For me, collecting wine started with a single bottle tucked away in the pantry. Then three. Then I stashed a few more at the back of a closet, until I bought a place with a stone-lined cellar crawl space. That’s where I’ve placed my tiny collection — a 10-year-old Barbaresco, some Chenin Blanc from the Loire — on a rack in the dust. I can’t recall what ignited my need to keep and age wine; it may have been a glass of “old” Bordeaux or Riesling, and the dawning realization that the young wines I drink every day could evolve into something more elegant and polished with time.
When left alone for a few years, the tannins in a red wine soften and unravel; the bracing acid of a young white gives way to rounder flavors; and top notes of flowers or fruit can mellow into more complex flavors of nuts, chocolate, earth or even leather.
So I ignore the bottles undergoing a slow metamorphosis in my cellar, girded against both hot summers and icy winters. I have no idea what they’ll taste like when I open them, and that’s part of the thrill.
Since my stash is so tiny, though, I’ve wondered: Who might have grander collections than I do, and what do they look like?
It turns out many wine collectors are reluctant to expose their cellars to the prying eyes of a journalist. Three Vermonters tolerated my voyeuristic impulses — but a couple of pseudonyms are used here. The details of their cellars speak for all of them.
The trophy cellar
My first stop is the Shelburne home of a man — let’s call him Bob — whom I know to have an amazing wine collection. In his basement, we pass a hodgepodge of wine stacked beside a table. The apparent disorder is deceptive: Bob, who recently picked up a few cases at the annual Cheese Traders and Wine Sellers sale, will catalog them on his computer using a program called the Uncorked Cellar. Then he’ll open the heavy door a few yards away and slide the bottles into an immaculate cellar.
Care went into every detail of this room: dark-stained pine shelves, a cork floor to prevent breakage and a constant temperature of 57 degrees. It’s hard to fathom that 1800 bottles are crammed into this 9-by-12-foot room, fitted into wide, diagonal slots that hold about 20 bottles each. Although Bob, a soft-spoken, modest executive in his fifties, dismisses this as a “drinking cellar,” a closer look at the bottles reveals a formidable collection. Asked why he began collecting wine in the 1970s, Bob jokes, “It was that or Boone’s Farm” — referring to the get-drunk-cheap, apple-flavored wine product.
Like many American collectors, he began with big French and California reds — Bordeaux, Cabernet. Over the years, though, Bob’s palate became attuned to subtler flavors. “I became a bigger fan of Pinot Noir, of Nebbiolo and Sangiovese,” he says.
Some of his early acquisitions are worth name dropping: a 1992 Château Lafite-Rothschild from Pauillac; some Château Haut-Brions from 1988 and ’89; and a case of Dominus Cabernet Sauvignon from the Napa Valley. Bob points out a 1992 Joseph Phelps Vin du Mistral Syrah, a 1992 Pride Mountain Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon and bottles from the years in which each of his children was born.
Then began his foray into Burgundy, with the purchase of bottles such as a 2006 Jean Chartron Clos du Caillerets Monopole, Puligny-Montrachet. Bob also covets dessert wines. A selection of Sauternes and Hungarian Tokajis anchor one wall — including a 1993 Chateau Pajzos Tokaji Esszencia, which was voted one of the top bottles in the world when it was released in 1998.
Another of his fetishes is Zinfandel — specifically from Turley, the benchmark California producer. “I love Turleys,” says Bob, who owns 50 bottles. “They have to sit for seven to 10 years, though.”
His oldest bottle is a 1967 Maison Sichel from the Bordeaux region, where wines are notoriously costly. However, “These aren’t all million-dollar bottles,” Bob says. He points out a few Malbecs, some of which cost as little as $10, and other everyday wines that he thinks will improve with age just as gracefully as the pricier bottles. Of the 2005 and 2006 Côtes du Rhône bottles he regularly enjoys with dinner, Bob says, “They’re drinking really well now.”
Though he owns thousands of dollars’ worth of wine, this collector admits that, sometimes, the metaphorical emperor wears no clothes. Bob’s cellar holds several bottles of Opus One, the Bordeaux-style blend from Napa that fetches hundreds of dollars per bottle, and he reports that it doesn’t age well. “I thought they would last forever, but they wouldn’t last 15 years,” he laments.
One 1850s home in Johnson has a basement right out of the Old World: a humid room with gravel floors, stone walls and wooden crates filled with rare wines. The stairs are lined with dozens of empty Burgundy bottles to remind the homeowner of great decantings.
This man, who has spent his entire career in hospitality, says he had a wine epiphany in the 1970s while he was working at a Boston restaurant run by an avowed oenophile. “I was extremely lucky,” recalls “Jeff” — and soon he was seeking out every tasting and wine dinner he could find.
Later, while Jeff directed catering for a hotel outside Hartford, Conn., some friends invited him to join their monthly tastings. Since Jeff lacked a cellar at the time, the group enlisted him to “just bring the Champagne.” And so he became known as Mr. Bubbles, a nickname that sticks to the fiftysomething to this day.
It took years for Jeff to become a true wine collector. “I passed on ’82 [Bordeaux] futures,” he says, looking briefly regretful. Eventually, though, he picked up some 1990 Château Montelena and an entire case of 1990 Château Latour that’s now worth $1000 a bottle. “I think I’ll sell it,” Jeff says, causing me to pause from taking notes. Won’t he try just one bottle? “Maybe.”
Continuing to narrate his collection, Jeff points out a 1999 Volnay Taillepieds, some Loius Latour Corton-Charlemagne and 2002 Louis Jodot Chassagne-Montrachet. “Most serious drinkers find their way to Burgundy,” he notes.
He makes an impassioned case for Burgundy whites. “I love what a good Burgundy does; it evolves the opposite of the way that California wines do,” he says, and explains, “Burgundy whites are austere and hard to approach at first. Then the oak starts to come through.”
Jeff grabs a bottle of 1997 Domaine Ramonet Chassagne-Montrachet that he says was “like a lemon” on release. “Now it has a nice nuttiness and a good backbone,” he says. “It’s drinking beautifully.”
A winemaker’s cellar
As Holly Rochefort of Grand Isle’s East Shore Vineyard shows me around her tiny Stowe cellar, she apologizes that she doesn’t have more, or more expensive, bottles. (In fact, the cellar is so new, its racks still smell like pine, and the 450 slots are only half filled.) Each bottle she does own — some Rioja here, a few bottles of Champagne there — has a specific purpose: They are samples Rochefort compares with the wines she makes herself.
“I’m not a collector. I will never be a person who buys thousand-dollar bottles of wine,” says Rochefort. “I buy wine because I love it, or because I want to compare its style to the wine I want to make.”
For instance, last year she began steering her Louise Swenson — a cold-hardy white variety — toward a “crisper, fresher” style, much like that of the Graves Sauvignon Blanc in the French section of her cellar.
Rochefort, a brunette with a warm demeanor, was working as an electrical engineer when, during some wine classes in Boston, she began asking instructors about the chemistry of the wines they were tasting. When the instructors encouraged her to learn about winemaking, it turned out to be a long and life-changing detour. She took, and passed, a Certified Specialist of Wine exam and is now about to graduate from the viticulture and enology degree program of the University of California, Davis.
Rochefort says her biggest challenge as a winemaker is staying conscious of other people’s preferences. “You always want to make wine that you like,” she says, noting that her “desert island” wines would be Valpolicella and Amarone. Those are among the wines in her cellar, along with recent bottlings of Bordeaux, Rioja, and varieties from Argentina, California, and even Arizona and Maryland. Many bottles have their country-of-origin names written on white neck tags. On a bottle of 2009 Château Moulin Delille, Saint-Estephe, Rochefort has handwritten “2016” to encourage herself to wait. “I’m not a big ‘aside-putter,’” she admits. “When I buy it, it doesn’t last long.”
On a low shelf in the middle of the cellar are bottles of Rochefort’s own wines — Traminette, Marquette, Frontenac Rosé. Nearby rests a copy of Opus Vino as well as a bright-red box — the gorgeous Le Nez du Vin kit — containing 54 vials that proffer wine’s various scents, from acacia to butter. Rochefort opens it, and a wave of floral and funky aromatics wafts into the room.
Another low shelf holds tulip glasses and a siphon. “This is where I blend,” Rochefort says. Sometimes she’ll mix drops of other wines into hers to see how they change.
She pulls out a bottle of watermelon-hued Crios de Susana Balbo Rosé of Malbec, made in Argentina by one of the most celebrated female winemakers in the world. “I felt a kindred spirit with fellow women winemakers,” Rochefort says. “It definitely makes my tasting biased.”
She slides the bottle back on the shelf and offers me a bottle of her Louise Swenson. “Let me know what you think,” she says.
I take it home and place it in my own “cellar,” though I suspect it will not stay there for long.