Master the Art of Wine Collecting

Our US Editor tunes into an online masterclass in collecting and storing wine. Read on to hear his verdict.

© Shutterstock | Seems simple doesn’t it? But it’s amazing the number of pitfalls wine collectors can fall into.

Melissa Smith charges $300 an hour to come to your house and organize your wine collection. When you look at it that way, $749 for her online master class on wine collecting is a relative bargain.

This may be the first online class on a topic that many people rush into without a plan. You might spend thousands of dollars of wine club orders before you come up with a system for organizing your wines. One of the problems Smith points out in the class is that too many cellars don’t prioritize which wines should be drunk in which order, so that many wines sit on shelves for years past the point when they should have.

“Bottles that people spend a good amount of money on, even if they’re only $40 a bottle, that’s money that’s completely wasted,” Smith told Wine-Searcher.

For me, the most interesting and useful part of the class comes at the end, when she discusses how to sell a wine collection. This isn’t something many people consider while we’re buying and stockpiling wine. But it is the bulk of her work as a professional sommelier, as she and her company Enotrias have carved out a niche of selling wine collections for people who won’t use them anymore.

“A lot of what I deal with is death and divorce, and wine collections that have just gotten completely out of control,” Smith said. “Especially on the West Coast, we’re dealing with some of the first wine collectors and they’re in the 80+ age group. Some historic wine collections are owned by some of the initial people that started wineries. One of my clients was one of the original importers in California. They’re at the age where they’re either declining in health or no longer drinking, or have already passed and it’s part of their estate. This part is difficult because the demographic in their 80s are not the people who I expect to be sitting in front of their computers dealing with this.”

Full disclosure: Smith is a friend of mine, and I tried out the master class for free, though as a journalist I was never going to pay even if she wasn’t somebody I know. The class is available on her website, Enotrias.

The master class is easy to watch, as it is divided into 12 sections, and each can be watched, skimmed or skipped. Some of the sections come on short videos (under 3 minutes), but most are slides with narration. It’s not a visually fascinating class: there’s no action, as the videos are just Smith talking, and (sorry Melissa) she’s not a performer like, say, Gary Vaynerchuk. She has solid knowledge to impart and that’s what she does.

I skimmed some of the early sections on which wines to buy, and some other general-knowledge sections, because I’m a wine geek. But I watched with full attention toward the end, when it came to “Time to Sell or Liquidate,” and you should too.

For people midway through their wine-collecting years, the sections I think are most helpful are about how to organize your wine collection. Smith, who like me lives in the Bay Area, gets business from rich people to do exactly that: people belong to so many wine clubs, and buy so many futures, that they lose track of what they have. I know people like that, and I don’t travel in wealthy circles.

I liked the cold water she throws on some aspects of wine collecting, notably the trendy new business in Napa Valley of people making their own wines from very expensive grapes and putting their own custom labels on them. Y’all better drink those up because no matter what you paid for them, private label wines have no resale value.

She also takes a dim view of wine investment pitches, which are becoming more commonplace.

“One of the ads said, ‘Our customers tend to see returns after 7 years,’ but the company had only been in business for 3 years,” Smith said. “A lot of the information I wanted to include was, if you’re going to do wine investing, the way to do it is by having a hands-on approach.”

Many people who are already collecting can probably start in the 5th slide show, “Laying Out Your Wine Storage and Inventory Sheet.” Because she has managed so many out-of-control collections, Smith has a solid system for organizing yours, along with useful tips like buying an iPad specifically to use for your wine collection and keeping it in the cellar. Here’s another: hide your valuable wines, just in case somebody sneaks into your cellar looking for the Screaming Eagle. Also, don’t trust people with cellar access.

© Screaming Eagle | Screaming Eagle and its ilk are not wines to be careless with.

Common pitfalls

Are you making some of the Biggest Mistakes Wine Collectors Make? Number one, for her, is not storing wine properly. She has horror stories. The best, included in the master class, is of an importer who died while still in possession of a 2000 DRC Romanée-Conti vineyard wine, which should have been worth $26,000 to his widow. But at some point, he had cut off the capsule, and then apparently decided not to drink the wine, instead covering it with paraffin wax. The bottle was thus worthless. He should have drunk it!

Here are two anecdotes she told me by phone: “I had one guy that sent me his inventory list,” Smith said. “I sold it. When I went to go pick it up, everything had been damaged by rodents. Capsules eaten through. Gnaw marks on the corks.” The sale had to be withdrawn.

Also, “A real estate agent in Castro Valley sent me 31 images of wines that she wanted to get rid of,” Smith said. “She said, ‘I know that they’re valuable.’ I asked, ‘How are they stored?’ They’d just been lying down in a bedroom. One was a (Mouton-Rothschild) and another one is a Margaux and they’re from ’82. It would be valuable, but I’m looking at the fill levels and the fact that they’ve been in a bedroom, I don’t think they’re going to be drinkable or salable.”

Because Smith disposes of wine collections for widows, every time I talk to her, I come away with this important message: If you have special wine treasures, drink them now. Don’t wait. That message underlies a lot of the master class. It’s a useful reminder.

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