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IMG_7381People often ask me how I became a wine collector. The short answer: I bought a house with a basement. It had a bunch of built-in shelving units, and wine seemed like a good thing to put on them. I had already been a casual wine drinker, but not someone who ever had more than one or two bottles on hand at any given moment.

It’s rather easy to start collecting wine. (It’s a lot harder to stop!) When you go to the store to buy a bottle for dinner, buy five instead of one. It doesn’t have to be five of the same bottle. In fact, it’s more fun if it’s not. You really get a feel for what you like and what’s good by trying a variety of wines.

At the time I started seriously drinking wine, I was living in Pittsburgh. Pennsylvania has a strict state monopoly on the sale of wine and spirits. You can only buy them in stores run by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB). (Or directly from a winery. But trust me, you don’t want to drink Pennsylvania-made wine.)

One of the biggest disadvantages to this system is that you are limited to what the state of Pennsylvania thinks you should be drinking. My friend Erik told me that he couldn’t find a single Vinho Verde after my post about it last year. That’s appalling.

The upside, however, is that the state buys in such large quantities, it can negotiate steep discounts. The PLCB has what it calls the Chairman’s Selection program. Walk into any wine store in Pennsylvania and the front end will be chock-a-block with discounted wines. The wine stores are often conveniently located next door to Giant Eagle, Pittsburgh’s largest grocery store chain, so I would just go to the wine store every week when I was grocery shopping and pick up a few bottles on sale.

Sometimes I would rely on the wine notes displayed with the wines to decide which ones to buy. Sometimes I would randomly choose wines based on the labels. And sometimes I would go in armed with a list. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette‘s wine critic would only review wines that were available through the PLCB, and he would helpfully include the product code in the reviews, making it rather easy to track things down.

Not long after I started collecting, my mom and I joined a casual (now defunct) wine club called the Wine Brats. They would get together once a month at a local restaurant or museum and drink wine. A modest admission fee covered the cost of the wine and snacks. It gave us a chance to try interesting wines and meet other wine-minded people (some of whom I’m still friends with!). What was really nice about it was that it wasn’t stuffy or snooty – it was basically just a cocktail party that only served wines. No prior knowledge of wines or wine regions was required.

I also picked up an interesting book at Williams Sonoma called The Wine Guide. As far as I can tell, Williams-Sonoma doesn’t still produce and sell the book, but you can find older editions online at places like Amazon.com.

IMG_7599I read my book cover-to-cover, studying it and creating a multi-page outline. I learned grape names, region names, tips and tricks, food pairings, etc. I taught myself which grapes could be found in which varietals. For example, Chianti isn’t a grape; it’s a region. The grape that is used to make Chianti is Sangiovese. Beaujolais is a similar situation. The grape is Gamay; the region is Beaujolais. Some countries, like Italy, have dozens of native grapes. Unless you want to become an expert in a particular country, it’s best to just focus on the most common grapes and regions. You could study wine your whole life and not know everything there is to know. But if you want to learn a little bit about all kinds of wine, an overview book is a good place to start.

Because I have an inherent love of cataloging and organizing, I started taking notes on all the wine I bought. I hadn’t yet started making my own tasting notes, but I would record when I bought a bottle and how much I paid. (Where I bought it was irrelevant – I bought everything at the state wine store.) I also removed the labels from bottles that I especially liked and started a notebook, a practice I continue to this day, over a decade later.

I started collecting in 2003, and by the time I left Pittsburgh four years later to go to law school in North Carolina, I had a collection of about 90 bottles. The wine, of course, went with me to law school. I figured 90 bottles was just enough to survive three long years of hell. And it probably would have worked out fairly well, but I kept buying wine right through law school. It helped that North Carolina doesn’t have strict limits on where wine can be sold. My love affair with Total Wine began during law school. I wasn’t buying expensive wine, and not in the quantities I had been buying it before law school, but enough so that I still had about 30 bottles of wine when graduation rolled around.

Considering that my boyfriend (now husband) and I were about to move across the country, we made a serious dent in our collection by having our lucky friends over for fancy wine nights. We managed to move with only about a case worth of wine in our car. That was in 2010.

Just some of our honeymoon purchases.

Just some of our honeymoon purchases.

Five years and another cross-country move later, we currently have 270 bottles of wine on hand. How did that happen? Winery visits. Lots of winery visits. And joining wine clubs. We receive 24 bottles a year between the two wine clubs we belong to. And one of them, Geyser Peak, always has fantastic deals at Christmastime, so we invariably end up buying 12 bottles then. And I’m on the mailing list for Beaulieu Vineyards. They often email coupons and specials. We probably buy about a case of wine each year from them.

Then there was our honeymoon to wine country in Champagne and Burgundy. Five and a half cases right there. And wine.com has a discount arm called Wine Shopper. Usually you have to spend $99 to get free shipping on Wine Shopper orders, but if you join wine.com’s Steward Ship club, for $49/year, you get free shipping at both sites with no minimums. Considering how much wine we buy, and how expensive it can be to ship wine, the membership fee pays for itself almost immediately. Of course, it also encourages me to buy more wine!


Our off-site wine storage.

You might well wonder where I keep all this wine. We live in a very small apartment in DC, so I keep only about 50 bottles in the apartment at any given time. (I know … “only”!) The rest are stored in my in-laws’ cellar. They live almost two hours away, so it’s not like I have ready access to my wine; but whenever we visit, I investigate the cellar and decide what I might want to bring back to the apartment to have handy. (I also generally have a dozen bottles or so to add to the cellar.)

An underground cellar is the best place to store wine because the humidity is usually on the high end, the temperature is usually on the cool end, and there generally aren’t dramatic fluctuations in temperature – perfect wine-storage conditions. My husband found some storage racks on Craigslist for a ridiculously low price. He stained and sealed them, and now we have a great wine rack.

Make no mistake, collecting wine can be an expensive hobby. But if you always buy on sale, and if you can get free shipping when you’re buying long-distance, you can definitely have fun and build a collection without spending a fortune.

Here are my top ten tips to get you started:

1) Set aside a space for your wine where it is relatively cool and dark, and where the wine won’t constantly have to be jostled. Storing wine in the kitchen or near any heat-generating appliances is not a good idea. Don’t store it in a place that will get sunlight.
2) Keep notes on what you like, that way you can buy it again if you want to. Also, you can tell a wine merchant what you like, and they can make other suggestions for new things to try.
3) Ask your friends for suggestions.
4) Join a wine club.
5) Go to a wine bar. They have a lot of options available by the glass. But take notes so you remember later what you had.
6) Buy a book about wine. A general one, not one that focuses solely on a specific region.
7) Subscribe to a wine magazine like Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, or even Food & Wine. Just be prepared to not be able to find the specific wines they are talking about.
8) Check the website of your local newspaper to see if they have a wine column.
9) Get on the email mailing list for your local wine shop. Or even a non-local wine shop. The PCLB has a newsletter, but if you order wine, you have to pick it up at the PLCB store or ship it to a Pennsylvania address. The wine store here in DC where I used to work has a very informative newsletter, with columns written by the former Washington Post wine critic. They’ll ship your wine to you (if your state allows such things).
10) Read my other posts about wine. You can find them tagged with the category “Wine.”

The best way to learn about wine is to drink it and read about it. And it’s easy to get started with collecting. You just need the space and the budget to do it!