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  • Writer's pictureMelissa L. Smith

The Controversy of Wine Collecting


Melissa L. Smith of Enotrias and Michel-Jack Chasseuil

I was invited to give my perspective on the very controversial wine collection of Michel-Jack Chasseuil, who wants to create the Louvre of wine at his home in France. I read many articles about him and his collection before the taping of the documentary this October in Napa Valley. I admit, I had a lot of judgment around his collection, and his ideas about what to do (or not do) with the wine. I was purposely not given a lot of information about him or his collection before filming, nor did I know that I’d be meeting him and spending an evening with him the following day, so every conclusion I came to was based on what I had read in the days leading up to the filming.



But I have a unique perspective. I deal with wine collections in many stages, but a large amount of the work that I do centers around insurance and legal occurrences like death and divorce. Many of my clients past and present “hoard” wine, and then at the end of their lives we’re dealing with probate court and dumping out large portions of wine collections, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of wine, as I had to do earlier this year when an inherited wine collection was left submerged in water when a sump pump went out. Wines that would have been near priceless had they been in perfect condition and sold in their prime. And to me, the tragedy is beyond the financial loss, I see it as so many missed conversations, epiphanies, and memories lost in those unopened bottles. Opportunities to form friendships and celebrate life and connections.


When I talk to winery owners, and winemakers about people collecting their wines with no plans to open them, their shared response is always, “Wow, you’d think if they can buy all of that wine that they could afford a corkscrew!” I can understand their perspective, they have put so much work into those wines to only have them hidden in a cellar. It’s like locking up a masterpiece, where not even the owner has the opportunity to view it, much less the art seeking public. Conversely, wine can be an incredible investment. I see this regularly with my clients as well as people in the industry that had the foresight to invest in certain wines when the prices (and the wines) were attainable. That is if the wines are stored properly, provenance is sound, and there is a market for the wines.


Another perspective that I don’t think collectors take into account, is that many of us in the industry would do anything for the opportunity to taste these wines. We’ve spent our career studying them, handling them, opening these rare bottles for our guests, memorizing facts and obsessing over maps, vintage conditions, winemaking techniques, etc., but the opportunity to actually consume these wines is a rarity for us. I’ve had some incredible opportunities throughout my career to taste wines that only years later I would learn the significance and value of, and I look back at my instagram posts and smack myself on the forehead, what I wouldn’t do to go back and retaste them with the knowledge that I have now. These days I have some generous clients that will sit me down after a long day in the cellar, ask me to choose a bottle, and we’ll talk for hours about everything wine. Again, a rarity, but I appreciate the opportunity, and they have access to someone with incredible knowledge and perspective, because I’ve made it my life’s focus. Those that are the most passionate about wine to the extent that they make it their life’s dedication, should have a seat at the table no?


When I was a fine dining chef early on in my career, there was almost no way I or the other stages could afford to eat at the same restaurants that we were spending 40 - 60+ hours a week at. My point with bringing up this perspective, is that if you need an opportunity to open a special bottle, invite someone from the wine community to enjoy it with you. You may learn a lot more than you did before, and you’d be giving an opportunity to someone that deserves to taste the wine, and I guarantee your generosity will be talked about for the rest of the recipient's time. Just make sure their name isn’t Rudy.


Wine cellars are like unopened safety security boxes when I get to them. Sometimes the expectations are incredibly high because they know that the deceased was a fan of wine, and no one knows what is in the locker that was left to them, only to find out that the cases of wine still in their shipping boxes are of no value. Or the person going through the divorce has a massive abandoned closet filled to the brim with wine, assuming that selling it will cover legal fees, for me to turn around and tell them that no only are the wines of no value because the closet is not temperature controlled, it is filled with cheap samples that are not even worth them paying me to inventory. And then there are those filled with historic treasures, like the first hand labeled bottles of Silver Oak, Louis Martini from nearly 100 years ago, bottles of Chave worth $17,000, or DRC going back to the 1930s in large format. The owners and the winemakers have long since passed, their remaining relatives and friends who would give anything to have one more bottle with their loved one, one more trip to wine country, one more shared meal and conversation.


When I’m in someone’s cellar I get excited about the bottles because of the history, the value, the rarity, but more than anything the possibilities. The excitement for the client when they do open the bottle, I just hope they enjoy it with someone that appreciates it. The heartbreaking aspect is when I have to dump wine because it wasn’t stored properly, the cellar was so disorganized that they lost track of the wines, that the wines have passed their drinking window, and may be interesting, but not necessarily good, or a natural disaster like an earthquake, fire, or flood. If there is anything that the pandemic has taught us, or those of us that were affected by the earthquake in Napa in 2014, it is that you don’t need a special occasion to open a special bottle of wine. Open it this week and drink it with some great burgers if you have to, or go the other direction and plan a special dinner around some of your top bottles and invite over a group of friends that will appreciate your generosity.


In the articles that I read about this particular collection, two quotes by respected wine writer, author, wine judge, and speaker Dr. Jamie Goode stood out to me.


- Dr.Jamie Goode

And


“The contents of the bottle are the purpose of the bottle, and for these to be enjoyed the bottle must be opened and the contents subject to sensory evaluation and, in the process, consumption. If wine is ever art, it is only when it is being drunk.” - Jamie Goode


The night of the mini wrap party there was a dinner hosted at the home of a vineyard owner. I, along with others involved in the film, the winemakers for Hundred Acre, Dalla Valle, Bryant Family, Matthiason, wine collectors, and others in the industry or wine industry adjacent brought bottles to share with the group from our home collections. There were some very interesting bottles, some baller bottles, interesting and unexpected wines made by small producers that no one was familiar with, newer vintages, and one from 1945. Michel-Jack made a point of circulating and chatting with all of us individually or in small groups, then we sat down to dinner, grabbed our favorite bottle, and every twenty minutes or so were instructed to pass it down the table three seats to our right. I got to meet some awesome people that night, had a wide array of conversations, made new friends, presented opinions, fielded many questions about what I do, argued different perspectives, listened to stories about regions I’ve yet to explore, industries that are far above my ability to grasp, talked about ways to prevent counterfeit wines and track provenance…All of this happened because the wine and the documentary brought us together, and the liquid released from their bottles allowed the conversations to flow.



Michel-Jack Chasseuil is 81, in great health, and with a wine collection worth many hundreds of millions of dollars. He wants to preserve these wines. He still drinks two glasses of wine a day I am told, although I don’t know if he’s drinking common table wines or wines that were destined for the Titanic or handled by Napoleon. I don’t know if he’s having a Jambon Beurre sandwich, or Tournedos Rossini made with Wagyu. I get the impression that he lives a fairly simple life when he’s at home above his secure cellar complete with booby traps, infrared light, heat, and motion detection, secret doors, and a key that he does not keep on site. He did seem to enjoy being in our group of California wine professionals from diverse backgrounds. The food was incredible, the wines were inspiring, and the conversations never stopped. In fact the only reason the party dispersed was because we were in the middle of harvest and many of the attendees had to be up and in vineyards or wineries before dawn, otherwise I’m sure we would have emptied every last bottle.


Wine collections always tell a story, and each bottle tells several, and every opened bottle leads to more stories. So whether you are collecting for investment, or because you have every intention of drinking through the collection, don’t miss out on the opportunities that this magnificent liquid can lead to. Make a friend, make memories, enjoy the work and effort that went into every berry, and every step that went into making the contents of the bottle. Appreciate the label, the region, the vintage, the closure, the store or winery that you procured it from, the person that turned you on to it. You can use a simple wine opener, but please dear god choose a proper glass. Take the time to savor the wine, the food, the conversation, and the opportunity to be there in the moment, and everything it took to get there. Put things in perspective.


People constantly reach out to me after they look at their collection, do the math, and come to the conclusion that even under the best circumstances they will outlive their collections. I’m very familiar with this scenario, and I delicately make suggestions presenting a few different solutions, and then more often than not they have such an emotional tie to their collection that they ultimately decide to do nothing with it, leaving it to their spouse, their children, or an unsuspecting organization to deal with. And then I get those calls, and the cycle continues, but this time instead of having them open the door to their wines, it’s someone who has had to get a death certificate to access them, and let me tell you, they never wanted to be in that situation.


I look forward to seeing the documentary when it comes out, to see the other perspectives presented, and to better understand Michel-Jack’s background, history, and true intention with his collection. Although the idea of hoarding all of those magnificent wines with no plans of opening them saddens me, frustrates me, and confuses me, perhaps through this process he will be open to reevaluating his intentions, but I look forward to the opportunity to share another meal and another conversation with him, and you better believe I will insist on wine accompanying all of it.


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