Cellar beware: Wacky stories

I was telling a friend about some of the wacky days I've spent in personal cellars as a consultant and it brought to mind a story I thought I'd share in my column.

I evaluate wine collections and cellars for insurance purposes, for re-sale or auction, or simply to give the owner some idea of the condition of the wines or the cellar itself. Occasionally I'm asked to design a cellar or consult on what wineries and varietals to stock for long- or short-term storage.

Cellars can range from nothing more than a few bottles to a very serious collection in a controlled environment. I really never know what I'm going to get into until I arrive. Most people who have a "cellar" or a collection of wine overestimate the value or the age worthiness of the wine.

Some years ago, I received a call from an older woman in Northern California who asked me to evaluate her "vast" cellar. As with many collectors, she was reluctant to share much on the phone. I agreed to go to her home and see exactly what she had in hopes of eventually hooking her up with a seller for a small fee.

She lived in a beautiful Victorian home with a splendid English garden. Before I knew it we were drinking tea and talking about her cellar and her varied and interesting life. Her husband had "dabbled" in wine and had collected quite a "fine collection" over the years, she said.

We moved from the sitting room to a staircase that led down to a wooden door with a heavy, brass lock. Fiddling with a key, the woman opened the lock, lifted it from the door and let me go in first. The place was absolutely dark and I waited for her to flip a few switches on a large metal panel attached to the wall next to the door. As light fixtures popped into brilliance along the ceiling of the underground room, I saw rows and rows of wine racks neatly fitted together in a seemingly endless procession from one end of the room to the other. I was seeing, I soon found out, more than 500 cases of wine that had been collected over 40 years.

I stood there with a silly clipboard in my hand in stunned silence. The place was immaculate and in very good order. On top of the racks stood chalkboards with very neat handwriting describing every wine in every bin of the rack. Phrases such as "rack 3 bin four 1970 B.V. Georges de Latour cabernet sauvignon" or "bin 9 six bottles 1964 Chateau Margaux" were tightly written on the board with yellow chalk. In the middle of the room was a drain in the concrete floor over which sat a large wooden table and 10 matching chairs. There was a large utility sink, cupboards and racks of wine glasses on the wall with wine posters and prints hung perfectly around the room. This place was really something, one of the best personal wine cellars I have ever seen.

Next to the sink was another large series of shelves that held wine books as well as ledgers. These ledgers told the story of wine "in" and "out" over the years from the cellar as well as price paid, vendor and purchase date. The ledgers were written in fountain pen or ballpoint with lovely writing in longhand. It turned out that her husband had been an importer and a serious collector of wine and artwork.

He had passed away six months earlier and she wanted to know not only the value of the collection, but also how she could divest herself of it. She confessed she did not like the taste of wine. She laughed when she told me the stories of her husband's frustration over it; she said he tried and tried to get her to at least sip wine, but it never "caught on."

It seems her husband found enough people who liked wine to start a very nice wine club and the collection was a result of the club and travel. She explained that he was the "wine guy" and she was the "cuisine girl."

I hooked her up with an old friend and wine client and they eventually worked out a wonderful deal that benefited them both. As a finder's fee, I got some nice wine for my personal cellar.

After 40 years in the wine business, this is still one of the top five personal cellars I've visited.

Lorn Razzano is owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland. Reach him at razz49@aol.com.

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