My Passion for Wine
The frank Tennessee businessman talks Howard G. Goldberg through his advice for Barack Obama, and his 20,000-bottle cellar
Tom Black, 49, owner of around 1,000 bottles of Champagne, made a whirlwind visit to New York in February to attend a fellow collector’s Champagne tasting. I asked: ‘If you could have just one bubbly for life, what would it be?’ A quick reply: ‘1979 Salon Le Mesnil or 1979 Cristal.’ Is there a US sparkler he likes? Quicker: ‘No.’
Direct, quietly intense, informal, Black can be wry. Why did he become a collector? ‘Women have large wardrobes and lots of shoes so they can pick and choose what they want to wear. I wanted to pick and choose what to drink.’ The Boxcar Millionaire, Black’s self-published book, evokes Horatio Alger novels that inspired 19th-century youths to strive for rags-to-riches lives. Born in a small Kansas town, he first lived with his family in a railroad boxcar split into two bedrooms and a living space; the bathroom was outside. During an early life of deprivation and struggle that generated self-reliance, he vowed to escape into wealth. Today, his 20,000-bottle cellar – mostly at his home in Nashville, Tennessee – testifies to his success, achieved through artful salesmanship and ownerships in businesses, among them banking services.
Aside from 5,000 bottles each of Bordeaux and Burgundy, Black has 3,000 from Italy, 2,000 from the Rhône, 3,000 from America and 1,000 from Alsace. ‘I love steely, dry Alsace Rieslings,’ he says. ‘I love Hugel. They may be France’s best winemakers. I like Zind-Humbrecht, Trimbach, Kreydenweiss. Alsace Pinot Blanc is amazing.’ Black, divorced, drinks wine six days a week, but ‘never during a workday lunch’. What’s the downside of being an aficionado? ‘You bore people: A wine question turns into a drink from a fire hose. You spend a lot of money. You can’t find good wine in many restaurants.’
His immersion began when his first boss asked him to learn about wine to entertain bankers. He began collecting in 1986. His first wine book? ‘Michael Broadbent’s Wine Tasting.’ Best tastings? ‘60 vintages of Haut-Brion with (winemaker) Jean-Bernard Delmas and Serena Sutcliffe MW (head of Sotheby’s international wine department); 63 vintages of Pétrus with Serena and (her husband) Bordeaux expert David Peppercorn MW; 67 vintages of Pichon-Lalande with (owner) May-Eliane de Lencquesaing and Serena; 43 Rousseau Burgundies with Jim Clendenen (owner/winemaker at Au Bon Climat) and (Burgundy expert) Clive Coates MW; tasting every vintage of Stag’s Leap Cask 23 with (winemaker) Warren Winiarski.’ It’s fair to say Black moves in the right circles.
Blue chips aside, Black’s wine interests are global. Asked for his standout lower-cost bottles, he reels off a list. Bordeaux: Château de Pez, Ormes de Pez, Bellegrave, Chasse-Spleen, Phélan-Ségur, Belair. From Burgundy: ‘Bourgogne Rouge from great or good producers; whites from great producers in Mâcon like Lafon’. Elsewhere in France: Château Jolys in Jurançon. Germany: JJ Prüm. Washington: Chateau Ste Michelle, Bonair, Hogue. Chile: Concha y Toro, La Playa. New Zealand: Greystone, Pegasus Bay, Muddy Water. California’s Central Coast: Au Bon Climat and Talley Pinot Noir, Qupé and Alban Syrah. Australian sweet wine: Campbells. Canada: Inniskillin.
Black buys and sells at auction, only in America, mainly through Sothebys and Zachys. Any disappointments? ‘I bought lots of Opus One and Diamond Creek. They never came around. I sold them all.’ His hesitations? ‘I don’t feel confident when I buy German wines. I don’t know how dry they’ll be.’ Except for Sancerre, he’s ‘ambivalent’ about the Loire. The most promising New World country? South Africa. He thinks the 100- point scoring system is a 15-point system because only 85–100 points have market clout. He rates wines using the 20-point scale, for comparison’s sake, in group tastings; casually, he mostly desists.
Black has recommended wines to Al Gore, Bill Clinton’s vice-president. So, amid the recent debate, if he were the White House wine adviser, what would he suggest? ‘100% American. The whole gamut: wines from Virginia, Texas, Missouri.’ Warming to the political theme, he decries America’s interstate shipping laws as crazy. ‘We scream free trade to the world but don’t allow it. I’d let people buy direct from the winery and have it shipped home.’ And his thoughts on wine and health? ‘The benefits are enormous. But who really drinks for health?’
Decanter magazine, May 2009