Chatter Creating a masterpiece: How to build your own wine collection

Chatter Creating a masterpiece: How to build your own wine collection

October 1st, 2017 by Emily Crisman in Chatter

Michelle Richards, general manager and sommelier, poses for a photo Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017, at St. John's Restaurant in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Photo by Erin O. Smith

Michelle Richards, general manager and sommelier, pours a glass of wine for a photo Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017, at St. John's Restaurant in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Michelle Richards, general manager and sommelier, pours a...

Photo by Erin O. Smith

While many of us buy wine to drink right away — an estimated 70-90 percent of wine purchased in the U.S. is consumed within 24 hours, according to the Wall Street Journal — one of life's greatest pleasures is enjoying a perfectly aged vintage. Doing so requires patience, however, and an understanding of which varieties age well and how to store them until they reach their peak.

Ready to start your own wine collection? We asked two local wine experts for tips on where to start, along with suggestions of bottles to lay down for later as well as a few to keep on-hand for drinking right away. "There's many different styles, and you want to make sure you have a good variation," says Michelle Richards, sommelier at St. John's. She also creates collections for major wine buyers through her business, Creating a Masterpiece, in which she likens building a collection of wines to crafting a work of art.

First, do your homework. Seek out a sommelier like Richards, or consult with a retailer who knows what they're talking about. Tell them wines you like and they can give you a personalized tasting to help find more you'll enjoy.

Develop your palate. When you find something you like, buy a case, or at least a few bottles. "Drinking the same wine over a period of time teaches you more about the wine," says Brian Leutwiler, general manager at Imbibe, who's been selling wine for 40 years. "Real education comes from drinking wine at [its] different ages and taking notes." If you open a bottle that tastes young, take notes and lay the others down for a while. With time, the aromas and flavors will evolve and become more complex. "Wines from certain grapes age far better than others do," he adds.

For a wine to age well, it needs to be big and muscular, the sort of wine that tastes "aggressive" when young. (Read on for some suggestions.) When you drink a wine that's too young, Leutwiler explains, you'll taste all the tannins — the acid in red wine that gives you that "bite" — which are lost over time.

Find a trustworthy source. While Richards says local shops like Imbibe and Riverside Wine and Spirits are the best sources for good wine, if you can't find what you're looking for locally, she recommends, an American website with incredible customer service. "The prices are extremely reasonable, and you can find almost anything on there," she says. The site, which has sommeliers on its payroll, finds collectors and buys their collections, and can tell you the wine's provenance. "There's a lot of fraud in the wine industry, so you have to be really careful," Richards points out.

Leutwiler's storage tips

• You don’t want swings in temperature, or a consistent temperature that’s too cold or too hot. The classic cellar temperature is 55-65 F.

• Lay bottles on their side so the corks stay wet.

• No sunlight or fluorescent lights.

• No vibration.

• Don’t keep any chemicals nearby.

Protect your investment. Collecting is a waste of time and money (and wine!) if you don't have proper storage. "The ultimate thing with collecting is for you to enjoy it," Richards says. "But if one day you want to sell it, it needs to be in peak condition." The biggest mistake Richards sees her Creating a Masterpiece clients make is not having the right system in place to preserve their wine. "You need to have a space in your home that's dark, cold and not directly in the sun," she says. "I've seen great collections go bad." She suggests a climate-controlled wine storage system like those found at, which can help anyone become a serious collector.


As for a good everyday or party wine to keep on-hand, Richards recommendeds Jean-Louis Chave Cotes-du-Rhone Mon Coeur, a blend of syrah and grenache in the $14-$16 range that pulls from all the vineyards in the northern Rhone Valley. "It's delicious. Everyone loves it and it's great with food, from steak to gamey dishes like duck and quail," she says. "It goes great with everything, essentially."

One of Richards' favorites to age is Ridge Vineyards' Monte Bello — "if you can get your hands on a 2012 or a 2013." A high-quality California cabernet blend from the Santa Cruz mountains, it lands in the $150-$200 range. For another dry red, Leutwiler recommends Ceretto Barolo D.O.C.G. ($57), from the Barolo region of Italy.

Wines from the Burgundy region of France also age well. Leutwiler suggests Remoissenet Pere & Fils Clos de la Roche Grand Cru ($275) and Pacalet Echezeaux Grand Cru ($289).

Moueix Petrus Pomerol

Moueix Petrus Pomerol

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

 The most expensive wine at Imbibe, Moueix Petrus Pomerol ($1,699 for a 750-milliliter bottle), is from the Bordeaux region of France.

Other high-end Bordeaux wines that age well are the 2006 Chateau Haut-Brion Rouge Pessac Leognan ($1,150) and 2006 Chateau Pavie St. Emilion Grand Cru ($550). For a less expensive Bordeaux, Richards suggests Chateau Sociando-Mallet ($45).

"Ports from Portugal age magnificently," Leutwiler adds. "They can age 100 years, and really reward patience." He says Cockburn's Vintage Port 2000 is one of the best. His other recommendations include Taylor Fladgate 40 Year Old Tawny and Graham's 40 Year Old Tawny Port.

From Portugal's Madeira region, Blandy's Malmsey Colheita 1996 ($60) is also a good choice, he says. Italy's Tuscany region also produces some age-worthy wines, such as the 2011 Campi di Fonterenza Brunello di Montalcino ($100).

For a fine chianti, Leutwiler recommends the 2011 Ruffino Riserva Ducale Oro ($39.99).

Wines from Spain's Rioja region, such as the 2011 Bodegas Muga Rioja Reserva ($27), are a great value and age well, he says.

Syrahs can also age well, especially those from the northern Rhone Valley, says Leutwiler. Try the 2012 Domaine Belle Crozes-Hermitage Cuvée Louis Belle ($40), or Domaine de Fenouillet Ventoux Rouge ($16) for a bargain blend of grenache and syrah. He also recommends the 2012 Shafer Relentless ($110) for a good blend of syrah and petite sirah from Napa Valley in California.

As for what's in her own collection, Richards says she loves Italian wines, but recently she's been drinking a lot of wines from France's Rhone region, such as Chateau de Beaucastel ($85), a blend of 13 grapes that can age for a long time. She also loves Washington wines, with those from Walla Walla's Cayuse Vineyards among her favorites.

Reds aren't the only wines that age well. Chateau Rieussec is a Sauternes, a sweet white dessert wine from the Bordeaux region that will stand the test of time. "When aged, it becomes like nectar," Leutwiler says.

Is it time?

How can you tell if a wine you've been saving is ready to drink — or if it's past its prime? This is one area where experience really comes in handy, says Leutwiler. Ask your retailer how long to lay the wine down, and add a "Do not open till" label based on their recommendation. (This is also helpful for those looking to preserve their collections when their wine-thirsty, 20-something children come in town for the holidays.)¬†Aside from following expert guidance, the best way to tell if a wine is at its prime, or past it, is to taste it. Once you've opened the first bottle in a case, take notes on how it tastes. Experienced drinkers can tell when a wine has hit its plateau — and when it's fallen over the edge — by looking back at their notes of how it's changed over time. Another way to tell if a wine has gone bad is to check the ullage, the unfilled air space at the top of a bottle of wine. As wine ages, naturally some will evaporate, but if there's too much of an air space, it's an indication wine's seeped out because it's gotten too hot, he says.