The One Way to Build a Wine Collection You Won’t Regret

I am amazed at how much bad wine I own. I’m not talking about Yellow Tail and its ilk. I’m talking about wine that I purchased while thinking it was a good wine, maybe even a great wine, and was worth laying down. 

Tastes change, which makes buying wine for the future a challenging proposition. I am stunned to think I ever thought it was a good idea to purchase Carneros Pinot Noir. I would like to travel back in time and ask myself what system I was using to ascribe value to Amarone under any circumstances. (Yes, I love Quintarelli, but value?)

For those of us who have built a cellar, there’s no going back. We own what we own, but at least we can control purchasing going forward. We’ll find family and friends who might be dazzled by, say, a Darioush Napa Cabernet. There are wine drinkers who enjoy La Spinetta and Sine Qua Non; I used to be that guy. We’ll expunge our mistake purchases carefully.

But for wine lovers just beginning a collection, I would offer advice that I wish someone had offered me years ago. 

wine cellarFirst, let me say that there is a general progression away from bombastic wines. Remember the movies you loved in high school? Maybe it was Tommy Boy or Dumb and Dumber. I loved The Burbs, which might be the single worst thing Tom Hanks ever did. Today, while those films might be fun once in a while, they are hardly the main course of adult film consumption. I prefer documentaries.

Once the average wine lover moves from sweet white wines to chewy, dry red wines, the impulse is to chase the gaudiest blockbusters. If you can afford it, you go after Sine Qua Non or Pavie or their ilk. If you can’t, maybe you settle for mid-level cult Napa Cab. Give yourself five or ten years, and you’ll want complexity, subtlety, character. Sex is nice; great conversation is better. 

So while the urge is there to lay down the blackest red wines you can accumulate, it’s likely a mistake. 

The problem is that wine is not a simple dichotomy. You can’t possibly know if you’ll prefer Northern Rhône Syrah or Burgundy, Nebbiolo, or Rioja. That’s where my idea comes in. Here’s the guideline for building a wine cellar that guarantees you won’t look back with regret.

Only lay down wine from producers you’ve personally visited.

This guarantees that even if your tastes migrate far afield, you will feel a personal connection when you open a wine years after purchasing it. I can immediately think of two wines in my cellar that I would not prefer in a blind setting — one a Brunello, one a California Syrah — but the visit to the wineries was memorable. The food was lovely. The unhurried, unguarded moments with the winemakers was priceless. I don’t love those wines today, but I love the way they remind me of who I was. I love the image of tasting these wines just yards from where they were grown. 

Just as importantly, this guideline will force you to travel more often. And don’t we all want more excuses to travel? Don’t we all have a trip or two that we’ve been considering, and considering, and considering? Haven’t we all checked flight prices, or tried to figure out how to arrange one more long weekend off from work?

This approach to collecting is likely to prevent a travel rut, too. The first day I spent in Piedmont, I loved it so much that I wondered if I could ever convince myself to travel anywhere else in Europe. But there’s a danger there. Every time you go back to the same place, you miss a chance to go somewhere new. If you want to broaden your wine collection, you can’t afford a travel rut.

This doesn’t mean you can’t purchase wine from places you’ve never visited. On the contrary, intellectual curiosity mandates drinking wine from around the world. It just means you commit to drinking those bottles in a relatively short period of time. They don’t collect any dust in a dark corner unless you’ve been to the property.

Now, I could lie and say that from this point forward, I won’t lay down wine from any place I haven’t visited. The truth is, I’ll probably seek to create a kind of 50/50 split. I have tasted too many wines from the cellars of generous friends to prevent myself from seeking out certain bottles. So I’m breaking my own rule. 

But really, if you’re starting fresh, this would be the way to go. Your short-term wines are a diverse set of experiments from around the world. Your cellar is a hall of memories, each bottle offering a passport in time. You won’t regret it, even if you come to realize that you used to pursue some pretty awful stuff. 

About The Author

Evan Dawson
Staff Writer

Evan Dawson is the author of Summer in a Glass: The Coming of Age of Winemaking in the Finger Lakes. It won the 2012 Roederer International Wine Book of the Year. Outside of Palate Press, his wine writing has been published in Wine Spectator, Tasting Panel Magazine, and the New York Cork Report, for which he serves as Managing Editor. He hosts The Connection on WXXI radio, the NPR affiliate in western New York, where he focuses on community affairs. He is a middling but enthusiastic cook.

  • James Biddle

    I love the line (and wished I’d heard it years ago): “Your cellar is a hall of memories, each bottle offering a passport in time.” We’d all be better off honoring memories rather than chasing trophies. My error was buying hyped age-worthy wines for the cellar without having tasted them–after all, they were too young to taste then! Right? Buying on faith is often buying foolishly. Oh well, I’ve served many foolishly purchased “great” wines at my “tasting” parties/wine dinners.

    • Evan Dawson

      Absolutely right. I’ve been there, done that. Big points, big reputation, big mistake.

  • New Vines

    Evan, I like your idea of the personal connection, but in general I think aging is overrated. Buy what you will drink within a year!

    • Evan Dawson

      We’ll have to agree to disagree on this. In particular, a good selection of older wines in your cellar can save you money. Look at the price on, say, a 1996 Barolo (which we had at dinner in Manhattan this past weekend). You’re paying a premium for a well stored older bottle, and you’re paying for a wine that is finally in a prime drinking window. Doing it yourself makes so much sense.

  • Morten Hallgren

    I look at a wine cellar as a rotation that you gradually increase: putting in new purchases and eventually taking out wines ready to drink in the other end. There are essentially two reasons for cellaring wine: putting aside wines that are difficult to obtain where you only have one chance to purchase them or cellaring wines that will improve significantly with time. An example of the first would be a Bandol Rose from a top producer. An example of the second would be a Fronsac from a good vintage.
    For the past few years I have been cellaring older Bordeaux wines from the pre-Parker era because I care little for the new style and the older bottles, while still available at auctions, are becoming more difficult to find.

    • Evan Dawson

      Interestingly, Bordeaux is an area that has escaped some of the inflation with age. By that I mean that the current releases — particularly from standout vintages — are often more expensive than a bottle of, say, 1986 or 1975, or something that is in a beautiful drinking window. And with the pedigree of strong Bordeaux producers, I’d happily pick up some of those bottles and lay them down for the medium term.

      Regarding the idea of only cellaring wines from the estates we’ve visited, well, Mr. Hallgren has been to just about every house in Bordeaux. So that’s no barrier!

  • http://www.sedimentblog.com/ The Sediment Blog

    There are two simple rules for building a wine cellar:

    1) Buy wine

    2) DON’T DRINK IT!!

    The Sediment Blog

    • Evan Dawson

      Well, that is a very important set of parameters, yes.

  • Lorraine Hems

    Couldn’t agree more Evan! There are many pitfalls and distractions along our path toward becoming more educated and learning about our own preferences. Fill your cellar with memories! For those who don’t want to wait to drink THAT bottle, buy some less expensive ones to get you through the years needed before you can fully enjoy that wine that needed time. That’s worked for me :)

    • Evan Dawson

      I would love to visit your cellar, Lorraine. I suspect you’ve been around the wine world several times more than I have.