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Question: What do you call 5,000 dead wine collectors at the bottom of the ocean?


Yesterday’s article in the San Francisco Chronicle about a woman who can tell a counterfeit collectible wine from the real thing is certainly current, which no doubt is why the Chron ran with it.

Her name is Maureen Downey, and she can determine if “your Romanee-Conti, Lafite or Sassicaia might not be legit.” Of course, there’s been a lot of other news lately over fake expensive wine, with some bloggers going apeshit over Rudy Kurniawan. It’s as if this whole issue of “collectible” wine and fakes thereof matters to the 99% of us who just like to drink.

Actually, it doesn’t. Do you care? I don’t. I have no sympathy for people with too much money who get ripped off for being stupid.

I used to write for another magazine, where they gave me the assignment to write “The Collecting Page,” a feature in every issue devoted to issues of interest to collectors. Nobody else at the magazine wanted to do it, because it was fundamentally boring: You had to become acquainted with the one or two dozen top wine collectors in the country, a group so self-centered that, when I got to know them, I would rather have had pins inserted under my fingernails than have to deal with them.

There was the guy who owned more Mouton even than Mouton-Rothschild itself. The egotistical Hollywood producer [is there any other kind?]. The medical device manufacturer from the midwest with his own personal wine locker at Fleur de Lys. There was the über-rich real estate magnate from Southern California, the Texas collector who became a born again Christian, the Tennesseans and the university professor whose hobby was putting on the greatest vertical tastings in the history of the universe.

All of them owned more wine than they, or any 100 of us, could drink in a lifetime. Even then, their pathology was evident.

Each and every one of these gentlemen wanted to be put into The Collecting Page. To be quoted by me on, say, what to eat with 60-year old Yquem drove them to orgasm; a quote plus a picture was the ne plus ultra of their existence, since their whole purpose was to out-do each other. I’m sure they were all nice family men and good Rotarians, but I saw their dark side: an acquisitive selfishness and reliance on expensive things to boost their self-esteem, when in so many respects they were miserable self-haters. Scary, sorry, sad psycho stuff.

It turned me off to this whole notion of “collecting.” Wine is not meant to be collected and hoarded while it goes up in value, then turned over to the auctioneer (a co-dependent in the addiction) in order to reap a profit. Honestly, if I were the proprietor of Sassacaia or Screaming Eagle, knowing that my honest efforts were going into something that a bunch of greedheads didn’t even see as art, but merely a commodity like pork bellies, I’d shoot myself. Not really, but better to be doing something useful in society, like teaching school or repairing automobiles, than to participate in so corrupt and venal a system.

Answer to the above question: A good start.

  1. Jay McInerney described these collectors in his article “His Magnum is Bigger than Yours” (now collected within his latest book, “The Juice”). A bunch of “alpha dogs”, with nicknames like Big Boy, who describe their absurdly expensive wines by using disgusting sexual analogies for their “tightness”. For us, as proper English gentlemen, it was their clothes which really gave them away: “windowpane sports jacket over an open white shirt showing plenty of chest hair”…”bespoke British crocodile shoes”… and “shades formerly owned by Elvis”.

    As we wrote, if those are the people you have to mix with in order to drink collectible wines, we’ll stick with plonk – and McInerney can stick with the plonkers.

  2. “I have no sympathy for people with too much money who get ripped off for being stupid.”

    How about people with not a lot of money who got ripped off for being gullible or greedy (or both)?

  3. Incidentally, art is the implementation of techniques and principles of science which one or a group have not or cannot articulate. So, any product – no matter how artistic you may imagine it to be – is brought about by way of these techniques and as such *IS* a consumable and commodity. Just like pork bellies, watches, TVs, washers, dryers, cars, stereos, etc etc.

    One cannot argue that quality and value in wine are somehow subjective (bah!) and based on perceptions on the part of the consumer or on market demand and then decry these extreme collecting/hoarding behaviors.

  4. SUAMW, why would people without a lot of money buy Screaming Eagle?

  5. Re: Collecting. There are many forms of collecting, and most of them are not over the top, ego-driven examples of wretched excess.

    Most of us who collect wine and drink it when it is older do so because we love wine and love what happens to older wine.

    One example: Mrs. Olken and I just celebrated a big number anniversary, and we pulled out a Heitz Martha’s Vineyard from the year of our marriage. It was in perfect condition with almost no ullage and drank magnificently. Not bad for a wine almost as old as you, Steve.

  6. The only problem, Dad, is that you didn’t invite me over!

  7. doug wilder says:

    Back in the day when I worked at Dean & Deluca, we would sometimes get a case of something rare like Bryant, Maya, Araujo. Nowadays, the shelves of most retailers include those brands, but that is another story. I kept them in the back room so that I could offer one-off mixed assortments to my clients. One day a guy came in and saw an assortment with a bottle he wanted. The assortment itself was a couple thousand dollars. He asked me if he could get one of the bottles by itself. I don’t recall what it was right now, but after I suggested he purchase some other wines as well, He was incessant and I grudgingly relented and let him get his ‘trophy’. When his girlfriend joined him from the other side of the store, he proudly told her “Hey baby!, Look what I just got out of their backroom! Now I have thirty of them”. I imagine every retailer has a similar story.

  8. I had a Screaming Eagle 2009 Cab, just last night, and I’m definitely not rich. It was lovely, but I doubt I’d bother to try to collect very many of them… Wine is for drinking.. nothing else, IMHO….

  9. The sole purpose of my 75 or so bottle “collection” is for the enjoyment of my wife, myself, and our friends who happen to be over at the time. We do the majority of our day-to-day drinking buying directly off the shelf the week before or even day of. My most prized bottles are those acquired at the actual winery as opening them I am transported back to that place. . . prices and thoughts of investments are the last thing on my mind. Now do I lust after DRC or First Growths? Sure. . . and I would even consider them worth the price (for me personally) at least once, just to experience “the classics” (which I never have to this point, in either instance). I take too much pleasure in the drinking of wine to ever have the heart to trade in it. I would probably sell my motorcycle, vinyl collection, and the watch off my wrist before I could even consider selling some of my modestly priced, but honestly earned Cali cabs or RRV Pinots. Maybe it is just me.

  10. Steve, I was referring to people without a lot of money giving Madoff their money because they thought he had a way of making them rich by getting around the odds being stacked in favor of Wall Street’s house….

  11. BTW, to your question about little money and Screaming Eagle: While there are very few such cases, I suppose it would be for the same reason as people with almost no money buy the most expensive sneakers.

  12. Chris Blum says:

    Terrible article. I think you can probably do better. Laughing at victims of fraud, just because they are wealthy victims of fraud is pretty uncool. Would you laugh at people who went to a 5 star restaurant where the chef peed in the soup? Do you laugh at wealthy victims of Madhoff? Would you laugh at the woman who gets mugged because she is wearing a $50,000 diamond necklace on the street.

    People buy wine for all sorts of reasons. You can think their reasons are silly, but they don’t deserve to be victims of fraud.

    And you are welcome for all the clicks from where I added your link.

  13. The sad thing is that much of the top end of the wine business, the $100 plus bottle stuff, has gravitated to cater to the motivations of wine buyers like your top two dozen collectors. Buyers who are not motivated about the taste of the wine, but the story, the credentials, the score, and the prestige. You have to enjoy being around people who need to boost their self esteem with prestigious things to enjoy making and selling wine in that category. So you find the producer and the buyer tend to have a lot in common. There are exceptions and they tend to be people who did not recently come into the business.

    There was a time when wine collectors were oddballs, who would do oddball things like collect every vintage of Nacional not because of the credentials, but because they so loved port, and was so fascinated by vintages, and the taste, and so loved to share it with their oddball friends… friends who would kill the decanter laughing over stories and aged cigars as the collector took his after dinner catnap. But they don’t seem to make collectors like that anymore.

  14. Morton, I aspire to be one of those collectors. . . at only 27 I can’t be expected to have too much of a collection, but I do have a budding vertical of Mollydooker’s Blue-eyed Boy. I know the wine is way over the top, but I like it because of that exuberance and I think it does indeed reflect the place from which it comes. And I don’t give a **** that it gets panned as a fruit bomb so frequently.

  15. Steve, I must admit that you made me think about this subject even more than Alder did when he said: “Wine is meant to be drunk, not to be hoarded like bullion.”
    Since I have my own streak of animus toward pathological, egotistical, and the selfish über-rich, my first reaction was: “Go get-em Steve!”
    Then the principle of liberty to be a fool kicked in and I came to my senses. Still, I’m not at all bothered by your (liberty) admonition to examine one’s own life as we ought.

    GrapesRGreat: I love Blue-eyed Boy, and I don’t consider it “over the top”, but not as elegant as Carnival of Love.

  16. VCUWhiteGuy says:

    @GrapesRGreat: Good luck with that vertical. That wine won’t last more than five years in bottle. Mollydooker is a sham of a wine that doesnt reflect terroir, it reflects someone who pushes their yields, harvests overripe fruit, and ends up with what is essentially blueberry syrup instead of wine.

    Budding collectors are just the schmoes that wine retailers use to offload crap wine that Dr. Jay or Parker gave one million points to in a drunken stupor, oh I mean “tasting”.

  17. i’m gonna agree with steve on this, and admit a little schadenfreude when i learned that jerks with fifty year verticles of first-growth bordeaux have 20% fakes in their collection. who cares, they’re never gonna drink them anyway.
    i have a pretty modest wine collection that fluctuates around two cases of mixed singles. usually these are some of my favorites with good aging potential that i set aside for some unknown date. the last few times i can remember cracking open pieces of my humble collection include popping a seven-year-old riesling for thanksgiving, and a ten-year-old napa cab for a random dinner with my girlfriend.
    but the majority of my collection sees less than a year in the closet before it gets pulled out for dinner with friends, or wine & cheese with my lady. i think if you have more wines than you can drink in a month, consider donating some to a young wine drinker still learning about wine. i’ll even send you my address….

  18. I agree with Chris. Terrible article. And some of the comments are equally bad. Is it OK to have 2 cases of wine but not a few hundred bottles or cases? Why?

    If you like to drink older wine, do you run out and buy a bottle every time you want one or do you put some wine aside and age it yourself? Setting aside the question of where exactly are you going to find those bottles if you haven’t cellared them when you want them for dinner, for better or worse you’re going to be a “collector” as defined by the implied understanding here.

    Do you therefore deserve to be defrauded? Is there a price limit on a bottle, or a number allowed in a cellar beyond which the answer is yes and below which the answer is no?

    People who define their self-worth by public displays of what they own that you don’t, whether it be wine or anything else, may not be the most pleasant people to be around. But not everyone who “collects” wine is like that. Many people collect it not to be collecting, but because there’s no other way to have aged wine with perfect knowledge of its provenance. And if the articles that had to be written for “The Collecting Page” were only about super-high priced wines, then there wasn’t much understanding of what a good collection could be.

    I’m surprised at you Steve. Unless your employer gave you explicit directions to the contrary, which you didn’t state, you could have made that a great resource for many people, not merely those few hundred. There are indeed many wines that are sub-$100 and that merit aging. Not for resale value, but for quality improvement. Putting all collectors in the same group as those you mention is like suggesting that all Californians are as vapid as a Khardashian.

    GrapesRGreat – good luck with that Blue-Eyed Boy. I don’t think even Sparky would recommend aging his wines with the expectation that they’ll transform into something better. Some wine, like that one IMO, is made to be enjoyed when it’s young.

  19. I think your article is pretty short sighted. I have many dozens of friends who have extremely deep cellars with many “trophy” bottles contained within. But, these bottles are not meant to serve as an ego boost, but rather, wonderful bottles of wine to share amongst friends. Does a bottle with a high sticker price equate to greatness? I’d say not always but I’d say there’s more higher quality bottles at the $100+ price point than below. I’m not agreeing with your liberal minded article as I say drink what you can afford and be happy you’re given the opportunity to drink regardless of the price tag. If you have the opportunity to share amongst friends, then you’re even more blessed.

  20. Can anyone make a reasonable case that buying wine for the purpose of a return on investment is inherently more or less ethical than investing in stocks, bonds, art or precious metals?

  21. michael turner says:

    Tom, it’s no different.

    Some people are just envious.

  22. As you know, I have been in the wine biz for over 35 years. Unlike many of my peers, I do not have a cellar. If it is in my house, it will be consumed. Oh sure, there are a very few that I am saving for a rainy day….a Drouhin Marquis de las Guiche. A 3/L burgundy that was signed by several somms on my 20th anniv. of working the wine exp. 6 remaining bottles of the cab my husband made in Paso. But I do not “collect” wine. I would rather drink them too young than too old. I make occasions up to enjoy a good bottle. And I never take wine for granted. I have had my share of “great” wine. A ’69 DRC La Tache made me cry real tears. But as Walt Kelly said…”The fun lies in the Journey” And a bottle with the cork in it, isn’t much fun. Someone once told me that buying fine wine and not drinking it, is like buying a Renoir and turning it to the Wall. True be dat!

  23. This is a sad blog submission. Blame the innocent because they have money.

    When your next car becomes a lemon, you will be the sucker, Steve.

  24. “And a bottle with the cork in it, isn’t much fun.”

    Andrea, isn’t it rather like holding a ticket to a great show, to be held at some time in the future? And looking at that ticket every once in a while, and enjoying the sheer anticipation of the show?

  25. Bill Klapp says:

    Steve, I agree with Chris Blum and Dan Posner that this is a useless blog post. I disagree only with Chris’ notion that you can probably do better. Scant evidence of that…

  26. @Bill Knapp and others who criticized my post: maybe I should have made myself clearer. I was shouting out against collector/hoarders who do it for money, not enjoyment.

  27. Question: What do you call 5,000 dead wine collectors at the bottom of the ocean?
    Answer: A good start.


    Yes, Steve, you should have made your point much clearer. Hoarding by itself is greed, but collecting is a passion. Everyone I know (including myself) who collects also travels, swaps, and most importantly, shares from their collection which furthers everyone’s enjoyment of wine.

    Also, collectors are the ones that support YOUR means of employment. The average Joe does not buy many of the wines you review but collectors purchase them by the case. Collectors are also the ones that subscribe to your mag and read your blog.

    Talk about biting the hand that feeds…

  28. Robert C says:

    To be quoted by me on, say, what to eat with 60-year old Yquem drove them to orgasm-
    With how much a bottle costs, it better drive me to orgasm, at the least.
    I have met some of these collectors. Millions spent on collecting wine and they are drinking Charles Shaw.
    Too much money, not enough sense.
    Don’t worry about the nay-sayers Steve. Remember George Burns’ definition of a critic.

  29. Spoken like a classic liberal cretin, Mr. Heimoff.

  30. Barry P says:


    You make the mistake of assuming that everyone who buys wine at auction (and thus subject to the fakery by Rudy) is a rich asshole. Obviously, not even remotely true. Do I have sympathies for the big lumber boys? No way. But they are truly just a handful of folks. Fraud is a big deal and should be treated as such.

    Earlier in the month owners of Laboure-Roi, a 150 year old Burg firm, were accused of filling bottles of Nuit St. Georges and other fine wines with plonk and selling it at inflated prices from 2005-2009. It sold around the world. But interestingly, Laboure-Roi also sells exclusively to airlines. So, if you’ve flown anywhere recently and had a glass of white or red burg, you too, have probably been had. Under your rubric, if you’ve had a glass of fake wine at 35k feet, you probably aren’t worth my sympathy.

  31. I see the distinction Steve is trying to draw. Nonetheless, the article is so clumsy as to make me sick. (And personally as a Madoff victim it is insult atop injury.)

  32. Dear Eric LeVine: I”m a Madoff victim too.

  33. Terrible article, written completely with the wrong mindset!
    Allowing frauds, thiefs, gangsters, terrorists et al. to do what they are good at is just sick!

  34. Steve, I am very sorry to hear that. The Madoff liquidation has been a continuing nightmare.

  35. Eric LeVine: Yes, it has — especially for an indirect!

  36. Steve, at least as an indirect you are less likely to get a clawback.

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