The Uncertain Wine Collector | Wine Spectator

One late afternoon a few months ago, I cycled by a favorite local trattoria in Verona to make a reservation for that evening. The trattoria owner quickly pulled me into what appeared to be a post-lunch, wine-drinking marathon on the terrace.

Atop a table anchored by four merry imbibers were some pricey vintages of Giuseppe Quintarelli Amarone.

I didn’t want to hang out, but I was offered a glass and sat down. One of the men who introduced himself as a wine collector—an American who had lived years in Tuscany—began telling me about the bottles in his very impressive cellar.

He recounted his decades of wine vintages faster than a stock ticker. The stars were Brunello di Montalcinos and Barolos dating back to the late 20th century.

I listened, nodding.

But he didn’t leave it at that. He wanted to know my opinions.

“Whatd’ya think? Whatd’ya think?” he repeated.

This is not the first time something like this has happened. When people spend tens of thousands of dollars on ephemeral and perishable liquids, they tend to like corroboration.

But I’ve never had a great answer for these collectors, until recently ….

I’ve been thinking about that encounter lately and what it says about human insecurities and our need for confirmation.

I stand before you guilty as anyone. Some years ago, like a lot of guys at 50, I returned to the musical muse of my youth, the guitar. I bought a banger of an acoustic and began picking away where I’d left off in my twenties. Then a couple of years into my rekindled hobby, I developed an illness—the one of coveting guitars themselves. Walking into a music shop became dangerous, as I’d walk out with a handmade Collings acoustic or a vintage Fender Stratocaster billed to the credit card.

Somehow, owning what were critically regarded as timeless and beautiful instruments—the equivalent of grand cru Burgundies—became the most important thing. But the more I invested, sadly, the less I played.

Wine lovers often follow the same pattern. Naive drinkers develop into curious drinkers and then discerning drinkers, even fussy drinkers, snobs or collectors.

A lot of approval-seeking goes on once people leave the bottom rung or two of that ladder.

I confront that at the end of every year when family members call or text with questions about what wine they should bring to a Thanksgiving or holiday dinner.

As open as the questions sound, they don’t really want to know which wine I would choose. They want a nod of approval for the wine they already have in mind.

Collectors are a special breed because they are not seeking simple confirmation for a jog down to the store. They may want verification of a whole ledger of buying choices made over years during which perhaps their own tastes and those of their peers have evolved.

Some weeks after my run-in with the collector in Verona, I was at a wine dinner in Brooklyn at which I was seated across from a British collector, who stated, “I never drink a wine less than 10 years old.”

I sensed that behind that adamant proclamation was a cowering bit of doubt.

He then explained that his climate-controlled cellar on Long Island contained thousands of bottles divided between those that had attained that age and those that had not.

I said I thought that was too bad, that many fine bottles (from Etna Rossos to Côte-Rôties) enter their most enjoyable stage before the decade mark. So, I countered, why wait?

He listened. Then he quipped that when it came to wine, “They say the French are pedophiles and the Brits are necrophiliacs. And I’m British.”

In other words, drinking old wines was baked into his identity, probably like his favorite football club. But he seemed like a smart guy, one who could take a challenge. I proposed a way we could test the merits of his system.

Realizing how absurd it is to try to discuss wine that’s sealed up in a bottle, it dawned on me that there is only one way to answer a collector seeking an opinion: Show him the way to a corkscrew.

“Let’s all go over to your place this week and open some of those bad boys up,” I said to my new wine buddy. “We can take a few vintages for a test-drive.”

He laughed, seeming in those moments of vinous bonding with new wine friends as if he might be game.

My optimism didn’t last. It’s now been months, and the invitation hasn’t come. I’ll bet he found elsewhere the confirmation he wanted to let those bottles lay.

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