THE ART OF BUYING

Our Buying Director Giles Cooper tells us more about his journey through the world of fine wine and offers some sage advice for collectors.

Giles in action amongst the vines at Château Cheval Blanc

I’m not sure anyone really knows how they got into the wine business – unless you’re born a Rothschild, or a de Villaine, or a Harlan, for example! In my case it was a desire to do something a bit different, to follow a career that would give me the variety of experiences, both hedonistic and intellectually challenging, that I craved. As with so many of my generation (I’m a ‘78 vintage) it was Majestic Wine that opened my first door into the wine world and set me on the path that would eventually bring me to Chelsea Vintners. Majestic nurtured my growing obsession with wine as a living, breathing product, but also as an element of cultural significance with a global following that extended from the mere ‘I’ll take the strongest/cheapest/nicest one please’ to the dedicated focus of a single-minded collector with a deep cellar and even deeper pockets.

My first serious trip to wine country took me to Bordeaux, so it’s unsurprising that this region became the linchpin of my wine life (where it firmly remains, I should add) but Majestic also helped me to discover a passion for the wines of California. Our Burgundy-mad chairman John Apthorp would hold an annual tasting in which some very serious bottles, often in very serious formats, were pitted against the Californian collection of the then-Logistics Director, Peter ‘Pedro’ Emerson. Pedro was a guy who I feared and loved in equal measure, with an encyclopaedic knowledge and unshakable belief in the quality of the best wines of the Golden State. I will never forget a particular battle between Kistler Vineyard Chardonnay and DRC Montrachet… the result was not as clear cut as you might imagine!

Post-Majestic, the eleven years I spent at a major UK-based global fine wine specialist with a particular penchant for Bordeaux buying really honed my understanding of, and love for, the wines of that famous region. Combining annual en primeur trips and regular tastings (not to mention the many, many bottles opened and enjoyed over more than a decade of client entertaining) created a circle of experience which has served me well. And, to date, not once have I ever got bored of the wines of Bordeaux …

The Art of Buying

The process of buying fine wine can seem like a minefield, but I think it’s arguably easier now than it has ever been. This is mainly due to the democratisation of the market via public pricing networks such as Wine Searcher, combined with the raft of both professional critical opinion and peer review from the likes of Cellar Tracker. The sheer volume of writing on every aspect of the fine wine world now makes information far easier to find than it was even ten or twenty years ago. However, there is a point where information overload becomes very real and multiple voices become a cacophony; a vast selection of products and pricing is only helpful if one understands the true origin of the stock, its condition, authenticity, and so on. Add in the unscrupulous nature of rogue players who are inevitably drawn to any successful market (especially an unregulated one), and you may find that fine wine can still be a tricky universe to navigate.

Still. Let’s assume that as you’re reading this, you’ve likely cleared most of those hurdles and are now getting into the nitty gritty of wine buying and collecting, or are at least interested in how you might approach this in years to come. What is the best way to go about crafting the collection that you’ve always dreamed of?

Know Your Source

Buying on release from trusted merchants is of course the best guarantee of perfect stock. It shouldn’t be too tricky to find out who these are, but a handy clue … they’re rarely the cheapest, or most expensive, on Wine Searcher! Nevertheless, buying from merchants often comes at a ‘hidden’ cost. Allocations are now so tight, due to lower production and increased demand for fine wine across the globe, that newcomers must really sing for their supper to gain eligibility for the best wines. In practise, this means buying a lot of wine you don’t necessarily want in order to get what you do, creating a potentially significant ‘buy in’. Many’s the time I have valued a cellar full of cases that (whilst perfectly good in their own right) were never really wanted by the owner and had not seen a penny rise in value – said owner had inevitably had to take this stock to gain access to the ‘good stuff’.

Buying from a serious broker who trades secondary market stock can relieve you of this burden, although there can be compromises; bottle/case price will typically be higher, and one must make greater demands as to the proof of provenance. To coin a phrase, you pay your money, you make your choice. Sadly, no broker can transport you back in time to buy that full original case of ‘99 Rousseau Chambertin (as much as you wish they could) but there are a few things to remember when searching out those hidden gems which can certainly help you to avoid big (expensive) trouble – and more importantly help you find treats where others see trash. So, I’ve taken the liberty in doing a little bit of myth-busting to help you on your merry way!

 

N.B. When you’ve finally acquired a few cases of the aforementioned ‘good stuff’, you’ll doubtless find yourself invited to some excellent wine dinners and lunches where the jovial and the generous bring some gems out from the depths of their cellar – fine wine is a fantastic social glue, and you are bound to make friends for life!

 

Cork Talk

There are some aspects of the appearance of a mature bottle which really do count. Corks should be level with the lip of the bottle, not sunken or raised, and capsule condition should be requisite with age. Heavy scratching might suggest multiple movements, not ideal for keeping wine at its best, whilst being too shiny could indicate sub-optimal provenance (unless they have been in OWC and/or there is a record of legitimate reconditioning). Occasionally, capsules have been cut to reveal the name on a cork. This might suggest that at some point along its life, the origin and originality of the wine was questioned. This isn’t usually a great sign, but if the revealed cork is legit, then it may be helpful.

Labels are a different matter. Again, signs of heavy wear and tear could be a sign of too much movement – but if the wine has been racked in a traditional wood and metal system, we all know how easy it is to scratch a label just by sliding it out and back in again (usually when we decide we’re not quite ‘excited’ enough to open that particular bottle). Staining, meanwhile, is a perennially bad sign, often found in conjunction with a raised or sunk cork and implying leakage due to dramatic temperature variation. Still, be mindful that accidents happen, and it is perfectly possible for pesky cellar breakages to leak onto other bottles. Be mainly wary of staining that looks like a downwards drip rather than a splash or splatter.

Finally, a fun fact. Rotting or mould on a label can be a very positive indicator! Despite creating a ‘look’ that some drinkers wouldn’t want anywhere near their table, a rotting label can be a sign of a blessedly humid cellar. When a bit of mould appears in conjunction with a good fill level and cork/capsule, you may just find that the worst looking bottles deliver some of the best wine experiences you will have. After all, you’re drinking what’s in the bottle, not what’s on it.

 

Prioritise Provenance

Provenance is without a doubt one of the biggest buzzwords in the fine wine trade. We all know that one must be keenly aware of the origins and history of a case or bottle, particularly with ultra-rare or highly sought after wines made in limited volumes. But what does this actually mean? Provenance really covers two areas; lifetime storage/movement and authenticity. Most conversations relate to the former but in recent years wine buyers and collectors have had to become much more cognisant of the latter.

So, let’s assume your case is authentic. Provenance in this case relates to its movements post-release from the chateau or domaine, and a seller would be expected to account for the quality of storage at each phase of its life, the number of times it has moved within that life, and the locations where it’s spent its time. Ideally a case would move as infrequently as possible; however, several movements between high quality professional storage units in the UK would ultimately be better than long-term storage in a poor-quality environment. It’s also completely possible to ship wine around the world without having a negative impact on the contents of your case (after all, how does wine from the USA or Australia get here?) but it’s important to understand how the case got to its current location. Was it ex-local agent stock? Was it kept in ideal temperature and humidity-controlled conditions?

The UK is relatively fortunate to enjoy a wide network of professional ‘under bond’ storage facilities but that doesn’t mean that wine bought from outside the UK should give you specific cause for concern – after all, notable amounts of every wine’s release allocation ends up on different shores. Fundamentally it’s about trust and the ability to rely on your chosen merchant to have both the contacts and connections to have confidence in trading, combined with the discernment and expertise to explore and approve of the origins of any given case.

A Final Word on Fill Levels …

A controversial topic. Whilst there is no doubt that for most wines from the 1980s onwards you should expect a fill level into the neck, I have encountered many older bottles with fill levels that would cause palpitations among some vinous perfectionists. These include bottles from Bordeaux, Spain, Italy and beyond, which, despite the contents reaching only to mid-shoulder or lower, have been fresh, pure and perfectly representative of their age and region/vineyard of origin. Again, it’s all about balance; if the cork and capsule look healthy, and there is no sign of seepage, then natural evaporation over time can be the simplest cause. With limited production control involved with old corks, it’s impossible to expect them to perform at a consistent level – so, don’t be casual about low fills, but don’t automatically discount them either.

So, the 64,000-dollar question (as it were) … what does the perfect collector’s cellar look like? Impossible to answer, of course, except to say that I have always believed that trading your stock is nothing to be ashamed of and a cellar to me is an ever-moving feast. Palates change, values rise and fall, and you probably won’t want to keep or drink everything you’ve ever bought. In a nutshell, if you never sell anything you’ve bought, you’re not a collector – you’re a hoarder. And nobody wants that.  If you seek out smart advice and focus on your personal passions, buying and building a collection full of the things that you love (and that you love to drink, most importantly!) whether it’s Salon, Sassicaia or Sine Qua Non, I truly believe that you can’t go far wrong.

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