Wine Buying Secrets from Concierges and Rare Bottle Specialists

Wine magnifying glass illustration
Illustration by Amber Day

The weirdest place Walker Strangis ever found a collection of vintage wines was the cellar of a farmhouse about two hours outside Minneapolis.

“It belonged to an older guy who lived alone, didn’t have any family and had been collecting wine for 30 years,” he says. “Cases of primarily Bordeaux and Burgundy. Most had never been opened.” The collection sold for around $400,000.

It was all in a day’s work for the founder and president of Walker Wine Company, a business that tracks down “back vintages” of sought-after labels like Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Champagne. He’s part of a growing niche industry in liquor: experts who find rare bottles for customers willing to pay big bucks for them.

Chris Hoel’s company, Harper’s Club, has a similar model. After working as a sommelier at the legendary French Laundry restaurant and in high-end wine retail, Hoel started his company in 2016.

The business is named for Col. Edwin Harper, Hoel’s grandfather, a World War II Marine Corps pilot and member of the ragtag Black Sheep Squadron dramatized in a 1970s TV show. Harper’s Club bills itself as a “wine advisory firm” that helps wine lovers and investors build collections and acquire hard-to-find bottles.

“We sell a lot of really special wine,” says Hoel. “The lower end for us is below $200, and our average bottle price is over $700.”

Whether you have three or six figures to spend, these bottle-hunting experts can share some useful advice for those seeking extra-special wine.

Say you’re looking for a bottle from a specific year for a special anniversary or birthday. It can be hard to figure out which regions and wineries made good vintages that year. Maybe you were born in a good year for Bordeaux but a bad one for Champagne! For such a quandary, Hoel likes to visit The Wine Cellar Insider, where you can search by year or region to find information on a wide variety of older wines.

“You can’t just throw a dart,” he says. “You need somebody to guide you and help you out.”

The older the vintage, the harder it’s going to be to find a bottle. So it’s a good idea to expand your search.

“I would first start with what you already know you like, and try to expand upon that,” says Hoel. “If you like unoaked Chardonnay from California, look at Chablis and examples from New Zealand, but also Albariño.”

Some years are just bad, though. “[The 1951 vintage] is known as just an awful year all over the world, for example,” says Strangis. (Deepest apologies to everybody who turns 70 next year.)

At some point in searching for vintage bottles, an aspiring buyer will come across Wine-Searcher.com. It’s a searchable database of wines for sale by retailers around the world. It comes recommended, but with extreme caution.

“Wine Searcher will tell you if a wine’s available anywhere in the world,” says Emily Wines, a master sommelier and vice president of wine and beverage experience for Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurants. “But a lot of things can happen to wine that won’t be visible,”

Cooper’s Hawk makes its own wines with grapes from around the world for its 41 restaurant locations. However, the reserve list at the new Cooper’s Hawk Esquire in Chicago has more than 1,500 vintage bottles.

When looking at a vintage bottle, one red flag is any seepage or stickiness around the capsule and cork.

“That means the wine got hot at some point,” says Wines. “I say walk away.”

But, on the other hand, a beat-up or mildewed label is fine. “It’s actually not a bad thing,” she says. “Humidity is good for wine.”

And you can always try going direct to the source.

“For some of the wineries, especially in the U.S., you can ask if they have any ‘library wines,’ ” says Wines. Those are the magic words to find out about older vintages that might not appear on public price lists. “They won’t be cheap, but you can definitely find [specific bottles] that way.”

Whether you buy from your local shop or online, never buy a vintage bottle without asking some questions.

“On old wines, don’t ever buy by price,” says Hoel. “They should be considered against each other on provenance, not price. Call the store, follow up, go in if you can. Ask how they got it, how it’s been stored.

“I’d never buy a $1,000 bottle of wine without at least a photo.”

One option many wine lovers overlook is auctions.

“They’re all free and open to the public,” says Julia Gilbert, vice president and senior wine advisor for the Sotheby’s Wine auction house. “Wine auctions differ from other categories. Often, we serve food and wine, and encourage people to bring wines of their own.

‘Only buy from reputable people’ should go without saying, but most of the auction houses have already done most of the legwork for you. There should be a writeup in the catalog about the consignor, the conditions of storage, where the wine came from, etc. Use that.”

How to Buy and Sell Rare Wine at Auction

Wines suggests checking out wine auctions as well, not just to buy wine but also to find wine friends.

“Auctions are full of people who are very interested in wine, and that kind of brings some camaraderie to the table,” says Wines. “It can be intimidating because there’s so much going on—people bidding live, on the phone, on the computer. Do your research, figure out what you want and compare notes with other people.

“But be careful not to get caught up in the heat of the auction, and know when to walk away.”

A safe way to choose a decent vintage wine is to look for Port and Madeira.

“Most houses will bottle something every single year,” says Wines. Because such fortified wines have a higher alcohol content, they resist oxidation and keep better over decades in storage.

“You can usually find old Port, and it’s usually in pretty good shape,” she says.

As spirits like Japanese whiskies and “collectable” Bourbons become more popular, that rare and vintage market has taken off, too.

“You’ll see more and more spirits mixed in at a traditional wine auction,” says Gilbert. “Sotheby’s had our first live dedicated spirits auction last October in London. It’s seeing a huge boom throughout the marketplace, and we’re seeing a massive expansion in that arm.”

Spirits aren’t a huge part of Harper’s Club’s business yet, but Hoel is paying attention.

“It’s a different animal,” says Hoel. “Some people are willing to spend $3,000 on a bottle of Bourbon, but won’t spend $100 on wine, or vice versa. Personally, I’ve started collecting Japanese whisky because I’ve seen prices on stuff we used to be able to get easily double or triple in the last few years. It’s like how Pappy Van Winkle was a decade ago.”

To track down that special bottle might be a difficult and expensive proposition, but for a wine lover, it can also be its own reward.

“The vintage wine world is full of some interesting characters, some interesting people,” says Strangis. “Anybody who really deeply knows [their field]—I don’t care if you’re talking about watches, or fine art, or wine, or anything—it’s really inspiring.”

Published on March 19, 2020
Topics: Wine and Ratings