Wine 101: How to Collect Fine Wines Like a Pro

Phil Dunn, Contributing Writer

One of eBay’s wine sellers discusses building a collection the right way.

Frank Hartland of Cult Wines International spends roughly $25,000 to $30,000 every time he goes on a wine auction or purchasing outing. He’s a pro, he does brisk business reselling his wine on eBay to other collectors, and he’s got way more information at his fingertips than the average wine aficionado.

But what do you do if you love fine wines, and you want to hunt down some bargains of your own?

Hartland has some tips:

Don’t Get Burned by Heat and Poor Transport

For starters, Hartland emphasizes the need to understand how the wine you want to buy has been stored. “I’d hate to give someone advice about a particular wine, then they go out and buy some badly stored wine that’s worthless,” explained Hartland.

It can easily happen. Wine has to maintain proper storage away from light, heat and other environmental factors that affect the quality of its look, smell, taste and longevity. So, as a buyer, you need to be absolutely sure the wine was cellared properly up until the time you buy it at a retail location or when it ships. Shipping is also critical. A great wine that ships in sub-par packaging in the middle of the hot summer can quickly go bad. You need to have confidence in the way it’s shipped and when.

These factors are especially important when considering the purchase of high-priced, sought after wines that command premium prices. We’re talking old wines from stellar vintages.

A Better Way - Focus on Known Vintages from Recent Years

Vintage selection is critical, according to Hartland. French Bordeaux from 2009-2010 is almost always going to be good. The years 2012, 2013 and 2014 from California are excellent.

And, you don’t always have to buy these vintages from the most high-profile, snobby-label producers. Hartland explains: “I recently went to a restaurant in Sarasota with a bunch of friends and ordered an off-brand 2009 Bordeaux magnum for $99. That’s a great price for a magnum, and a 2009 would be highly unlikely to disappoint. Even though it wasn’t a known producer, it didn’t matter. The wine was incredible because the vintage was so great. The off brands in good vintages are often as good as the great brands in bad vintages!”

Even though Hartland and his party drank that Bordeaux, it’s an even better collection strategy to buy these vintages by the case and hold them. “Keep buying a little wine over time like this,” explained Hartland, “and before long you’ll have a great collection.”

Hartland recommends collecting tannic, recent vintage Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Shiraz and Merlot (Merlots from Pomerol, specifically). “Get them early, and hold on to them,” he said. “If you’re collecting, you don’t need to buy the old vintage, high-priced wines like I do. I spend a lot of time looking for wines that are stored well and hold up. If you need something for a special occasion that you want to drink now, however, I can help.”

He recommends staying away from white wines, except for some Chardonnays and Champagnes that are age-worthy.

Where to Find Deals and How to Look Beyond the Hype?

One good way to hunt down good wine deals - even on older, known vintages that go for high dollar - is to pay attention to restaurant wine lists.

“There are always good deals to be had,” said Hartland. “Sometimes restaurants have bottles below retail value, and a lot of times they’ll let you leave with them unopened.”

“Don’t be afraid to negotiate the price down,” he said.

Small wine retailers are another target. A particular bottle may have been sitting on their shelf or in their cellar for five years or more, and they’ll be willing to cut a deal.

“One time I saw six bottles of Opus One for $180 each at this wine shop in the middle of nowhere,” said Hartland. “No one within miles of that place would be putting down that kind of money. They were well stored, so I offered them $150 a bottle for all six. They gladly sold them to me.”

Another strategy is to wait out the current vintage hype. Let’s say the 2014 vintage is releasing soon, and the wineries are in full hype mode. They’re making all kinds of elaborate excuses about how great the wines are and how excited they are about the new release.

“They’ll say it’s the greatest year ever, perfect weather conditions and all that, even if it’s not true,” said Hartland. At that particular point in time, it’s wise to look back a couple of years and purchase those wines. The 2011 and 2012 versions of that varietal are probably available at a discount. “The hype from the new wines will tend to overshadow the recent older ones,” he said.

Great tips. Meanwhile, don’t miss our previous post on how to approach buying great wines for the holidays on eBay.