Melissa L. Smith
Dream Cellars: Eric LeVine of Cellar Tracker
Updated: Aug 3, 2020
Collector: Eric LeVine
Date: July 2020
Number of Bottles: 9942 have been entered into inventory since 2003; currently there are 2896 bottles in inventory and 43 pending delivery
Number of Cellars: 1 that is 2 adjacent rooms
Designer: Apex did the racks, the cooling units are active half the year, and passive the rest. The cellar maintains 65% humidity.
If you collect wine, you undoubtedly have heard of Cellar Tracker and are likely using it to track your inventory, and if not, you should. In 2003, at the time of its inception, Eric was on a eight week sabbatical as a Product Manager for Microsoft. Cellar Tracker was originally supposed to be something that he could use to track his own inventory, and once he showed it to a couple of friends, they convinced him to turn it into something that they, and others, could use. Seventeen years later, there are almost 680 thousand users, and the number is growing by the day.
When I caught up with Eric, he was working on a bar-coding project. It had been three years since a reconciliation, although in the 17 years of Cellar Tracker, he only has eight bottles that are unaccounted for, and that includes an overseas move. Eric and his team of three full time engineers have recently developed a way to use QR codes to track the location of the bottles in each column of a cellar. Utilizing stickers on the wood racking, you can easily locate and relocate bottles in the Cellar Tracker system with either a scanner or your phone, as he demonstrated to me during our chat.
From 2014-2017, Eric and his wife Suzi (former US ambassador to Switzerland), lived in Lichtenstein where he took on the role of house manager. Taking on events, menu planning, matching wines (always American or Swiss), they would entertain anywhere from two to 500 guests. In order to do this, they brought over three pallets of wine for entertaining and personal consumption.
Now back in Seattle, they live with their two high school aged children and two standard poodles. Their house was built in 1912, and overlooks the Puget Sound. When they built an addition in 2006/2007, they created an upper and lower cellar that was built into the hillside beneath their deck. The cellar has capacity for 8000 bottles, and a computer kiosk with wireless scanners for both bar-codes and QR codes. One of the most genius things he’s done is organizing his wall of German Riesling by vintage and style (Kabinett, Spatlese, Auslese, etc.), making it infinitely faster to locate the intended bottle instead of making the very easy mistake of pulling the wrong wine.
Making the most out of being quarantined at home in the state that was thought to be the epicenter for the start of Covid-19 in the US, Eric has been using this time to get incredibly fit. Having lost 68 pounds since February, and charting everything as only an engineer is inclined to do, he has been exercising 3-4 hours a day, working on portion control, and cut back to four to five glasses of wine a week. He says his Coravin has been a godsend, and has a section in his cellar dedicated to a handful of bottles that he taps into throughout the week.
Incredibly generous with his time, we spent almost three hours chatting through Zoom, which included him showing me the cellar, the new QR coding system, the incredible view from his balcony with the blue Seattle Summer sky that was finally making an appearance through the gray clouds, and then through his dinner prep where we exchanged cooking techniques from sous vide cooking, to reverse searing, to crispy roasting Brussels sprouts and potatoes on a sheet pan. We reminisced about dinners at Alinea, discussed asafetida, cellar attire, under age wine epiphanies, and spoiling our dogs.
This is a rare look into the cellar of the man responsible for the world’s best wine collecting software.
What have you been doing during quarantine? What have you been eating/drinking?
I turned 50 and decided it was enough, and took control over my diet. I publish a menu for the family each week. I cook Italian a lot. We’ve done a few distanced deck dinners, sitting 20 feet away from each other with friends, and family. I make fresh pasta if I have time. It’s magical. I’ve made meals with more emphasis on seafood and portion control. I spend 3 hours a day exercising. In the mornings I walk the dogs with my wife. I also like to garden.
When did you get into wine collecting?
The 1999 Tuscany trip. It was experiencing four Sangiovese wines of Chianti Classico, Chianti Classico Riserva, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Brunello di Montalcino. They were all completely different. When I got back I went to Dan McCarthy at McCarthy & Schiering (a Seattle institution). I started slowly, found Parker bulletin board, and found a monthly tasting group in 2003. The world opened up to me at that point. Rhone and Bordeaux really excited me. And German Riesling.
What was your first purchase?
What inspired you to start collecting wine?
I collect for personal enjoyment. It’s the collector's ideal of buying wines at release, and then storing perfectly, and then opening them at an appropriate age. Being able to follow the progress and have magic happen. The data geek in me meant buying them and having a plan.
How have your tastes changed?
Initially and for a very short time I was into California and Washington and some Australian wines, then I got a taste for Bordeaux, Northern Rhone, and German Riesling. I did a pretty strong Old World pivot, maybe an over correction even.
How do you store your wine? Has that changed?
We moved into the house in 2000, racked out a cellar space under the stairs that held 700 bottles, but I dramatically underestimated my appetite, and started keeping bottles at Seattle Wine Storage. In 2005, we had the cellar planned, and in June 2006 we started the 1 year build. In 2007, I was reunited with my 2000+ collection from storage and stopped buying because I finally had access to my wines.
What are your most prized bottles?
First Growth Bordeaux, a mag of ‘89 Beaucastel Hommage a Jacques Perrin and a mag of ‘90 Beausejour Duffau, which Parker gave a hundred points to. I bought them with the goal of drinking them. I try not to be too precious about anything. It’s just fermented grape juice, it’s meant to be fun, it’s meant to besocial, it’s meant to be enjoyable. Nothing more and nothing less.
Where do you source most of your bottles?
Wine Searcher, Wine Bid (trying to get aged examples), K&L, Premier Cru, McCarthy & Schiering. Chateauneuf du Pape is my favorite region. Beaucastel and Pegau make me happy. I was buying off of mailing lists, Sine Qua Non, Next of Kyn. And then because of the great recession, we had some personal misfortune when we were invested with Bernie Madoff, I stopped buying wine from 2009-2011. These days my dream is to buy all of the cool, geeky, Lyle Fass stuff, and to get more into Loire, cool parts of Italy, and just things I don’t have a lot of or know much about. I’d rather have cheaper, quirkier, more interesting wines, and fewer trophy wines.
What is the purpose of you collecting wine (investment vs personal enjoyment)?
How, and how often do you enjoy wines from your collection?
Generally always with meals. Ideally wine everyday with dinner, but I switched to one glass a week during the beginning of my weight loss journey and was losing four pounds a week. Now I’m drinking 4-5 times a week, it makes me happy. Coravin has been a godsend. I can be very disciplined.
Do you collect anything else?
No. As a kid I collected coins. Wine appeals to my compulsive personality. I do it because I like to drink it, not to sell it. Cellar Tracker gives me a tool to have a plan and not just buy everything in sight, but to be disciplined.
Did your parents collect wine? Do you have anything from their collection? Do your children collect wine? Did you help them start theirs?
My dad used to get Wine Spectator, he used to have a closet of wine and enjoy wine at meals. I think that factored into my desire to learn more about it. I have significant ageable birth year wines for my kids.
How do you track your inventory?
A scanner for barcodes and qr codes in the cellar, and the Cellar Tracker app.
Do you belong to any wine clubs?
No. I was a member of Luna when Abe Schoener was the winemaker, when I was still chasing Sangiovese, and then I turned to Old World Wines.
Is your collection insured?
Yes. AIG, (initially it was Chubb). We consolidated all of our other coverage with them, and quake insurance.
What is your best wine memory?
Broadly that week in Tuscany. The Seattle tasting group, each person would rotate who would host a dinner and pick the theme. Roy Hirsh claimed the end of the year dinner and everyone brought trophy wines. Everything was showing well. It was a really magical meal.
Do you have any wine collecting horror stories?
One bullet averted. After Bernie Madoff, I started to worry that I wasn’t going to get my preorder at Premier Cru in 2008. I asked if I could return them. They agreed, but would subtract a restocking fee to return the preordered wines. The check was always in the mail, and never arrived. Eventually I got 500 bottles refunded minus the restocking fee. Everything that I did get from them was good though. The other was a fun happy accident when I grabbed a bottle of 90 Beaucastle for a dinner with good friends that really weren’t into wine. Nice but not too nice. At the restaurant when they poured me the taste I knew immediately that I’d accidentally grabbed the Hommage instead. Everyone thought it was delicious. It ended up being the last meal with one of the friends who lost her life to cancer six months later. So, when I think about the bottle of wine that I accidentally grabbed, that was way too expensive, there was a silver lining. We were celebrating life without even knowing it.
What do you plan on doing with your collection?
Drinking it and giving some to my kids.
Do you belong to any tasting groups? What bottles do people bring?
In 2003 a tasting group started in Seattle. There were big dinners, with trophy wines. There is an offshoot called The East Side Seattle tasting group, that I meet with for tastings 2-3 times a year. We started doing zoom tasting with them since SiP. We set a theme and drink wine and talk about life. It’s good to connect.
Do you bring wines to restaurants or do you order off of their list?
My general pattern is to bring one, and buy one. I research a list in advance, and will never bring something that is on their list.
What type of stemware do you use at home?
Riedel Vinum. State department stemware was awful, so I sent over all of my Riedel, and obtained. hundreds and hundreds of Vinum stems from events that we held in Switzerland.
Do you gift (or regift) wine from your collection?
Yes, I gift wines from my collection. I don’t regift, but my goal is to open gift wines at some point.
Have you ever had to move your collection? How did you do it?
I moved three pallets to Switzerland. Mark Mazar and Domaine who worked with the embassy to get all of the permits. Seattle wine storage consolidated 55 cases of mine with the 80 cases of the house wines. Air freight, cleared customs, and worked with the embassy to get everything cleared.
How do you organize your collection?
Regional, except for one wall that is all white, and a section for half bottles. Within region it’s producer and region. One wall is diplomatic gifts of wines from different countries that house them.
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?
Utilizing cellar tracker for drinking windows. Rummage or look through specific wines for dinner. The barcodes have the price and the drinking windows printed on them.
Do you save OWC/OTP?
Yes for Bordeaux and some Rhones. OTP was only coming on Sine Qua Non, but I have rid most of it.
Any favorite wine education tools, books, publications, etc?
I love reading pro reviews. When I was cutting my teeth Wine Advocate. Tanzer and Parker were both really influential for me. Oz Clark’s Encyclopedia of Wine, Kermit Lynch's Adventures on the Wine Route. A good tasting group, a good local retailer.
Bucket list wine regions to visit?
Mosel, Alsace, more parts of Italy, Mt Etna, Champagne, and revisit Northern Rhone.
Favorite wine regions visited?
Barolo and Barbaresso made sense when I saw the respected geography, Burgundy, Bordeaux. At Châteauneuf du Pape, we were treated like kings.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.