How to start a fine wine collection — on a budget

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Competition for collectable wine can be fierce.

Just ask Nicholas Paris, who holds the prestigious Master of Wine designation from the Institute of Masters of Wine in London.

Paris, 42, who has worked in the wine industry for years, once helped field competing bids from two executives at major Fortune 500 firms over a bottle of wine being auctioned at Christie’s.

The executives, who were bidding by phone, did not know the identity of whom they were competing with over a 1947 Burgundy. But their determination to win helped drive the price from $8,000 to $50,000.

Consuming wine can also be a very expensive endeavor. Paris, who is now director of global sourcing at E. & J. Gallo Winery, gave himself an ample budget for several years when he was preparing for the Master of Wine exam.

“I spent approximately $15,000 a year spitting wine,” Paris said.

His investment and determination paid off when he passed the exam, which included a 36-wine blind tasting over three days. That part of the test required Paris to identify the grape variety, origin, vintage and techniques used to produce the wines.

In addition, Paris also had to write about 14 essays over five days. Once he passed those two parts of the exam, he then had to write a 10,000-word research paper over the next year.

The pass rate for the Master of Wine program is about 10 percent or less. In 2014, Paris became the thirty-fourth American to hold the Master of Wine title.

Now, Paris’ work includes educating wine consumers and selecting new European wines for Gallo, a family owned winery, to represent. Gallo has wineries throughout California, in Napa, Sonoma and the Central Coast.

The good news for consumers is you do not need to go through the same rigors — or put up as much money — to collect and develop your expertise for good wine.

But if you’re looking to collect wine to be enjoyed years from now, there are some expert tips that can help you make sure you do it right.

Certain wines from particular areas of the world generally tend to age better, according to Paris.

From France, that includes Bordeaux, Burgundy and Northern Rhone red wines.

Italian reds that have lasting power include Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino and Amarone.

Spanish Rioja red wines are also strong contenders, Paris said.

French white wines, including white Bordeaux, Vouvray and white Burgundy, tend to have staying power. The same goes for white Riesling wine from Germany, Paris said.

Cabernet Sauvignons, particularly from Napa Valley, have a “great reputation for aging,” Paris said.

These wines from E. & J. Gallo’s wineries have the potential to get better with age, according to Paris:

  • Barolo: Renato Ratti at $60 retail (could hold for 20+ years)
  • Amarone: Allegrini at $80 retail (could hold for 20+ years)
  • Brunello di Montalcino: Argiano at $60 (could hold for 20+years)
  • Napa Valley: Louis M. Martini Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon at $40 (could improve with 5-10+ years); their Lot #1 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($150) would hold for 20+

Only about 5 percent of the world’s wines will actually improve beyond five years, according to Paris.

“A lot of people purchase wines that are meant to be consumed much earlier and hold on to them for a long time,” Paris said. “And they’re not going to improve and they certainly won’t have any value at that point.”

To make sure the wine you’re saving will improve, choose a wine with a reputation for aging well.

“Seek the advice of your local wine expert in a fine wine retail shop near you,” Paris said. “I think that’s very important.”

Buying a good wine that will age well does not have to cost a lot of money.

“You can absolutely find good $30 and $40 bottles of wine that will age well for five to 10-plus years if you’re buying from the right region,” Paris said.

You may even be able to find $20 bottles of wine that get better with age. But, as a general rule of thumb, $30 and up from the right wine region is a “safer bet,” according to Paris.

“You don’t need to spend $1,000 on a top bottle of wine to hold it for awhile,” Paris said.

Packaging and storage both make a big difference when it comes to the longevity of wine.

For wines with a natural cork, the longer the cork, the longer the wine will hold, according to Paris. Bottles with either a shorter natural cork or synthetic cork do not tend to allow wine to age because more air can get in.

Screw tops can be a more reliable barrier to oxygen and let wines age for several years, as long as they are the right wine and from the right region.

One kind of packaging not meant to age: boxed wines, which are generally meant to be consumed immediately.

One of the biggest mistakes wine collectors can make is not storing their wine properly.

Ideally, you want to keep wines in a dark, cool and humid environment, Paris said.

Room temperature today is around 70 degrees Fahrenheit — far too warm to properly store wine. That means that common out-of-the-way storage sports — such as in a closet or on top of the refrigerator — will sabotage your efforts, as light and heat will prematurely age wines.

While you can keep wine inside a regular refrigerator for a few weeks, it is not an ideal long-term storage space, Paris said.

Instead, there are relatively inexpensive wine refrigerators that will have the appropriate level of humidity. You may also want to consider your basement or paying a company that will store the wine for you, Paris said.

After you have successfully stored the wine for years, the last thing you want to do is undermine your efforts by not opening the wine properly.

For a wine that is more than 20 years old, you do not want to open it and come back to it an hour or two later.

Instead, start by decanting it off the sediment, or solid matter, that typically tends to form on red wines.

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Once you have done that, smell and taste the wine before letting it breathe for too long, Paris said.

“That’s a mistake some people make with very expensive bottles that are 40 and 50 years old, letting it breathe for too long, because it’s been breathing through the cork for over a decade,” Paris said. “If it continues to breathe, it may lose a significant amount of what it has.”

Before you commit to stashing away a wine that you will consume years from now, try expanding your palate.

You can broaden your wine horizons on a budget by attending free tastings at your local retail store. Or consider creating your own tasting group — an approach often taken by experts, according to Paris — where everyone brings a bottle to try.

There are classes around the country that will help you learn to taste. The benefit of those lessons is they typically let you sample wines from around the world and have an expert there to guide you, Paris said.

If you have more time and money available, you way want to consider attending larger events, such as Vinexpo or the New York Wine Experience. The website LocalWineEvents also lists wine events that are happening in your area.

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