On a recent Thursday evening, a group of wine aficionados huddled around an antique wooden bar in a chilly Southeast Portland basement. The venue for this odd gathering was Portland Wine Storage, where oenophiles keep their treasures in super-secure, temperature- and humidity-controlled lockers.Occasionally, co-owners Joe Padulo and Tom Harvey throw gatherings for their clients, pull bottles from their collections, dust them off, pop them open and see how they’re aging. The customers provide the drinks; Harvey and Padulo, professionally trained chefs, provide the food.
“It’s rare that you get around that many people with a common interest in wine,” says Tim Johnson, a company president who stores his 1,500-bottle collection at the facility. “To listen to people talk about their experiences with wine was fun. And to share common problems like, ‘My gosh, how did I get all this wine?”
It is indeed a common problem for Portland’s top wine collectors, whose insatiable thirst for the finest Burgundies and Bordeaux impels them to amass wine at auction and on journeys to France even when their cellars are bursting at the seams. These ardent acquisitors tend to be a secretive lot, meeting in obscure places to discuss their passion and commiserate about their common quandary: too much wine, too little time.
“We use about 1,000 bottles a year between entertaining and gifts and our own personal use,” says John Ritchie, a money manager who estimates he and his wife, Marilyn, have about 8,000 bottles in their collection. “And in that context, 8,000 bottles doesn’t look quite so bad. Problem is, we’re drinking as fast as we can, and the cellar keeps getting bigger, not smaller.”
WHO THEY ARE AND WHAT THEY’RE BUYING
As one might expect, Portland’s greatest wine collections can be found in the cellars of lawyers, doctors, business titans and captains of industry. “About 80 percent of our customers are men, of an age range, on average, of 35 to 55. That’s the bulk of the high-end wine market,” says David Parker, owner of Brentwood Wine Company, an Internet wine-auction house based in West Linn.
Paul A. de Boni, grand commander emeritus of the exclusive wine-appreciating society Oregon Wine Brotherhood, estimates that of the 144 members in his organization, two-thirds are men, and their ages range between 40 and 70. But, says de Boni, more and more couples are joining his organization. And as more and more women work in the wine industry, a female contingent of collectors is growing.
At present, no Portland woman’s collection rivals that of Diane Rawlinson, who began buying high-end burgundies back in the 1960s, when she was a soloist with the Ice Capades. “When we got married in 1980, my husband thought he would be concerned with my clothing expenditures, but he was majorly appalled when he found out how big my wine cellar was,” Rawlinson laughs. “I had about 1,400 bottles.”
Rawlinson’s tastes run the gamut of reds. She has a soft spot for Spanish wines, particularly from Vega-Sicilia, and lists her ’52 Mugas among her most prized possessions. But her collection also includes high-end Burgundies and Bordeaux, single-vineyard Rhones, boutique Italian labels and much more.
Rawlinson’s collection is typical for Portland in its sophistication and breadth.
“I think Oregon in general has a very educated wine consumer. Per capita consumption in Oregon is very high in relation to the United States,” says Mike Zupan, owner of Zupan’s grocery stores and himself an avid wine collector.
“People in Portland are very willing to try wines from anywhere,” adds Jeremy Karp, co-owner of Vigne, the Pearl District wine bar known for its obscure and high-end offerings.
John von Schlegell, co-chair of this year’s Classic Wines Auction, estimates there are “two or three dozen” truly notable private wine collections in the Portland area. And he wouldn’t call any of them snobs. “A lot of them have gotten knowledgeable enough that the goal is to have value as well as famous labels. Back in New York, they’re way more label-conscious than Oregon collectors tend to be.”
Many of the collectors contacted for this article either declined to be interviewed or requested that personal details be kept to a minimum. For these people of privilege, theft is a constant concern. “I’m told there’s a black market in stolen rare wines,” one collector told me. Those who rent space at Portland Wine Storage cite security as one of its main assets.
And even if they feel their wine is secure, collectors don’t want the wider world to know they can fund this expensive habit. David Parker of Brentwood Wine Co. says each of his local customers easily spends “several thousand dollars a year” at his Internet auction house alone.
Collectors like to entertain each other in the privacy of their homes, where they offer tours of their personal wine cellars. Still, you may have seen them out on the town. They command top tables at the best restaurants, where they open their own wines rather than ordering from the list. And they attend the monthly sold-out tastings at Vigne, which are limited to 10 customers and have included such rarities as a vertical of Cristal dating back to 1959.
To see them all in one room, you’d have to cough up $250 for a ticket to the Classic Wines Auction, a Portland benefit held for Metropolitan Family Services each March. This year, the fifth-largest charity wine auction in the United States raised more than $1.2 million and included lots such as a 1961 Petrus that sold for $6,000.
The other places collectors convene are off-limits to the general public. For example, the Oregon Wine Brotherhood, which admits only 10 new members a year, gathers as a group just twice annually, according to de Boni (himself the owner of a 3,500-bottle collection deep with Oregon pinots dating back to the 1970s).
Even more exclusive is A Night To Remember, held annually at Silver Falls State Park. Steve DeShaw, the Silverton resident who organizes this secretive gathering, sends out invitations four to six months in advance and sells out within three days. Only the first 16 wine aficionados to respond may attend the retreat, which centers on a nine-hour, nine-course meal matched with astronomically expensive wines from the guests’ cellars. The theme of this year’s Night to Remember, held last Saturday, was rare magnums.
“We don’t ever tell who comes to these, and we don’t discuss what we drink. Usually they’re wines that rate no less than 95 on a 100-point scale,” DeShaw says. However, he does let slip that past highlights have included a perfectly preserved Lafite-Rothschild, vintage 1900, and a Madeira dating back to the 1800s. We can only wonder whose treasures these were.
BY KATHERINE COLE, SPECIAL TO THE OREGONIAN
Katherine Cole: 1320 S.W. Broadway, Portland, OR 97201
Katherine Cole writes on the wine industry twice a month, alternating with Matt Kramer’s critical picks wine column, Kramer on Wine.