Wine Spectator Magazine, June 15, 2007
A Life of Wine Lessons
Businessman Tom Black`s Cellar-Building Strategy Stresses Classics By Peter D. Meltzer
Tom Black has a spectular 20,000-bottle wine cellar (with an additional 9,000 bottles on consignment to Alto, an upscale Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence-winning Italian restaurant in New York), but you`ll never hear him boasting about it. He firmly believes that collectors should appreciate the scope of what they have and not try to impress guests with trophy bottles all the time.
"I probably have 100 vintages of Chateau Latour," he says, "but I don`t feel compelled to brag about it. I`m happy drinking Chateaus Haut-Bailly, Batailley and Grand-Puy-Lacoste. Wine is an art form, and I enjoy learning what the winemaker-as-artist has accomplished."
Black, a 48-year-old Nashville, Tenn, businessman (his company, Bancsource, sells and repairs ATMs nation-wide), began collecting in a methodical yet somewhat unorthodox manner soon after he graduated college. "It was 1986 and I had just landed my first job. One day, my boss asked, 'Do you know anything about wine?' I said no. He explained that I was expected to do a lot of business entertaining and would have to learn the ropes of a wine list." So Black gave himself a crash course in wine.
Initially, he focused on California "because the French labels were a bit intimidating." He was living in San Francisco at the time and made regular excursions to Napa Valley, tasting wines from established producers such as Sterling, Beringer and Ridge, many of which he would ultimately lay down for his personal use. "I started with California, and I would start with California again. You have a platform there to build on. I think everybody should experience labels like Caymus, Shafer Hillside Select, Montelena and Stags Leap to establish a baseline."
Cult wines are another matter. Black says he still buys them, but is not a true fan. He feels that Harlan is doing the best job in the category, but with vintages such as the 1994 now priced at more than $1,000 a bottle, they are beyond most people`s reach. "I`ve done several tastings of the cults. In my opinion, most are not developing well. I also feel that if a neophyte sampled young vintages that haven`t had the benefit of age, he`d get the mistaken impression that this is what wine is supposed to taste like-which would leave the rest of the world`s great wines tasting a little hollow."
Black always enjoyed wines from Bordeaux, but he didn`t start collecting them seriously until the early 1990s. May-Eliance de Lencquesaing ( then owner of Chateau Pichon-Longueville-Lalande ) came to Nashville, where Black by then resided, and he attended a tasting of older Bordeaux. "It was an epiphany. We sampled vintage classics like 1959, 1982, and 1985, and I remember thinking,'This is really different from what I have been drinking. This is great.'"
To bolster his stash, Black began buying at auction. At Butterfields, he acquired what remained of the late actor George Burns` exemplary celllar, including treasures like Chateau La Mission-Haut-Brion 1961. He is regular at Manhattan`s major commercial wine auctions, bidding either in person or by phone. Then as now, Black tries to taste examples of his prospective purchases or to seek out advice from trusted palates before placing a bid. "If I`m going to spend $1,000 (for me that`s the threshold) on a bottle of wine, I`ll ask the auction specialist for a very detailed background report. They will tell you, but you often have to ask. Most people don`t."
Black says fellow collectors have the mistaken impression that he doesn`t like Burgundies. "I love Burgundies," he says, " but don`t like them as much as Bordeaux. I have a lot of great Burgundy from top producers like Rouget and Roumier. When Henri Jayer died last year, I opened his Vonse-Romanee Les Beaux Monts 1985. That`s probably a $2,000 wine that we drank casually around the kitchen counter in memory of the man."
Looking back on his collecting strategy, Black says he would still want to acquire the great wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy, although probably not as many of them. His collection now takes up three cellars on his Nashvile property, all maintained at 53 degrees F and 70 percent to 85 percent humidity. "They are strictly utilitarian - not show pieces," he insists.
If he had it to do over, would he have chosen a different strategy? "If I were starting out again," Black says, "I'd determine a budget and decide what I want to drink. And stick to it. My approach was to proceed wine region by wine region. I didn`t stray into another area until I felt I'd mastered the previous one. I`ve just now begun to explore Spain in depth."
Black tracks his collection with a simple spreadsheet, and every bottle is tagged. His major regret is that in his largest cellar, the wines are stored double deep - a system he would never employ again, because it`s easy to lose track of what you have.
Black finds the rise in hammer prices at auction over the past couple years troubling. "Every collector must realize that to enjoy a collection you must deplete it. Yet given today`s going rates, I`m sometimes reluctant to go down to the cellar and uncork one of those bottles. It`s so funny to me, because I didn`t think that would ever happen." To counteract any reticence about enjoying his stash, Black says now and then he`ll spontaneously open something very special, such as a Quinta do Noval Nacional 1931 (a vintage Port which has a market value of $5,640 per bottle, according to the Wine Spectator Auction Index).
Black is a firm believer in thinning out a collection when it becomes unwieldy. But things don`t always work according to plan. Recemtly, he consigned an array of large format bottles to a Zachys evening auction of fine and rare wine. He sold the equivalent of five cases, but ended up buying 30 cases more.
Now, that`s a collector.