Jeff Smith is the Chief Wine Officer of Vino Vault, a rapidly growing wine storage network with seven locations across California, Colorado, Texas, and New York. Smith is well-known in the trade as an expert in wine inventory, wine auctions, and cellar management. At Vino Vault, he strategically manages client assets. He offers re-balancing services to ensure each portfolio is optimized to meet client needs and intent, whether it is an investment, selling via auction or to a private buyer, or for personal enjoyment.
Recently we asked Smith questions about wine collecting and about cellar management.
What’s your advice for a collector who isn’t sure whether to build his own cellar or use professional storage? What are the pros and cons?
I’m in the “professional storage” business, but if you own your home and can afford it, a home wine cellar is optimal. I love having the wine close to me, and just looking at the labels is a source of pride and joy. I don’t have the right space to build a cellar in my current home, so I have a small wine refrigerator for the next 50 bottles of red wine that I want to drink and another refrigerator drawer in the kitchen that holds about 30 bottles of white and champagne. I pull a case at a time from my storage as needed.
Do people often change their minds over a few years about why and what they collect and then want to go in a new direction?
Wine is a voyage of endless discovery. There is a natural progression for many people, almost a story arc of how their tastes evolve over time. Most people begin modestly, buying what they know. Most of the time, that road begins with domestic varietals, moving on to Cabernets as they have more disposable income and more interest in growing a “collection.” From there, it’s over to Europe – Rhone, Bordeaux, Italy. The fully evolved person drinks Burgundy and Champagne. And then, as people age, they lose some taste buds – and go back to the beginning.
Do you ever have a group of friends who want to build a collection together? Any thoughts about that?
It’s fun buying wine together, but I’ve never given any serious consideration to a “communist” kind of collection because the bottles in a collection are like ridges on a fingerprint; they help to tell the story of who you are. It’s so personal. There’s nothing more subjective than your own tastes.
Is there any rule of thumb about how much you should spend on storage per value of the collection, whether in the basement or a storage facility?
I don’t know that there are any rules, but the way I see it is that wine is an asset, a tangible, liquid asset that’s traded in a vibrant marketplace. If you value your investment in the wine, you should take the appropriate steps and spend what’s necessary to maintain it properly. At our company, Vino Vault, we offer full-service wine storage to collectors who don’t want to break their backs doing the dirty work at a locker – and it’s a statistical certainty that the bottle you’re looking for is always in the box on the bottom, in the back. I like to think that this kind of quality service doesn’t cost; it pays.
What kind of visitation rights do customers have in your storage facilities? Can they bring clients or an auction house to examine the collection?
If customers want to bring someone with them during normal business hours, it’s okay with us. My role as Chief Wine Officer has a lot to do with advising clients on sales at auction and otherwise, and our consulting comes with no obligation and no additional cost to the client.
Jamie Richie of Sotheby’s once told me that there are three dreaded D’s of why a collection is sold – Debt, Divorce, and Death. Anything to add to that?
Some people look at their inventory on the one hand and their actuarial tables on the other and realize that they couldn’t drink what they’ve got in 10 lifetimes. The reality is that as some people get older, they entertain less or simply don’t drink as much for one reason or another. And for others, their tastes change, and they realize they have a collection that doesn’t match up with what they really enjoy drinking today. Time to refocus. Still others just want to cash in their chips.
Finally, a story – Tell me about the worst cellar disaster for a collector that you’ve been forced to deal with?
I have a client who built a perfectly circular wine cellar under the front door of his house with a spiral staircase leading down into it. He spared no expense in the construction: industrial concrete, tons of rebar, framed, insulated, vapor-barriered, dry-walled, plastered, and painted a burnt orange. Custom bottle racks floor to ceiling lined the rotunda with recessed lighting and floor tiles imported from Italy. It was spectacular. But when the gardener broke the water main, he realized he’d built a swimming pool, and bottles were floating waist high!
We took a SWAT team and got his 2500 bottles boxed up and out of there – in one day – and into short-term storage while they fought with the insurance company and made the repairs. This is the argument for storage service – when the bad thing happens, when the compressor unit drips water behind the racks and causes mold, or ruins the floors, or dies out and starts blowing out hot air or there’s smoke damage in the house from a kitchen fire, you need to move quickly with professionals who know how to handle wine.