By Eric Barton
City & Shore Magazine
Charlie Arturaola was having six people over to his house in Miami Beach a few months back when he reached into his wine cellar for something special. Some would call it a trophy wine, a vintage you might have been trying years to find. Arturaola, a long-time judge in South Florida’s annual American Fine Wine Invitational Competition, had been holding on to that bottle of Opus One since it was new in 1987.
Wine experts had described the California red as well-balanced and full of flavors of black cherry, plumb, tobacco and vanilla. Find it in a store today – not an easy task, considering the near-cult following for Opus One – and it would cost you hundreds, maybe even thousands, of dollars.
“The six people at that table, we’re still talking about drinking that wine,” says Arturaola, a sommelier in residence at Lynn University.
Imagine, a decade or more from now, doing the same for yourself. Keeping a few trophy bottles in the back of your cellar for special occasions isn’t difficult – as long as you know exactly what you’re buying.
To figure that out, we sought advice from a few of the judges at the recent AFWI competition, held for the past 10 years in South Florida to find the best wines produced in the country. We asked them – for this Luxury Issue – about how to splurge on a wine, whether you’re spending $30 or a few grand.
It turns out – regardless the price – the rules are essentially the same, they say. In short, it’s not an easy purchase – much can ride on the vintage year, and how well the wine holds up over time. But, taking a few precautions could mean you’ll be drinking something very special, whether this weekend or a few years from now.
Before binging on a bottle, first consider how you’re planning to use it, says Virginia Philip, a master sommelier who owns a wine shop and academy in West Palm Beach bearing her name and also serves as wine director at The Breakers. If you’re splurging on a special occasion wine, it ought to have matured already, she recommends, say a decade old on a good vintage year. Go with something you know and like, varietals that are already common in your decanter.
Begin by inspecting the bottle before buying it. Over time, the amount of wine will decrease naturally, but you want to make sure it’s not down too low. If there’s a cap, it ought to spin and it shouldn’t be sticky – all signs the bottle might have leaked. Ask a lot of questions about how the wine has been kept over the years, preferably at the right temperature and in low humidity. “If you’re buying a really expensive bottle,” Philip says, “make sure you know exactly how it was stored, not just when you went to buy it but since it was bottled.”
If your special bottle is something you’re planning to hold onto for a while, you should know that only about 5 percent of wines are meant to be aged – and most everything else simply won’t improve with time. Philip recommends going for a recent vintage Burgundy or Bordeaux, or a wine from what’s known as a blue-chip winery, meaning a well-established company that has consistently produced quality wine. Or seek out the vintners with a cult following, like Screaming Eagle or the Bryant Family Vineyard.
Don’t think you can just wing this purchase by walking into a wine store and asking a couple questions, Arturaola warns. There are plenty of online wine guides about which bottles from recent years can be stored. Or reference the winners from the American Fine Wine Invitational (see the complete list of winners on cityandshore.com), a veritable shopping list for anyone looking for something special, Arturaola says. The winning bottles offer a range of prices, from $35 to $225 splurges.
Like most people, Arturaola says he’s typically a “$20 or under wine guy.” But every once in a while, he goes to the back of his wine cellar for something special, something that cost him a bundle or has been back there for years, just waiting for a special night.
“Nothing,” he says, “makes a party more memorable than a really special bottle.”
IF YOU GO
American Fine Wine Invitational Competition Gala
More than 800 wines from this year’s competition judged in South Florida will be poured April 29 at the AFWI Charity Wine Gala, accompanied by a “wine-centric” feast, winery-tasting rooms hosted by the winemakers, auctions, music and more. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Dolphins Cancer Challenge.
Tickets cost $300. 6:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m. at the Design Center of the Americas (DCOTA), 1855 Griffin Road, Dania Beach, 561-504-0206, americanfinewinecompetition.org.