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Rare Wines Courtesy of Your Local Wine Collector
By Debra L. Clawar

What is a fine wine collector to do when a lifetime of collecting yields more bottles of wine than one could possibly consume? Collections usually begin because of the collectors’ desire to acquire the best wines that represent unique expressions of place, time, the art of grape growing and winemaking. It takes a significant amount of time and effort to build a collection of great quality. Wine collectors must go to great lengths, and often great expense, to ensure their collections are protected from heat, light and motion. Yet attempts to mitigate the negative effects of the environment on such a delicate collectible cannot guard completely against the unpredictable development of wine in bottle.

Collectors can sell off part or all of their collections through wine auction houses. However, many collectors want the assurance that whoever buys and consumes their wine does so with a high level of appreciation and enjoyment. Selling their wines to restaurants is a good way for collectors to put a human face on the transaction. According to Glenn Vogt, former General Manager of Windows on the World and currently a consultant to Manhattan’s newly opened Compass, collectors receive great satisfaction from seeing people enjoy their wines and knowing that it is in the hands of other passionate wine lovers.

For restaurants, the value proposition is twofold. First, restaurants can acquire ready-to-drink bottles from old or rare vintages. Vogt adds the caveat that restaurants need the expertise of identifying worthy vintages and appellations. Second, Vogt has found that many wine collectors as a matter of pride want to ensure that what they sell to restaurants is of the highest quality and therefore are willing to replace defective bottles. Vogt contrasts this with purchasing wine from an auction house that usually offers little if any recourse to consumers.

Bernie Sun, Head Sommelier at Montrachet in Manhattan, says that more restaurants are beginning to explore the option of working with collectors to stock their cellars. With high market prices for rare wines and collectors aggressively purchasing from auctions, there is a dwindling supply of fine wines. Sun emphasizes that it is very important for the restaurant to know the collector well, trust their taste and ability to care for and store the wines properly, to ensure that consumers will be drinking excellent wine.

Many of the premier wine restaurants in the United States have founding partners whose fine wine collections have been used to build reserve lists or serve as the building blocks for an outstanding wine program. Christie Dufault, Sommelier of the San Francisco restaurant Gary Danko, which was recently awarded the Wine Spectator Grand Award, says that she has been able to acquire some excellent bottles from one of the restaurant’s silent partners. In New York, perhaps the best example of the influence of collectors on wine offerings at restaurants is Veritas. Partners Park Smith and Steve Verlin’s personal collections were used to draw a reserve wine list that is part of one of the most extensive and exciting lists in the country. What also distinguishes Veritas’ list, in addition to their wide-ranging selections, is their pricing. While most restaurants charge patrons a minimum of 250 percent of the wholesale price, at Veritas, wines are generally priced well below this level.

Despite the benefits of working with private collectors, there are legal issues that restaurants need to consider before tapping in to these priceless cellars. Leonard Fogelman, a New York state beverage and alcohol attorney notes that buying wine from collectors is a very restricted process. The Alcoholic Beverage Control Law stipulates how the sale of privately held wine can be purchased. Among other regulations, non-licensed individuals like collectors can only sell to licensed persons or groups and the bottle must be labeled as having originated from a private collection. Furthermore, a monetary exchange for the transaction must have taken place before the wines appear on the wine list. In other words, cellaring the wines in the restaurant without the explicit intention of selling the wine to customers is not an option.

Customers ultimately are the greatest beneficiaries of the relationship between wine collectors and restaurants. With wine lists enhanced with rare Bordeaux, limited production Burgundy, or California cult Cabernets, non-collectors can have a chance to taste some of rarest, painstakingly selected and cared for wines available. So the next time you are dining out and try a special bottle of hard-to-procure wine, you might have a passionate collector to thank for what will surely be a memorable enological experience.

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