Wine: Concealing the true extent of one's buying habit.

May 23 2003 11:21 AM

Grape Deceptions

Why most wine collectors are also compulsive liars.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

One of the wine world's dirty little secrets is the apparently vast number of wine lovers who harbor dirty little secrets. The amount of time and money wine collecting consumes can be hell on a relationship. Determined not to see their hobby cause friction at home, many oenophiles keep the peace not by limiting their buying (an impossibility), but by going to enormous lengths to conceal it. To get the vino, sometimes you have to sacrifice the veritas.

Presumably, most serial sneaks would prefer to be honest about their profligacy, but coming clean is simply not feasible—not when their spouses insist on treating wine like a mere beverage and believe that spending hundreds of dollars a month on fermented grape juice is irresponsible and asinine, possibly even immoral. This is the regrettable attitude many wine buffs confront.

Making matters worse, the partner not besotted with wine is often the one in charge of household finances. (Stockpiling huge quantities of wine requires a certain impracticality and insouciance, attributes that do not readily lend themselves to mundane tasks like balancing a checkbook.) This is a problem. Prices for Bordeaux, Burgundies, Rhones, Napa Valley cabernets, and other blue-chip wines have soared in the last decade as more Americans and, to a lesser extent, Asians, have become serious oenophiles.

At the same time, the market has been saturated with stellar vintages. The Southern Rhone in 1998. The Northern Rhone in '99. Bordeaux in 2000. Germany in 2001 … and on and on. (Only now is this glut, combined with the sour economy, beginning to weigh on prices; expect some steals in the months ahead.) There is just no end to the must-haves these days. For all but the most affluent buyers, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain a respectable cellar and placate their parsimonious spouses. Something has to give, and it is their significant others who are doing the giving. They just don't know it.

Hiding the extent of one's habit can take a variety of forms, off-balance-sheet transactions being the most common. These are usually done in cash, but many wine nuts establish separate credit card accounts and have the bills sent either to the office or to a postal box. But paying for the wine is one thing; smuggling it into the house is another. Some don't even try, opting instead to rent space in wine warehouses. Others take delivery at the workplace and keep the bottles there until it is safe to sneak them home and into the basement.

To get a sense of how prevalent these shenanigans are, I rang a friend—let's call him Johnny—who owns a popular Manhattan wine shop. He agreed to cough up some stories, but only if I wouldn't print his name (and discretion is exactly what you want in an enabler). "Lying is rampant," he told me, "I see it all the time." He spoke of one regular who comes in several nights a week and inevitably walks out with two bottles: an inexpensive, quotidian wine and a gem. The former is paid for with plastic and goes into a store bag; the latter he buys with cash and buries in his briefcase, presumably to be squirreled away somewhere later that evening.

With some clients, Johnny takes an active role in the deception. In fact, he recently helped pull off one of the great snookerings of his career: A customer who frequently makes purchases behind his wife's back came into the store, spouse in tow; with just a few signaling winks and nods, Johnny and his client managed to execute a costly sale while keeping the wife completely in the dark.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

Another retailer shared with me his most cherished tale of deception. He had a client with deep pockets and a passion for Burgundies (a passion that requires deep pockets). According to the merchant, this customer never purchased a wine under $100 a bottle. To mask his extravagant buying, he obtained a debit card and began storing wine in an empty office down the hall. Over five years he accumulated some 300 cases, all of which he stashed in the spare office. (There are 12 bottles in a case; if every bottle was $100, the total works out to $360,000. Given that many of the wines were far costlier, the price tag was probably well above $500,000.) The long-running ruse came to an abrupt end when his wife paid a visit to the office and opened the wrong door. For some time thereafter, the marriage was evidently on the rocks. However, the couple eventually worked out their differences—so successfully, in fact, that she was next seen helping him organize his wines.

Not all wine-hiding tales end so happily. Jeff Zacharia, owner of Zachy's, the great wine emporium in Scarsdale, N.Y., told me of one former customer (former because he isn't allowed to buy wine anymore) who amassed a collection worth around $20,000 without his wife's knowledge. She eventually found him out, and Zacharia's client was given a choice: Sell the wine or see me in court. He sold.

There is, of course, a common thread here: It is men—husbands, usually—who are doing the lying. When it comes to wine collecting and concealing, there is indeed a gender gap. Preferring to open bottles, not cans of worms, I won't speculate as to why this is so, and in any case, the gap seems to be narrowing. At a recent dinner, I found myself discussing cellar strategies with a female executive from Los Angeles who ruefully admitted that because her husband is a penny-pinching beer drinker, she does her buying on the sly. I was of two minds about her. I was glad to learn that wine is capable of driving women to deceit, but I was also glad she wasn't my wife. As far as I'm concerned, there's only room in a relationship for one wine cheat.

As you may have suspected, I do have some experience in these matters. Wine has caused pain in my marriage. My wife, an editor at a food and wine magazine, has more than a passing interest in chardonnays and Vouvrays, but for her, wine is not an obsession. She thinks of wine collecting chiefly in terms of opportunity cost, while I think of it chiefly in terms of opportunity lost—if I don't buy a particular bottle, I might come to regret it. (That said, I've got a very modest cellar—150 bottles, give or take 200.) As a result, we have endured our share of long evenings and near-divorce experiences on account of credit card charges and receipts I neglected to burn.

Our most recent wine spat was two years ago, when I was hit with an unexpected $300 excess-baggage fee for several cases I was carrying back from France. On the flight home, I finally decided to put myself on a budget. (It is a modified budget, in that only wines meant for cellaring count against it; wines for immediate consumption are paid for out of my wallet.) I have done a fairly good job of adhering to my self-imposed limits. Since my son's birth in 2001, most of my purchases have revolved around his needs. To mark his 10th birthday, for instance, he'll need something better than a Bud Light, so I recently preordered a bottle of 2001 Haut-Brion, the least expensive of the Bordeaux First Growths but also the best (the wine hasn't reached stores yet; it is now being sold on a pre-arrival basis).

And obviously, he'll have to go to college; I can no longer count on the stock market to fund his education, so, as a form of insurance, I am now accumulating wines that are likely to have significant resale value. Will I resell them? Not a chance, but it is good to have the option and useful, too, to have a more convincing explanation for any displeasing items on the Amex bill. Actually, wine can be a stellar investment: The 1982 Chateau Petrus, to give just one example, has delivered substantially higher returns than the S&P 500 over the past two decades. Among spendthrift oenophiles, pointing out wine's investment potential is a popular means of deflecting irate spouses. It's much better than the lesser-evil argument (marital infidelity being the most frequently cited alternative) because not only does it not sound defensive; it sounds downright prudent. In a bear market, who can dispute the need for appreciating liquid assets?

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