Fri 4 Apr 2008
People collect all sorts of things, from Beanie Babies to books about baseball to Bugattis. Serious collectors employ various methods to take care of their precious objects. If you can afford to collect Bugattis, then you have a special garage and a mechanic to tinker with them constantly. Book collectors enclose their valued volumes in acid-free wrappers and keep them in dust-free bookcases. Collectors of Beanie Babies display their acquisitions inside glass cabinets.
And wine collectors have temperature-controlled cellars, with humidity levels closely monitored, because great wines have to be carefully tended if they are to survive.
I mention these matters because an advertisement in Wednesday’s New York Times “Dining” section touted “The Greatest Collection of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Sotheby’s Has Ever Offered” … “a range of the greatest vintages from 1947-2004.” This auction of “Magnificent Bordeaux and Burgundy from an Important Private Cellar” occurs in New York on April 10.
The wines listed are very impressive. I’m low-balling here; the wines are mind-boggling. Three bottles of Romanee-Conti 1959; six magnums of Romanee-Conti 1971; 4 magnums of La Tache 1971; two magnums of Richebourg 1949 and so on. The Domaine de la Romanee-Conti or DRC, is probably the single best-known and, in some estimations, the single best, wine estate in the world, and Romanee-Conti is that estate’s most esteemed vineyard.
Notice the estimated auction prices: Those three bottles of Romanee-Conti ’59 — $25,000-$35,000. The four magnums of La Tache ’71 — $32,500-$50,000. Higher by far, however, even higher than the most valued and sought after Bordeaux wines, like a case of Chateau Petrus 1961 ($55,000-$85,000), is the estimate for the six magnums (equivalent to a case of wine) of Romanee-Conti 1971:
$110,000 to $170,000.
Even if the bidding reaches only $150,000, that’s $25,000 a bottle.
And here’s what I have to say about that, all considerations of money, thrift, recession, ostentation aside: The wine will die.
Of all the objects that people collect, of all the grail-quest pursuits of fanatics and obsessives, whether pieces of string or books printed between 1485 and 1500 (known by the euphonious term incunabula) or the drawings of Rembrandt or the photographs of William Eggleston or tickets to long-lost vaudeville theaters, only wine is eminently perishable, only wine by degrees will inevitably diminish and lose its powers and its primary raison d’etre by becoming undrinkable, and the collector (or his anticipatory descendants) will be left with bottles of worthless liquid. This fate will occur even to wines that are perfectly cared for in the most meticulously maintained cellars.
Of course we read about the fabulous tastings of (mainly) Bordeaux red wines that include vintages going back to the 1860s and 1870s (or nowadays perhaps the early 20th century) in which the wines retain some body and weight and character or, more miraculously, seem young and vigorous. Wouldn’t we all like to have been invited to those events! I don’t have a great deal of experience with old wines, but I have tasted Beychevelle back to 1893 and Haut-Brion back to sometime in the 1930s; the wines were pretty wonderful, and educational, and I’m glad that I was allowed to participate in those tastings.
Think of the gamble, though. Factors like storage, transportation and bad corks can affect the quality of wine, of course, but the most stringent judgment that faces any bottle of wine, even more stringent than the estimation of critics, is the judgment of time itself. The arc of a great wine’s development, maturity and decline may vary from wine to wine and from vintage to vintage and from bottle to bottle (the other factors taken into account), but that arc cannot be avoided nor its implacability denied. The amount of money spent on a bottle of wine, whether $25 or $25,000, will not protect the wine from the certainty of its fate.
The lesson should be clear: Drink the stuff before it’s too late.