vintage collection

A wine cellar is an investment in flavor that could lead to a fortune. It also shows that good things really do come to those who wait.

September 15, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

Twenty years ago, wine enthusiast Steven Adashek bought a mixed case of red Bordeaux, including a 1982 Chateau Mouton Rothschild, which he estimates cost him about $40.

He took good care of it, and these days the bottle is stored in the wine cellar he had built under his new home. Recently his wife found the wine on an Internet site. It's now worth $1,200.

"Maybe we ought to sell it," she said.

"We don't sell our wine," he told her. "We drink it."

Adashek, an obstetrician/gy- necologist who lives in Lutherville, has started looking for the right occasion to open the Mouton Rothschild: perhaps his son's graduation from high school, his 18th wedding anniversary or his 50th birthday.

Like many collectors, he lays down wine because he and his wife love to drink it, not because he sees it as an investment for the future - unless making sure you have a perfectly aged Burgundy to go with a fine French meal is an investment for the future.

"We're both big foodies," Adashek says, "and we love to cook."

Although most wines these days are meant to be drunk within a couple of years, a few benefit from lying on their side in a cool (under 60 degrees), damp (over 65 percent humidity), dark place away from vibrations. These wines may need aging to be pleasing to drink in the first place, or they may become more interesting and complex with age.

Both reds and white can be age-worthy. Wines like Bordeaux, Burgundy, California cabernet sauvignon, Australian shiraz, Barolo and Barbaresco come to mind. One rule of thumb - and there are as many rules of thumb as there are wine experts - is to open and enjoy any bottle that costs less than $25.

"There are a lot of myths about wine," says Michael Weber, a 43-year-old accountant who has some 500 bottles in the cellar of his Baltimore County home, "but one is true: Aging really makes a difference. The more you drink [wine], the more you appreciate the complexity. And it's a lot of fun to open a bottle [of a case periodically] over the years to see how it's progressing."

Buying some of the great European wines young and aging them may be the only way budding enthusiasts can afford to try them, says Rick Breza, a consultant at Mills Fine Wines & Spirits in Annapolis. (Even if they could afford them, they might not be available for sale at their peak.)

Collectors sometimes buy great wines by buying "futures" while the wine is still in the barrel, before it's bottled. A good wine shop does its homework and sends experts to barrel tastings. "You pay ahead of time and then wait two years to get it," says Breza. Then you store it carefully for the next few decades.

If you then wanted to sell your wine, you would do it through a wine auction, and a broker would take a cut of your profits.

Always a bottle on hand

You can buy very expensive wines at restaurants and liquor stores, but there's no guarantee they will be as good as they could be. Ed McCarthy, co-author of Wine for Dummies (John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2003, $21.99), estimates that only three or four of the 75 New York liquor stores in his area keep their wines at the proper temperature and humidity.

"The best thing you can do is get it as soon as you can," he says. "Your friendly wine merchant may not be storing it well."

McCarthy believes that controlling the storage of your wine is the best reason for starting a wine cellar, even if you aren't keeping any of your bottles for 20 years. But there are other reasons, and none of them involves buying wine as an investment. You can stock up on wines when they're on sale, for instance.

McCarthy loves the convenience of always having the right bottle of wine available for dinner or to take as a gift. He likes having a diverse collection of bottles - some to be drunk right away, some to be kept for years, some inexpensive "beverage" wines, some more serious wines for special occasions.

Like all advice about wine, diversity applies only if it works for you.

Don Sanders, a 60-year-old consultant in risk management, loves reds, so that's what most of his 1,500-bottle collection is.

"A lot of people say they don't like red wine," he says, "but they haven't had it properly aged."

He hired a contractor to build an enclosed room in his Jarrettsville home with temperature and humidity controls. His wine is laid out by regions, and he keeps a constantly updated inventory. He's not buying much these days, though. He's decided 1,500 bottles is his upper limit. He does, however, sometimes get a new wine when he drinks a bottle. At the moment he's trying to "rebalance" his collection.

"Don't buy too fast," he says. "The mistake we made was buying what we liked too fast. We bought a lot of California wine at the beginning, but our tastes have gradually changed toward more European wines."

That's a common progression. Wine expert McCarthy says he started out drinking California zinfandel but now he prefers more subtle wines. In fact, he suggests not buying wine by the case; he buys at most six bottles at a time.

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