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To Have and to Hoard

If you love wine, people assume you collect it. I don’t happen to collect anything, but studies say fully one third of us do, be it Hummel figurines, Coke memorabilia or Picassos. What was once a hobby for merchants and kings is common sport now that today’s trash is so quickly tomorrow’s collectible and fortunes are made and lost on Beanie Babies.

The urge to collect seems to be hard-wired. Like other biological imperatives—-eating and sex come to mind—-sometimes it goes haywire. It’s a small step from a cellar of premier cru to a house full of cats and old National Geographics.

No doubt the hoarding instinct developed to store food, but your average collectible isn’t much use for surviving a long winter. It has a different sort of value, in many cases nothing more than the glow implied by where it’s been. A diaper soiled by Elvis! A ball hit out of the field by Bubbie Schwartz! A bottle of Thomas Jefferson’s (now undrinkable) Madeira! All magic totems, believed to bestow power on the lucky owner.

The bottles I keep on hand for guest ambushes and Colorado’s blue-law Sundays not only lack provenance, but, like the CD’s scattered around my house and car, they lack another crucial feature of collections: theme. Sorting and organizing is an integral part of the compulsion. You don’t lust for three widgets, or eight, but THE WHOLE SET. Then they must be catalogued, compared and displayed.

My bottles are neither expensive nor rare, requirements if you’re collecting for social status. A case or two of cult wines—-Napa bottlings allocated to a tiny, exclusive list--certifies you as clever, well connected or simply rich enough to play with the big boys. This kind of collecting is no fun without an audience. It’s like the joke about the guy marooned on a desert island with Cindy Crawford: something’s missing until he gets her to dress up as a man so he can say, “You’ll never guess who I’m schtupping!”

An audience is also key for the classic wine-bore; the type who shows you all around his precious cellar and then offers you a glass of Beaujolais Nouveau. I say “his,” because while women may collect stuffed animals and Depression glass, wine-collecting is mainly a man’s world. America’s top two wine auctioneers were unable to name me even one “great” female collector.

Of course they preside over a fairly male phase of collecting: the hunt. The once-exclusive auction world has recently been invaded by riff-raff who cut their teeth on E-bay. A great surge in faxed and emailed bids is not only moving things down-market, but changing the essential auction dynamics. The frenzy that infects a mob and sends bids through the roof, the rhythmic tide of excitement as each lot builds to climax -- remote bidding kills all that.

The tradition lives on, however, at the charity wine auction, an invitation-only proving ground for the nascent big shot. The game here is conspicuous overspending, to show the world you’ve arrived.

My bottles pile up out of equal parts love and neglect, but some people collect purely for investment. Wine makes a cruel hedge fund. At least with a painting you can fill the space above the couch and admire brushwork while you wait for it to appreciate into something your children will fight over when you’re dead. Alas, you can’t have your Cab and drink it too. No sooner enjoyed but worthless, it’s sometimes even dead on uncorking.

But many collectors don’t care – they’re not planning on drinking it. Some simply amass too much for a lifetime. One collector I know has a whole cellar wing set aside for his funeral. It’s mostly dessert wine, which he doesn’t even like, but he bought because it was important. I, on the other hand, adore sweet wine, and shall consider it an honor to toast his memory some day in ’67 Yquem.

Unlike so many, though, he actively enjoys his collection. He plays in the cellar with the sensual bliss of King Midas in his gold, hefting bottles, admiring and rearranging them. He buys them humidifiers and neck tags the way a little girl accessorizes Barbie or a thug his Harley. He’s also not averse to opening the good stuff for guests; my kind of collector.

© by Jennifer Rosen

(EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in the Rocky Mountain News, Saturday December 11th, 2004. Jennifer Rosen sadly passed away Christmas Eve, 2011. Her clever, funny, insightful, and entertaining wine musings charmed the reader, bringing comfort and ease to often stuffy subject matter. This made every reader long to share a bottle with her, even if the wine wasn't very good. Her award-winning wine writing included a BLOG , a regular column in Denver's Rocky Mountain News, and contributions to the Wine Enthusiast and other magazines. She authored two entertaining and informative books about wine, Waiter, There's a Horse in My Wine and The Cork Jester's Guide to Wine, both of which are probably the most fun you can have learning about wine.)


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