fiscal responsibility isn’t a matter of choice–the bottom line is the bottom line, and bills do need to be paid–but wine does have a way of clouding one’s judgment, literally and figuratively. So how has your husband adjusted to the reduced spending?

  8. May 17, 2011

    I am on the same page with Mike, but for a different reasons. I just lost interest. Wine is just a drink and how long can one be having drink fetish? I add bottles here and there, mostly well aged stuff at a reasonable price. 2005 was my last BDX and Burgundy “a mass” purchase and will pass all upcoming “vintage of the century”.

  9. May 16, 2011

    I have just sent this post to my husband, who has had to face a similar decline in wine purchases. After we were married a few years and I took over the management of our finances, I asked him nicely (really nagged him like a maniac) to change his wine-spending habits. While I loved drinking $65 pinots and $100 cabs on any given night, it was not sustainable in light of having a family, the current economy and some changes in our income. As a result our/his spending has been reduced dramatically. Ironically, we met in a wine shop and I’m sure the owner rues the day he set up one of his best customers with me.

  10. May 16, 2011

    my cellar is more convenience than library. like 88 keys on the piano, i need to stock wines so that i may play any tune to suit my mood, or theirs, or hers. i even have an off limits section of aging wines and cost is not relevant. my rule is, no matter what the cost or scarcity, a bottle entering my cellar becomes just another bottle, subject to duty at my whim, provided that they are not in the aforementioned nursery. i hunt bargains, not parker praises. i know what a world class wine is, and frankly, they are not that much better than a well chosen affordable wine drunk at the right time with the right people. that’s what wine knowledge is, how to use the stuff.

  11. May 15, 2011

    Hi JJ, you’ve never actually met Mike before have you? You should know that he’s about 5’10”, of medium build, brown hair and a full-figured nose. Oh, and he inexplicably speaks in a Kiwi accent. Will be around on Thursday with a bottle opener….

  12. May 14, 2011

    Thanks everyone for the comments; very interesting stuff.

    Mandy, thanks for the offer–I suspect you might have a few takers!

    I think Francois makes a great point, one echoed by Rhit–pleasure isn’t necessarily commensurate with price. Look at how relatively inexpensive the better cru Beaujolais are. Marcel Lapierre’s Morgon might be the wine I love most in this world, and it costs $20-$25 per bottle.

    Per Raghavan’s point, age is certainly a factor, too–past a certain point, one is better off sitting out some of these vintages. The 05 Bordeauxs certainly come to mind, as those wines are going to take decades to reach their peak. And I think Chris is spot on, too–context matters. Sure, I’d be happy to drink a bottle of La Tache anywhere–a hospital waiting room, an airplane loo, you name it. But context and company go a long way to making wines special.

    As buyer’s remorse goes, Jack, I think you’ve got a lot of company these days. Think of all the people who loaded up on those hideously bad Australian wines because of Parker’s glowing reviews. But unless you are a critic or in the trade, it is pretty much impossible to taste a lot of these wines before purchasing them, so it is a dilemma without an easy or obvious solution.

    JJ, many thanks for your comments. You’ve described perfectly the pluses and minuses of wine collecting. There are a lot of reasons not to amass too much wine, but there is also something to be said–a lot to be said–for having some very special bottles stored away, and for being able to chart the progress of particular wines. My two cents? Hold on to those three bottles of 99 La Tache! The 99 is likely to go down as one of the all-time great La Taches (Aubert de Villaine considers 1999 to be the best vintage in his tenure at DRC), and to be able to taste that wine over the course of its evolution is going to be something quite wonderful. The 82 Latour is a fantastic wine, as well, and that’s a very generous offer. I’d love to meet up when I’m next in London–not sure when I’ll be there next, but I will certainly let you know.

  13. May 14, 2011

    Mike,

    Your posts really make me grin – they’re honest and personal. This one in particular after the last prompted me to write. If you (or any of your readers) feel like you need to thin out your cellar, purge some of your sins and you want to capture some of the Hong Kong market directly – drop me a line. I’d be happy to help save anyone’s marriage – we do it all the time.

    Mandy

  14. May 14, 2011

    Great post.

    For me, it is getting to an age where the life expectancy (to “maturity”) of the wine exceeds my own.

  15. Bill Klapp permalink
    May 13, 2011

    The wine writer and father doth protest too much, methinks. You can still afford Dauvisssat. It is RAVENEAU that you can’t afford!

  16. May 13, 2011

    I haven’t been buying wine seriously for all that long, but I’ve definitely experienced a shift in my habits. I used to go nuts on pricier Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Rhone bottles. And while I’m still able to enjoy and appreciate those purchases, these days I’m much more fascinated by lesser-known wines from the Loire and the Jura, for example, with a little sherry and Eastern Europe in there, too. Thankfully, these wines are much less expensive, but provide as much – if not more – enjoyment, making this (now more geeky) hobby much more financially sustainable.

    Nice piece, as usual. Great blog.

  17. May 13, 2011

    Great article (and comments) as it hits a growing feeling for me. I’m one of those upcoming generation wine buyers (or at least I think I am), where I only half want a collection. Space is one element, cost and flexibility are others, but my wife and I actually get more enjoyment from exploring the aisles in a wine shop or reading about a suggested wine through Twitter, Facebook, or blogs. Maybe I’m still in the phase of learning about vintages, and regions, and varietals so I don’t want to make a commitment on the good stuff. Maybe I think it’s important to realize the while bottle makes a difference, the setting and company make wine truly memorable.

  18. May 13, 2011

    One final thought

    What will always stay with me following my immersion this last couple of years, that is far more precious to me than owning any of this stuff: being able to navigate a restaurant wine list or a retail wine store with absolute confidence, and knowing I can supply the right wine for the right occassion, confronted with whatever choices are put in front of me.

    Last night at Gatwick airport – needed to pick up a bottle of wine duty free to have something to enjoy at my destination. Rows and rows of junk, but there was a bottle of 2007 Jadot villages Meursalut, for 20 quid. Home run! And not premoxed either – which is always nice :)

    Jack – interesting post. I’m not so sure plenty of others are going to be lining up to continue being had by what is now a ridiculous EP proposition. And I also wonder, if people like yourself and Mike are starting this debate, whether that does start to get listened to. Makes a damn good change from the advice I got wherever I read wine books at the start, which was build a cellar at all costs.

    This is IMO possibly an agenda-setting debate here, particularly for the upcoming generation of wine buyers.

  19. Jack Bulkin permalink
    May 13, 2011

    Mike like you I have a young son that I raise but I am a single parent. My lawyering days are in the past now and my cellar is near over capacity. I still will buy a few good bottless and value wines and did buy a few 09 Bordeaux that were primarily daily drinkers but I have sold far more than I have purchased this and last year. I have no plans to spend real money for wine anymore and I am at peace with it.
    I believe that my personal outrage at certain wine critics that I have expressed the past few years is somewhat related to my realization that I have been had. I have a cellar full of wines, many I would have not purchased if I had the chance to taste the wines before I purchased them as I did in the 80’s and 90’s. I have not been able to travel since my son was born. I believe that this realization is what has made buying wines from anyone whose style I don’t know or trust now easy. At my age, buying wine just to lay down is just plain stupid. I am through with doing that. There will be many to replace me in the food chain. The “call of the wine” no longer resonates with me.

  20. mauss permalink
    May 13, 2011

    It is time for many to learn that you can get a lot of real pleasure, even sometimes emotion, with some wines under $ 30. So difficult to appreciate only what is in the glas and not what is written on the label !
    Just try to find the simple Gamay from Marionnet or even the superb Vinifera. If these wines do not deliver to you a top satisfaction, then you better start to be a water afficionado :-)
    But no worries : when you come in Europe, you will find here and there some friends with the missing bottles in your cellars :-)

  21. May 13, 2011

    Mike

    What an interesting and (as far as I know) original contribution to the whole wine discussion.

    I have been collecting about 2 years, and have a well stocked cellar, due to succumbing to the collecting bug exactly in the manner you described. My wine money has mostly also run out now, and I am surprised to find myself, like you, extremely comfortable with the prospect. So much so, in fact, that it’s almost a relief.

    A few angles to this.

    1. Let me start by saying this: I adore this stuff. An interesting discussion on the CT forum “how much is enough” promped in me the response – how many times is enough to make love to the spouse or partner you love? Hopefully the answer is – there is never enough! But that, as I have realised, is a very different proposition from maintaining and building a huge cellar collection.

    2. Having had a 1000+ bottle collection for over a year now, it was surprising to me how much I far preferred hitting a shop to try a new bottle I’d just read about (eg a Vega Sicilia recently – thank you for that) versus a trip to the cellar door. Perhaps my cellar just wasn’t diversified enough, but with the exception of a few gems, going to the cellar just never offered the same excitement. I was familiar with all these wines and their styles. Much more exciting awaiting the arrival of a mixed dozen from a new region, and making exiting new discoveries.

    3. Even having made such exiting discoveries, I rarely bothered to stock up anymore. Living in London, you can have just about any bottle of Bordeaux or Burgundy you want delivered to your door in about 48 hours, usually at very competitive prices to retail. A bit like having access to itunes but for wine – it’s a far greater library than I’ll ever be able to amass myself.

    4. And one thing I never contemplated before I got into this: the trouble of keeping a cellar. Having just moved house, I was shocked to realise I had over 700 bottles with me. You would think these would be an easy proposition to move across – but oh no! The pain of compiling an inventory, packing them, moving them up and down stairs, was immense. The whole experience of having an extensive cellar just imposed a huge anchor on my life. Having moved country and having changed career a few times, I value my freedom more than this permits I’ve realised.

    5. So to all the disadvantages, why invest in a cellar? If you got into this gig when I did, in the last few years, you can forget about the traditional reason of being able to buy wines EP that you would never subsequently be able to afford. Certainly that’s true of Bordeaux, and of Burgundy I would never be a buyer in such quantity as to get allocated the sought after GCs anyway.

    6. All that leaves then is the emotional resonance of having patiently stored a bottle over the decades, and checking in on it over the course of one’s life, to celebrate its and your own progress. I admit there’s something in that, and I have a few top end bottles stored professionally with that view in mind – specifically, 3 bts of 1999 La Tache, and a few 1982 Latours.

    7. But still, I think that emotional investment can be overemphasised. What is most important is the enjoyment of celebrating a wine with people one loves, and who appreciate it (whether they’re winos or not). Whether a 1999 Tache (or whatever) came out of the cellar you held for 20 years, or just arrived in the post the week before a big celebration – because you sold a book, or closed a big deal, and could afford the splurge … I think these are a fairly marginal difference.

    Bottom line: I think the received wisdom of diligently building a cellar over the years is due for a big re-examination, and thank you for starting the debate. For me, the upsides are carefully balanced by many downsides. The availability and range of exciting wine I want to taste far exceeds what I’ll ever be able to store. And the enjoyment of appreciating a good fine wine – whether a 2006 Foillard Morgon, or a 1995 Haut Brion, is always enhanced by the company and the occassion.

    And finally – one of the greatest things about this hobby is the sharing of it with others. There is always the ability to share fine bottles in good company. And on that note, you have a standing invitation to get in touch next time you’re in London, and we’ll crack one of those 1982 Latours. It would be a huge enhancement of the wine to enjoy it with a true conneuissuer like yourself Mike.

    Cheers

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