Reminiscences of a Wine Collector (Part One)

Geoffrey Luce
January 2020

If this title has a ring to it, you have probably read or heard of Reminiscences of a Stock Operator, written in 1923 by Edwin Lefèvre. I would not be so presumptuous as to place my paper anywhere near the timelessness of this sage manuscript. Instead, please view this title as an homage, or my attempt to be clever.

I am 59 years old and have been collecting wine for nearly 30 years. Basically, half of my life. I have roughly 4000 bottles in my cellar. It is eclectic, and it is a drinking cellar. Some Wine Collectors act like Art Collectors, admiring bottles they wouldn’t dare open. But while art can be appreciated every time you look at it, wine must be opened, tasted, and shared to truly enjoy its benefits. I will open any bottle at any time, whether it’s a Madeira from the nineteenth century, a bottle of DRC, Colgin, Chave Hermitage, Penfolds Grange, Ramonet white Burgundy, a bottle of Selosse champagne, Clos Ste Hune, d’Yquem, or Sine Qua Non; because when we share it, the tasting experience is enhanced, and I get to drink it too!!!

I love everything about wine. I love the taste. I love pairing it with food. I love sharing it – in my experience, the friendships that are forged are strong and enduring. I love to meet the people, I like to travel, I love the stories, I love the thrill of making lifetime memories from those "ah-ha" moments tasting a wine. There were a couple of decades that I would read about wine every day and made purchases every week.

Back in 2005 my family traveled with another family to Italy, renting houses in Montalcino, and then in Lucca for a week each. In Montalcino we rented a large old farmhouse on the Argiano estate. Every afternoon the other dad and I would go out looking for a wine adventure. Sometimes we would go to an enoteca. Some days we would wander looking for a winery for tasting (and buying). We tried to get lost intentionally because we wanted an authentic, serendipitous experience (Note that there are plenty of wineries in and around Montalcino, so this was not difficult!).

One afternoon, my friend Robert was driving, and the road turned to dirt from asphalt… but we continued.  When we found ourselves among vines waving back to a guy driving a tractor (Was he saying hello, or telling us we were trespassing? We had no idea), I recommended turning around. But I wasn’t driving, and Robert moved forward undaunted. My friend turned out to be right because before long the road was paved again, and there was a winery directly in our path. We got out of our car looking for anyone, and saw an older man wearing overalls, and carrying shearers coming towards the house. That man was Livio Sassetti. Although he spoke no English, and we spoke no Italian, he discerned that we wanted to taste, and he hoped that we wanted to buy wine. We followed him into a tasting room, and he began opening 2-3 bottles. He tasted with us (likely having just completed his day), and there were smiles and laughter, and through gestures we communicated about the wines. After our tasting we indicated the wines and quantities we wanted to buy. He started packing new unopened bottles into a case. Instinctively, we started swapping new bottles for the wines that we had opened. He was so touched by this. It made him very happy. And we loved his wines and have been buying them ever since.

Much more recently, during the Summer of 2018 my wife Laura and I were with a group of people visiting Beaune for the Musique et Vin Festival, and we attended a dinner arranged with Brice de la Morandière and his wife at their house in Puligny. Brice is the Managing Director at Domaine Leflaive. I should have expected this, but still I was surprised that we drank white Burgundy throughout the evening. Of course, all the wine was from Domaine Leflaive!  No complaints here!  The wines were stunning, and showed nuanced differences based on the age/vintage and classe/terroir. Before sitting for dinner, Brice opened a 1999 Le Montrachet with a number 3 in grease pencil written above the label. There was a knock on the door and Aubert de Villaine joined us. Brice had said there might be a special visitor, but I certainly didn’t expect this treat! The 1999 was very special, and after conversation and meeting each, and every member of our group Aubert was readying to leave. He said his goodbyes until Brice brought out a second bottle of the same wine, but this time with a number 2 hand-written in grease pencil. What was so funny to me and the reason I share this story is that Aubert upon seeing the next bottle said perhaps he could stay a bit longer. Even people who taste wonderful wines all the time are happy to enjoy additional opportunities to share special bottles. This reminds me of a quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin, “Wine is constant proof that GOD loves us and loves to see us happy…”

Every collector has many of these stories. They keep us coming back (for more). And it has become easier to meet people who love wine. Distances have become irrelevant. My daughter set up my Instagram account four years ago @winebarter, through which I have made many new wine friends. Wine networks have become global. Nearly every day I converse with winos from all over the world-- in Chicago, Boston, Florida, NYC, Dallas, Houston, and California; but also in Brazil, Italy, Scandinavia, France (Paris and Beaune), Spain (especially up in the Basque region), and in Asia (especially Hong Kong and Tokyo). We Direct Message (DM) each other, and we get together when they are in town. These relationships are not impersonal. This is modern networking. The people are great, and of course we have at least one common interest (wine!), and that has opened the door to understanding other aspects of life. We gain knowledge and empathy for other cultures. Wine appreciation opens doors.

I have learned so much from these people about their choices: what they drink, how they experience wine, how they share wine. Their posts often steer me into researching new wines, producers, techniques, practices, and people. I consider myself a student of wine, and this satisfies my love of learning.

But where did my passion begin? I graduated from Carnegie-Mellon University in 1982, and then moved to NYC to become an Actuary. The DJIA was trading around 850 (it’s now over 29,000). The 1982 Chateau Lafite Rothschild En-Primeur price was about $20. Today it costs $1500. I worked as an Actuarial Assistant, and each Friday a handful of us would escape across the street to a Spanish lunch place to taste and discuss wine. We were on flextime, so we engineered the work week to be concluded by Friday lunch. This was casual and fun, but this group certainly had plenty of passion for wine. Our budget was about $2 per bottle. This experience provided me my initial familiarity with wine, and the confidence to continue my vinous education. I was bitten by the wine bug, and have been exploring ever since...

With exposure over time, my interest in different wines and regions grew. I have decided to write this monograph with bite-sized future installments: stories, experiences, and advice; that I hope will be entertaining, compelling, and useful. Beware, dear Reader, for perhaps I will be your wine Muse!

My advice is to drink what you like, as often as you like. All wines are best shared. During these days of political polarization, wine can be an invaluable way to bring people together. There is a camaraderie among people who love wine, and even more so with those who share wine. Join wine tasting groups. Cook at home and enjoy figuring out which wines to pair with your dishes. Be your own guide. Drink aged wines when you can. Take the time to reflect. Expand your palate, be open to trying new wines. And it’s worth saying again, taste with others!

By Geoffrey Luce
January 2020