Melissa L. Smith
Dream Cellars: Joel Weiss of Napa
Updated: May 13, 2020
In this series, we will get a behind the scenes look into some of the top wine collections and wine cellars in existence.
Collector: Joel Weiss
Currently Joel is enjoying the life of a very active retired person with lots of photography (weddings, engagements, family, winery, events, and travel photography), biking, cooking, and traveling.
Previously, Joel (aka "Dr Disk") was President of IDEMA, the computer disk drive industry trade association, and had 34 years of data storage industry experience. Joel has held senior management positions at both start-ups and Fortune 500 companies. Joel began his career at IBM in San Jose in 1974 where he was one of the key players in technology development for the company’s recording disks. As a co-founder of Domain Technology in the 1980’s, he oversaw a number of advanced technology programs that enabled the world’s first 2 1/2 inch disk drive – one of the key enablers for notebook computers.
Joel also spent two years with Corning where he helped develop their glass disk substrate technology, spent six years with Akashic Memories, where he directed all product R&D, technology, and business development, and then served as VP of Engineering for Recording Disk Technology and Product Development at Seagate Technology where he oversaw the development of perpendicular recording to advance storage densities.
Joel earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Engineering Management at Boston University and his Masters and Ph.D. degrees in Materials Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.
Currently lives in Napa, CA in the Oak Knoll AVA with his wife, Jennlea Weiss on an eight acre home and vineyard.
Interesting thing about Joel: As above since his days at IBM he was known as “Dr Disk” which was also his car license plate. When he retired to Napa, people wanted to know if he was a Chiropractor; he changed his license plate which now reads “Dr Wino”. Local Police and CHP know that license plate so he is VERY careful about drinking and not driving!
Number of Bottles:
~2500 including all sizes from 375 ml to 12 liters.
Number of Cellars:
One is enough!
What have you been eating and pairing from your wine cellar since Sheltering in Place?
I love to cook so cooking every night has been and continues to be fun! Some of my specialties include Sous Vide Beef (tenderloins and steaks), Lamb Crown Roasts, Grilled Swordfish, Seared Ahi Tuna, Pastas, Chinese and Japanese dinners (with Sake of course), and Chicken every ‘which-way’! I love to bake as well and have become ‘famous’ among my friends for my desserts (from Chocolates, to Chocolate Cakes, Lemon Meringue Pies, Lemon Bars, Fresh Fruit Pavlovas, Tiramisu, Napoleons, Eclairs, Peach Pies, etc. Each dish requires a different wine from the cellar – but most of our pairings are with red wines from around the world. Occasionally we’ll enjoy a Sauvignon Blanc – love Merry Edwards!
Have the natural disasters (fires, earthquakes, and now the pandemic) effected how you consume wine both in purchasing and drinking?
The “bigger the disaster, the greater has been our consumption”! In a typical year (with social activities we use about 300 bottles. Recently, with the pandemic, it’s closer to a rate of ~365 bottles per year. Luckily, our home is in the middle of our vineyard which is surrounded on all sides by other vineyards. Vineyards have been proven to be great fire breaks so we feel very lucky! We did self-evacuate in 2017 due to the smoke that forced us out for about a week.
For the big 7.0 Napa Earthquake in 2014, we were not so lucky! We were really close to the epicenter and lost a lot of glass ware and art – Virtually all our wine glasses were destroyed but we only lost about 7 bottles that were standing up as display bottles - not in our redwood racks that held up perfectly.
When did you get into wine collecting?
My wine ‘epiphany’ was in 1970 while in graduate school. I went to a local wine shop near campus in Troy, NY and didn’t know anything about wine so the owner gave me some lessons and tastes of older Burgundies and Rhone Valley wines like Châteauneuf-du-Pape; I was in love with wine from that day forward and immediately started collecting wines! But I didn’t get really serious about collecting until I moved to Fremont and built a two-story wine cellar on to our home in 1997. The first thing you want to do with a wine cellar is to fill it up – so I still have many mid-1990 wines still in my current larger cellar in Napa. Most are still terrific.
What was your first purchase?
1955 – 1959 French Burgundies – 3 bottles for $10 in the 1970s.
How have your tastes changed?
When I moved to California and married Jennlea, who is a California girl, she asked why I was drinking so many French wines when I was living in California? I liked the softness (low tannins) in French wines but began to try California wines. I migrated to Napa Cabernet Sauvignons and its blends pretty quickly. One day a friend who loves Pinot Noir introduced me to some great Pinots from California, and now I must say we’ve changed our tastes and have added Pinot Noir to our repertoire; we still enjoy Cabernet Blends and Southern Rhone wines.
How do you store your wine (home cellar, wine refrigerators, off site)? Has that changed?
In the 1970s through the early 1990s I stored wine in the crawl spaces under our houses. The bottles got moldy and the labels were coming off! “Yikes – what is that bottle?” That’s when we added the 2-story wine cellar onto our Fremont home. When we were designing our retirement home in Napa, the two-story idea stuck and we developed a three-story tower onto our new home design. The first two floors of that tower are refrigerated and humidity controlled (57 degrees and 70% humidity). The third floor opens to a deck with panoramic vineyard views where we can taste wine, listen to birds singing, and enjoy sunsets. (Both cellars were built by Thomas Warner Wine Cellars.)
What are your most prized bottles?
That’s a difficult question because we buy wine based upon a tasting experience. Each bottle has a story; each bottle brings back a memory; it’s a combination of the memory and tasting delight that makes for a lot of ‘prized’ bottles! I still have two remaining bottles from that little wine shop in Troy, NY that I paid $3.33 each – though they are way over the hill, the memories are wonderful! Other bottles that ‘pull on my heart strings’ are those from Chateau Troplong Mondot, a Premier Grand Cru Classe from St. Emilion where, on the day of my 50th birthday, Christine Valette cooked a wonderful lunch for my wife and I along with a private tour guide from Bordeaux. I had to pinch myself to believe this was happening! She was a wonderful woman who was not only a great winery owner, wonderful chef, fabulous Mom and wife, but very caring person whose life ended much too soon due to cancer. Having a glass of Troplong Mondot will forever tug at my heartstrings but also to provide joy! This is my best wine memory.
Where do you source most of your bottles?
Today, we almost only purchase directly from wineries we know and visit to be sure of their storage conditions.
What is the purpose of you collecting wine (investment vs personal enjoyment)?
While I have bought and sold many bottles of wine via auctions and have donated many to charities, it’s primarily for personal enjoyment with friends and family!
How, and how often do you enjoy wines from your collection?
I never go to the cellar to “choose” a bottle of wine, rather, I keep a really good inventory on a dedicated computer backed up to the cloud and choose based upon the occasion and food for pairing. During these days of Sheltering-in-Place, this is an almost daily task. Previously we had wine about 4 to 5 times a week and would bring wine to restaurants (and sometimes even on vacations depending where we were traveling).
Did your parents collect wine?
No, even though they liked it.
Do your children collect wine?
Yes, our daughter and son-in-law love wine and have a large wine refrigerator in their house.
Did you help them start their collection?
Of course, we have given our daughter many bottles over the years and of course she will inherit anything that’s left after we’re gone. My plan obviously is to drink the last bottle on my death bed!
How do you track your inventory?
I have a dedicated computer and use a large Excel spreadsheet that I diligently manage. It is organized by Varietal, Vintage, Name, Physical Location in the cellar (wine tower), Scores (Robert Parker, Wine Spectator, Steve Tanzer, etc.), price I paid, and any comments (e.g. “bad”/“corked”, “missing”?, “great”, etc., “given to me by xxx”). Once I determine which bottle I want, I go to its physical location and take it out of inventory and place it in the “Consumed” section. I have tracked every bottle consumed as well since the new cellar was built in 1997. It’s a BIG spreadsheet!
Do you belong to any wine clubs?
We used to belong to many, but today just a few, hard to get wines.
Is your collection insured?
Only via our Home Owner’s Policy.
Do you have any wine collecting horror stories?
Well, several learning experiences; I once purchased Bordeaux First Growth “Futures” from an English company and never received the wine. After literally years of writing and calling, I learned they were out of business. BUT, the same guy who sold us the wine showed up again in a newsletter asking me if I’d like to purchase futures. Frustrated, I wrote back and asked him why would I ever buy from him and told him my horror story. He was perplexed that I didn’t receive my wine and he shipped me the two cases, no shipping charge! However, I haven’t bought futures again.
What do you plan on doing with your collection?
If we don’t drink it all, it’ll go to my daughter and son-in-law along with our home and vineyard.
Do you belong to any tasting groups? What bottles do people bring?
We did belong to a tasting group for a number of years but have since dropped out due to our travel plans (missed too many). The tasting group was set up so that we could only bring the designated variety and designated vintage, so it was pretty narrowly defined by the host.
Do you bring wines to restaurants or do you order off of their list?
If the restaurant allows it, we’ll bring wine – for two reasons, I have a lot of older wines which I prefer, and it’s more cost effective to bring one and pay the corkage.
What type of stemware do you use at home?
Do you gift (or regift) wine from your collection?
Yes, quite often.
Have you ever had to move your collection? How did you do it?
Yes, the move from Fremont to Napa was a challenge (3300 bottles at the time) – I had to get boxes from local wine shops and pack them all ourselves since house moving companies would not do it (liability issue). A friend with a van helped and we transferred them to Napa.
How do you stay on top of your collection as far as knowing what to drink when, and not waiting too long, or opening them before their time?
I read a lot about wine in magazines and on-line but rely a lot on wine-searcher.com to suggest drinking windows. I know my collection well and know what vintages are age-worthy and which are going away. I’m sometimes surprised by how well a wine has stayed youthful while others are “over the hill” from the same vineyard area, same year, just different winemaker and fruit.
Do you save OWC/OTP?
I actually have saved many wood boxes – particularly for large format bottles but I have too many so I’m in the process of giving them away to people who wish to use them to decorate their house (cabinet tops, etc.) with wine stuff. I keep the OTP even on significant bottles in my racks and on all bottles that I keep in their OWC.
Any favorite wine education tools?
Wine-searcher.com, Wine Spectator Magazine (of which the wine tower was featured in 2009), RobertParker.com, books (Jancis Robinson) and other periodicals (Food & Wine Magazine).
What are your bucket list wine regions to visit?
Oregon & Washington State wine regions – never have been but love their Pinots.
What are your favorite wine regions that you've visited?
France: Bordeaux, Cognac, Burgundy, Reims (Champagne), Southern Rhone
Germany: Mosel, Rhine Valley.
Italy : Piedmont, Barollo, Seralunga d’Alba, Montalcino, Tuscany, Chianti,
Spain: Rioja, Priorat.
Portugal: Porto & Duoro Valley, Alentejo.
US: Santa Rita Hills, Sonoma, Napa (of course), Alexander and Anderson
Valleys, Paso Robles.
Croatia: Peljesac (Dalmatian Red Wine), Porec, Brac, Zadar.