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For a Rainy Day

Four big-city wine enthusiasts find creative storage solutions for their overflowing bottle collections.

 

Story by Amy Zavatto

Photos by Shane Morgan and Michael Rubenstein

 

Oh, the secrets that lay beneath Alice Feiring’s bed. Stan Methany stows his beloveds in a cave, among other dark and chilly nooks. And Melissa Clark? Well, she gets a gleam in her eye when she talks about the babies in her basement. But this isn’t the beginning of a gruesome tale. This is a story about juicy love.

For some people, collecting wine is about investing, having something to sell at auction when the time is right. But some oenophiles aren’t so concerned with fancy price tags (some profiled here try to limit their spending to a reasonable $15 a bottle). It’s just that they can’t keep their hands off the stuff. Some focus their love on a region; sometimes a specific grape or technique. Dan Sullivan, a Westchester, N.Y., collector, fell hard for the hypnotic sparkle of champagne. Of the 2,200 bottles of wine he stores, 900 are his beloved bubbly. “It doesn’t just last but transforms as it ages,” he swoons.

Here, we take a look at four other feverishly committed collectors. Some have small but purposeful stashes, some large (and growing even as you read this). But they all have one thing in common: an unquenchable passion for wine.

 

In the Basement
“As a food writer, wine is a big passion for me,” says Melissa Clark, New York Times food columnist, cookbook author and chef. “Wine’s something you can study your whole life and I’ve been studying it, well … my whole life!” At this point, she’s studied enough to know a good bottle when she sees it, and she knows that she doesn’t necessarily need to pay top dollar. In fact, much of her present wine cellar is made up of bottles she bought for 15 bucks or less. One of her tricks: she buys from good producers in off years. “Say there’s a producer who didn’t make a Barolo in 2002—because everyone thought it was such a bad year—but who made Nebbiolo instead,” she says. “That’s the kind of wine you want to buy from a producer in a de-classified year. A good producer is going to select the grapes carefully.”

Clark, 38, whose dad is an avid wine collector, grew up heading to the cellar to fetch bottles for family meals. So it was only a matter of time until she turned a piece of her Brooklyn brownstone basement into a functional wine storage facility. It started six years ago, when she realized that the heat from her downstairs furnace was probably not good for the simple racks of wine she was accumulating. “We have a really wet, gross basement,” she laughs, “Most people have a cool basement, but that’s not what you get in New York City.” So she invested $3,500 in a sheet-rocked room with an air conditioning unit and shelves for about 500 bottles of her favorite vinos from the northern Rhone, Loire Valley and Burgundy. “I took a sommelier course right before I built my cellar and learned that I have an Old World palate. I only buy food-friendly wine.”

And while Clark doesn’t have a blueprint for the future of her cellar (it’s about two-thirds full right now, so there’s room to grow), her good-sense buying is about more than building a big stash. “When I go in my cellar, I see my little babies. I get excited when I look at them, and I say, ‘Oh, I remember you!’ ” she says. “I see dinners past and the stories behind the wines. I visited Lopez Heredia in Spain, and I remember going down into that cellar in Rioja and there was mold everywhere—it was gorgeous! Every time I see those wines [in my cellar] I think about that. And then I think, ‘Oh, wouldn’t you taste delicious with a lovely pork stew!’ ”

 

In The Living Room
The ultimate urban challenge that any city dweller faces is living space. And while 660 square feet wouldn’t amount to much in the suburbs, it’s practically a palace by Manhattan standards—unless you’re Alice Feiring, and your 300 French roommates (and a few Italians) take up more space in your fifth-floor walk-up apartment than you do. “My collection is based on Loire reds, Beaujolais, premier crus of Burgundy, the northern Rhone and, when I can afford it, Barolo,” she says. “Sometimes I buy Finger Lake Rieslings, but I don’t believe in the New World, fruit-forward style.”

Her collection began innocently enough—one case, back in 1980. That was all it took for Alice to realize that going to the store for a bottle at a time was going about things all wrong. “The thing is, you have to collect, because if you don’t, you’ll never see that particular vintage again,” she says. “Every year the wine is going to be different, I hope!” Her passion for Old World French varietals fuels her blog, alicefeiring.com, where she gives her personal rundown on myriad wines, as well as her latest writing project, The Battle For Wine & Love (“or how I saved the world from Parkerization,” she jokes), due out next spring. “One day I woke up and all my favorite wines were disappearing [with Old World-style wineries starting to toss off the old-school winemaking style that she loves and trading it in for bigger, New World style-wines], so I go on a journey to find out who is behind it, how it’s possible, what’s being done about it and what does love have to do with it,” she quips.

When Alice realized her collecting was no small hobby, she decided she needed some decent storage. And, lacking funds to house it elsewhere, she was left with her own surroundings. So she had a friend build a wall of wine shelves in her living room. Wines meant for long-term aging are kept a little closer to her heart—or closer to her slippers, anyway: a couple of mixed cases are stashed under her bed. “I’m a believer that light is more damaging than heat, so under my bed they don’t get direct sunlight. Well, nothing gets direct sunlight in a railroad apartment,” she laughs. “In the summer, I keep my air conditioning on economy and it keeps the wine from really roasting.”

Another four cases of age-worthy bottles sit in record cabinets in her bedroom. Alice hasn’t spent more than $15 a bottle on most of her long-term wines, although occasionally she allows a $40 or $50 splurge. “The best piece of advice that anyone ever gave me when I was starting to collect was buy basic Burgundies from the best producers. And buy off-years from great producers. For instance, 2004s are cheaper than 2005s.” she says.
It might seem that she’s running out of room for more bottles, but, she says, “No one with a passion for wine can keep a cap on it. I really won’t be happy until I have about 2,500 bottles.” What may seem like an infringement on her precious Manhattan square footage is a comfortable kind of squish for Alice. “I like to have [my bottles] here. I like to take them out and look at them,” she says. “I get a tremendous amount of satisfaction looking over and seeing my shelves.”

Here, There, and Everywhere

During his college years in Wisconsin, Scott Manlin’s friends found it a little odd that he was plunking down cash for cases of wine while they were buying cases of beer. “I also like to cook, so they thought that was a little curious, too. But girls liked it.”

His love of good wine and food wasn’t so much for luring the ladies as it was an ingrained appreciation inherited from his wine-collecting dad. While their tastes differ (his dad likes New World; Scott’s an Old World fan), his love of structure, complexity and the magic of time was something he began to appreciate as early as his teenage years.

He started getting serious about accumulating bottles in 1997, when he was 30. “But I went crazy in 1999 when I bought a house and built a cellar. When I moved in, I owned about 150 bottles and built a wine cellar to hold 800. It was filled within the year. I originally built the cellar to have bottles on two walls, a nice Persian rug, and a table and chairs for tasting. Now, there are racks on every wall and I have created islands of additional racks, boxes stacked floor to ceiling, and wine in the rafters of the cellar.”

At last count, his collection totaled 6,809 bottles, most of which are in his Chicago home. “My collection is spread out among my overstuffed home cellar, a locker in Los Angeles, storage in London, and at various retailers in the U.S. and Europe awaiting delivery,” he says. “I even have a 30-bottle cooler in my office.” He also barcodes every bottle through cellartracker.com, gives them all bin labels, has high-tech temperature and humidity control, and an alarm system that monitors temperature changes. And now? There are about 1,600 bottles awaiting delivery as soon as he figures out where to put them.

And yet, with all that wine and effort, Manlin refuses to call himself a collector. “I’m an accumulator,” he says. “I have lots of high-quality wines, but every bottle I own I intend to consume. I bristle at the concept of “collector.” For me, wine is a beverage to be consumed with food. Other than Champagne as an aperitif, I don’t drink wine as a cocktail.”

What he does have is predominantly Bordeaux, Rhone reds and Burgundy. His only regret? That he wasn’t born in a good vintage year. “I’m 39. Regrettably, I’m vintage 1967, and there isn’t much great wine produced in that year, save for Sauternes, which isn’t my favorite, and some good Italian wines. I usually cheat and say I was conceived in ’66, when you can find some decent Bordeaux.”

 

All Dessert, All the Time
When your great-great-great aunt is none other than Carrie Nation—the hatchet carrying, bar-smashing, bible-quoting leader in the temperance movement of late 19th and early 20th centuries, you’d think that maybe you wouldn’t end up with a wine hobby like Stan Methany’s. “Oh yes,” he says, “she probably would not want to be associated with the likes of me.”

There’s quite a lot about her nephew that would turn Nation’s black bonnet askew: He started and ran a decade-long, 100-member wine club for which he did all the choosing, about three-quarters of which would show up with top ratings from Robert Parker within six months (“I’m not a Parker fan, but he does like a lot of the same things I do—I just manage to get there first.”). He’s the go-to guy for his family, friends and colleagues on wine advice, getting panicked phone calls nearly every night from baffled friends perusing wine lists, wanting to know what goes with what. And at one time, his collection swelled to 1,500 bottles, divided between big reds and dessert wines from Spain, France and Italy.

But these days, Stan is happiest when he’s hunkered down with the sweeter things in life—that is, port, Gewürztraminer, a little Muscat here, a little sherry there, and the grape that takes up about half his present collection, Riesling.

Stan grew up in a German household where Riesling was the honored grape at the table. It was here that he learned of the wine’s incredible versatility with food and the great pleasure of sipping the fruitier versions on their own. “I’m most excited about some of the older Rieslings because they age magnificently,” says Stan, 58. “There have been a run of great years since ’97—it’s just been one great vintage after another.”

He divides his present collection—about 30 or 40 cases—between a proper storage cellar in his home in St. Louis, Mo., a smaller wine cave in his Greenwich Village, NYC flat (which also has a dedicated wine closet for the quicker-moving bottles), and some storage space in London. And while his Aunt Carrie didn’t pass her distaste for all things alcoholic through the family tree, it seems Stan’s son has grown up to be a chip off his dad’s block. “I’ve focused quite heavily on port, and my son and I have been to Porto three times for the release of new vintages,” Stan says. “We love going to the port houses and collecting odd, old bottles. We find that port is a great passion.”

Stan bestowed most of his port collection upon his son, who is at present building a wine cellar of his own. “Port needs lots of time to age, so the port I’ve collected in recent years I’ve been collecting for him. We probably won’t open any in my lifetime, but he will. My son is 30—it’s nice for him, and something that we share together,” Stan says. “For me, wine is about sharing.”

 

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