Image: 123RF/ iriana88w
Image: 123RF/ iriana88w

Dreaming of being a wine collector with a killer cellar but don’t know how to turn your fantasy into reality? I understand. The whole prospect of assembling the wines can be a shopping hassle requiring time-consuming research and way too many picky decisions. But you’re in luck.

In June, Sotheby’s began offering an answer to this dilemma in New York and Hong Kong with its “instant cellars.”

Between answering emails, you can simply click on your iPhone or computer, and within 24 hours, one of four wine collections curated by Sotheby’s experts arrives at your home. Cost? $5,000 to $25,000. Bottom line: This is the easiest, fastest way to satisfy your collector craving, spend a big bonus, celebrate making partner, or give a lavish present.

The idea is part of the international auction house’s goal to be a full-service, integrated wine business, explains Jamie Ritchie, Sotheby’s worldwide head of wine.

First came its brightly lit retail store and online wine business in Manhattan, opened in 2010 in a space right off the auction house’s lobby. Four years later, Sotheby’s added one in Hong Kong. “The obvious next step was the collection management and advisory service we launched in June,” says Ritchie. “We put in the time, and the clients do the enjoyable part.”

In tandem with those services, the retail shop unveiled instant cellars. “We realized there was a need,” says Julia Gilbert, vice president and senior wine adviser. 

She cites the customer who’d asked the shop to put together a starter cellar for a college graduation present. Another client, who was moving to the West Coast for a six-month project, wanted a basic cellar of bottles shipped to his temporary apartment so he could entertain easily while there. 

Of course, before you click make your purchase, you need to figure out where you’re going to store your instant stash and how to keep track of the 50 to 168 bottles. They need a cool, humid environment, ideally at 55F with 75% humidity.  (Fingerprint security and chilled elevators, optional.) Sotheby’s is already on the case, working on a storage facility partnership, and since buying an instant cellar includes a consultation with a member of the advisory team, you can ask about the best temperature-controlled units. They’re also developing an inventory management system that buyers of cellars can use.

Breaking It Down

So how do these instant cellars stack up? Are they worth it?

Mostly yes. People usually start collecting by squirreling away a random bottle or case at a time and end up with a hodgepodge.

Sotheby’s four cellar options in New York (two in Hong Kong) are starter collections with different goals, from exploring and learning to investment. The wines are mostly ready-to-drink classic Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne from excellent vintages. “They provide a range of styles, regions, and price points and are suitable for a variety of occasions,” says Gilbert. (If you’re a fan of Napa Valley cabs or Italian barolo, though, you’re better off working with one of Sotheby’s advisers to create something more bespoke.)

People usually advise budding collectors to buy wines they like and tailor their collecting to how they entertain. Newbies may not have the tasting experience to answer those questions—or know whether a label or vintage is a good value. So there’s a comfort factor in an expert selection and provenance for where the bottles are sourced.

And the cellar advisory service means you have a way to expand the collection as you learn; an adviser will even help you buy at auction.

For complete newbies, the $5,000 introductory cellar is ideal. It offers two bottles each of 25 wines costing about $115 a bottle and an interesting spread of names, not just the most obvious ones. Among the Bordeaux are a 2006 La Conseillante, a 1995 Chateau Haut-Bailly, and a 2005 Chateau Langoa-Barton. The surprise is a 2013 Ulysses, a superb new California cabernet made by Pomerol star Christian Moueix.

But my pick for the best value cellar is the $10,000 intermediate option, with 72 bottles at an average cost of $150. It includes 36 labels, some duplicates of those in first level. The plus here is more whites (stellar ones) as well as higher-quality Burgundies. Highlights: a 2008 Roederer Brut Champagne, a gorgeous 2014 Bonneau du Martray Corton-Charlemagne, and the great 2005 Vieux Chateau Certan, now worth $250 a bottle. The surprise? The brilliant 2013 G. Mascarello Barolo Monprivato.

The third level, billed as the enjoyment cellar, costs $25,000, with 168 bottles, 3 each of 56 wines. The selection of white Burgundies is like a self-guided seminar on the region’s styles, while the reds include 13 excellent Bordeaux from vintages ranging from 2000 to 2010.

The $25,000 investment cellar comes with 90 bottles, 6 each of 15 carefully chosen red Bordeaux and Burgundies from top vintages, priced at about $300 per bottle. The recently re-released 2009 Forts de Latour, for example, has been rising in price for the past six months.

Surprisingly, no other merchant seems to be offering one-click instant cellars, not even top British merchants such as Berry Bros &  Rudd (BBR) and BI Wines (formerly called Bordeaux Index), noted for their bespoke client services.

BBR private fine wine account manager Simon Herriot says paying a flat fee for a “prefab” cellar is possible but that most customers are more interested in working with an adviser to create a very personal collection, often through BBR’s cellar plan, in which you pay £100 ($128) and up monthly into an account to purchase wines. After two years of paying in £250 a month, for example, you’d have about 84 bottles worth £6,000.

BI Wines’ version of an instant cellar was structured for their “citizens of the world” clients, who have three or more homes around the globe, but it’s not a core collection. They agree on about 60 bottles of ready-to-drink wine, and BI delivers the bottles to whichever house they’re planning to inhabit next—U.S. wines for a New York home, more Champagne and rosé for Cap Ferret, and so on. The cost of shipping is built in, and the average per bottle price is about $300, which allows BI Wines to slip in the occasional Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (!).

But Sotheby’s recognizes we’re in a new fast-moving, instant-gratification world, even for wine. So if you want the one-click buying option, its Instant Cellars are the instant gratification. (Cue clinking glasses.)

- Bloomberg


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