A Start-Up Collection for New Wine Collectors

“Wine makes every meal an occasion, every table more elegant, every day more civilized.” – Andre Simon, Commonsense of Wine

My friends E and B love wine, as K and I do, and whenever we travel together (which is at least once a year) we drink lots of it. B is the wine selector in her family. I do the job in mine. E has been happy letting her make the selections over the years, but recently he redid his house and installed a large and impressive wine room. He needs to fill up the racks and turned to me for some advice.

I reminded him that I am a complete amateur when it comes to wine – that I’ve never taken a course and that everything I know about it has come from reading books and developing personal preferences by drinking it.

“You know a lot more than I do,” he told me. “And, let’s face it, I’m not going to read a book. So just give me a list of wine to buy and I’ll do it.”

I agreed to create that list – and when I did, I thought I might be able to help you develop your own “billionaire” wine cellar too. So, over the next few weeks in ETR, I’ll be giving you some specific recommendations – along with some of the basic information about wine that I’ve picked up over the past 35 years.

Meanwhile, let’s start with this…

Wine Appreciation Made Easy: Thinking in Categories

I read articles about wine for years without remembering much. Then I read a book by Hugh Johnson (I believe it was an early edition of his Pocket Encyclopedia of Wine) that simplified this very complicated subject and made it easier for me to understand everything I read thereafter.

Broadly speaking, there are five categories of wines:

  • Red (made from red grapes)
  • White (usually made from white grapes but can be made from red grapes too)
  • Pink (otherwise known as Rose; made from red grapes)
  • Sparkling (with the bubbles usually developing naturally as a result of the fermentation process)
  • Fortified (meaning the alcohol content is artificially heightened; can be especially sweet)

I like the European tradition of matching certain wines with certain foods (although it’s become fashionable in America to ignore it). The general rule is that lighter wines go with lighter foods (light whites with fish) and heavier wines go with heavier foods (Cabernets and Zinfandels with steak and stews). Rose is meant to be what it is: an in-between wine. American oenophiles turn up their noses at Rose, but Europeans are happy to drink a pink wine with lunch or a light meal.

Sparkling wines are good with appetizers and desserts but can also be enjoyed throughout the meal, particularly during warm weather. If you like sparkling wines, you can keep a good number of them in your collection. If you are not a big fan, keep just a few bottles for special occasions.

I seldom drink fortified wines, though I do like a sweet white with pate and, occasionally, a Port after dinner. A beginning collection probably doesn’t need more than two or three of these wines.

Assuming you are open to appreciating all five categories, a beginning collection of, say, 100 bottles might have the following components:

  • Red Wines: 45 bottles
  • White Wines: 35 bottles
  • Pink Wines: 5 bottles
  • Sparkling Wines: 10 bottles
  • Fortified Wines: 5 bottles

Breaking this down further, you could divide the whites and reds into three categories each: light, medium, and full-bodied.

  • Light Reds: 10 bottles
  • Medium Reds: 15 bottles
  • Heavy Reds: 20 bottles
  • Light Whites: 10 bottles
  • Aromatic Whites: 15 bottles
  • Heavy Whites: 10 bottles

If you can’t find the specific recommendations for each category that I’ll be giving you in ETR, don’t worry. They are just suggestions. What’s important is to stick to the overall categories and learn the characteristics of wines from certain countries and regions and those made from certain varieties of grapes.

As you learn more about wine, start checking out publications such as Wine Spectator. The magazine is available at most bookstores, and has a vast online archive of wine reviews and insightful articles. And you might want to pick up at least one comprehensive book on the subject. One I use is Exploring Wine by Steven Kolpan, Brian Smith, and Michael Weiss.

It is also useful to get to know a local wine merchant. Find someone who is truly knowledgeable and passionate about wine. You don’t have to look for a fancy place full of expensive vintages. Here in South Florida, one of the best wine selections and most-well-versed staff are at a chain liquor store.

The most important part of putting together your wine collection is to enjoy it. I love walking into my cellar and picking out the perfect bottle of wine to accompany the delicious meal K has made. If you don’t feel the same way, forget wine and take up a collection of something else that gives you great pleasure.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]