The difference between collecting and obsessing

People like to collect things. I’ve never really figured out why
that is, but I’m sure that somewhere a dedicated team of behavioral
scientists is doggedly studying the phenomenon.
People like to collect things. I’ve never really figured out why that is, but I’m sure that somewhere a dedicated team of behavioral scientists is doggedly studying the phenomenon.

For instance, my wife Melanie likes to say that she is the victim of an Elvis collection. Years ago, on a lark she went to Graceland with a friend. Not being a huge fan of The King, for her it was more of an adventure in tackiness than a pilgrimage.

After that trip, everyone she knew began giving Melanie Elvis memorabilia, the more tasteless the better. She now has several boxes full of the stuff. For a while, I displayed as much as was possible in a small bathroom I liked to call “The King’s Throne Room.”

Everyone has a collection of something, I suppose. For a while, I was into hats. Got some pretty cool ones, too, including a fireman’s helmet from Compton.

Some collect stamps, others cars; some like salt and pepper shakers, some amass as many souvenir spoons as possible. Go figure. And some of the things that people collect become quite valuable. Like, for instance, wine.

Edward Roberts International is an auction house dedicated to “Fine and Rare Wine, Vintage Motorcycles and Bicycles, Best and Bespoke Shotguns/Antique Firearms, Fine and Rare Watches, and Musical Instruments.” Founded in 2001, ERI currently holds auctions in Chicago and San Francisco.

A peek around their Web site reveals a definite inclination toward wine. Not much of the other stuff they specialize in is evident (what’s a “Bespoke Shotgun,” anyway?).

And this is some pricey wine, folks – there aren’t too many people who collect vintage Thunderbird, Night Train or Charles Shaw, for example.

A news item concerning the auction held by ERI on May 21 reveals that some truly astounding dollar figures were shelled out for the wines sold there. On the block were several bottles from Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, considered by some wine experts to be the greatest and most famous estate in Burgundy.

A new bottle of the 2002 vintage costs almost 300 bucks. When the gavel came down, ERI had sold 6 bottles of 1975 Romanee-Conti for $10,925 and 8 bottles of 1981 for $19,550. According to my ($1.99) calculator, that’s $1,820.83 and $2,443.75 per bottle, respectively. But that was a bargain compared to the $11,615 paid for a single Magnum of 1950 Chateau Petrus and the Double Magnum of 1971 Romanee-Conti that fetched $7,475.

In the world of well-heeled collectors, that’s probably not that much money, really. I suppose that an Anna Nicole Smith, a Donald Trump or a Paris Hilton wouldn’t really think twice about plunking down more than 10 grand for a bottle of fermented grape juice that they’re not even going to taste. Then again, it’s questionable whether any of that trio has any taste. But wine collecting on that level just smacks of hedonism in the worst sense of the word.

Collections of useful, beautiful or culturally significant things – no matter how pricey – just seem to make more sense: after all, you can drive a 1926 Hispano-Suiza (not that you would, at least in the rain) or shoot (I assume) a Bespoke Shotgun and an original Matisse or Van Gogh can mesmerize a viewer for hours on end.

And to own a signature, handwritten document or personal item owned by a significant historical figure must be a thrill indeed. But owning a bottle of wine that is never going to be opened and enjoyed? That just seems silly.

For that matter, what guarantee is there that the red liquid under that mildewed, yellowed label hasn’t turned to very expensive vinegar? Or that, for all the hoopla, it’s not even as good as an affordable 2002 Pietra Santa or Guglielmo? Wouldn’t that be a bummer?

One day, a wealthy wine collector decides to show off for some pals by opening a Jeroboam of his prized, high-dollar 1955 Chateau Le Toejam and it tastes just like plain old $1.49-a-quart Safeway Select Red Wine Vinegar. Oops.

So at what point does collecting wine (or collecting anything, for that matter) cease being a harmless hobby, leapfrog over being a passion and turn into an all-consuming obsession?

Well, my feeling is that you’re in trouble if there’s any wine in your cellar that you never, ever intend to drink, if you’re holding it for the sole purpose of being able to tell people that you have a rare bottle of ’54 Chateau de Folderol and you’re unwilling to pop the cork, you might just have crossed the line. Into Elvis territory.

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