Many of us collect unintentionally, as our inventory of wines accumulates faster than we consume it. Some of us intend to build a collection. Either way, we need to plan, and we need to work towards a goal.
Your wine goal might be only to buy wines today that will be perfect for drinking in a few years' time. The inherent disappearance of fine wines from the market over time makes this a commendable plan. And likely future price increases for a given vintage of a given fine wine also make this form of collecting very smart. Just don't buy more than you will need, unless you are pretty certain you can sell any excess on acceptable terms.
Another worthy collecting goal may be that you want some great wines that you can take to restaurants. Even when paying a $15 or even a $30 corkage fee, you can save a lot of money in a year's time by taking your own bottles to the dining establishment. Until restaurants cease the offensive practice of marking up their wines 200% to 300% from retail (and this is particularly offensive, because they buy at wholesale, as I do), we all need to rebel by taking our own wines, and telling the staff why we are doing so. Also, in a bid to reduce cost, many restaurants no longer maintain enormous wine cellars that were so much more common decades ago, and as a result most of the wines offered by eateries today are very young, sometimes so young that they should not even be consumed. (A tip: Some places ask that you not bring something that they have on their winelist, so you can bring a couple of wines that you think are fairly obscure, and that way you can bring one out that you see is not on the winelist.)
Another goal worthy of small-scale collecting is the purchase of fine wines for some future event, such as a 25th or 50th anniversary, or a child's 21st birthday. In almost every year, there is a vintage wine somewhere that is worth holding onto for years. And if you decide 21 years from now to buy a great 2009 wine, you will pay through the nose. So collecting those now can be a very astute move.
Finally, you might be as crazy as I am, and think that you can make money someday by collecting fine wines over a long period. Here are some some tips, borne from painful experience:
1. Some wines are just not very collectible. For example, few if any Oregon Pinots will realize higher prices at auction down the road. Even most of the better California cabs are in that category, too. These wines should be bought only for drinking or as gifts, so don't buy more than you need for those purposes.
2. However, the CA "cult" cabs do very well at auction--Screaming Eagle costs about $750 per bottle if you are on the mailing list, and it auctions for $1200 and up, immediately; after some aging, it might sell for $2500.
3. And the great Bordeaux wines (first and second growths, from great years) have generally proved to be good investments. After all, once the 2005's were bottled, there will never be any more of them made, and over the years they will be drunk off, making the survivors more and more rare and valuable. Those Chinese and Indians who are reaching the middle and upper classes are now buying fine wines, which is making them more rare and expensive. If that trend continues, you will be glad to have some wines in your cellar that you bought when prices were lower. The dollar's continuing decline in the face of our giant deficits also augurs well for purchasing now, rather than in the future, when prices for imported goods will be much, much higher.
But sometimes a year is initially seen as good, but later is re-cast as a more-average year. So, this is not a riskless enterprise.
To sell collectible wines, you must either find a private buyer, or pay a substantial commission to an auction house. Your bottles need to be in good condition (good fill into the neck, or if the wine is very old, high shoulder is acceptable; label in good condition, cork not pushed out). Some firms will buy your wines but offer such an abysmal deal that it makes you sorry to contact them: Brentwood Wines is a local firm that holds online wine auctions; they say they offer 75% or so of recent auction prices, but I have received many quotes from them which indicate this number is more like 50-60%, which means you are likely giving up all your profit, and more, if you sell to them.
To collect, make sure that you are choosing wines that will improve in bottle long enough that they will still be good when you, or your children, or your grandchildren (I'm not joking) sell them someday. Although certain Bordeaux and cult cabs qualify, so also do the better vintage ports and madeiras, which can last a long, long time with good storage. And some sparkling wines are well worth aging.
You also will need an adequate storage space. Without it, wines held for more than year or two will plummet in value and drinkability. Many people convert a closet or a part of a room or a crawlspace to a wine cellar. This may require only some insulation and a vapor barrier, with some interior-finished surfaces, or you might need to put in a cooling system (many models, in different sizes, are available, and are fairly easy to install). Wine wants darkness, stable air (no sudden temp changes) in the range of 55-65 degrees F, and humidity in the range of 60-75% (any lower, and the wine will evaporate past the cork too quickly, lowering the fill level and the wine's value, and any higher, and the cork and label may get moldy and the label can come off). Or, you can rent wine storage space, where temp and humidity are controlled, and access is secure.
I provide wine cellar and wine collection consulting services, and I can sell you most wines at a small markup from wholesale prices. If you are a good purchase customer, I'll gladly come check out your cellar or possible cellar space for no charge on the first visit. (And if you want to put in a small vineyard, I have one and can help with that, too.) Give me a call or email!
Kenton Erwin Consulting