Poor port wine. The fortified, sweet, strong stuff from the Douro region of Portugal has few champions left. While it remains a popular purchase—should your kid be born in one of the few years per decade when a vintage year is declared—the stuff is mostly relegated to postprandial pours between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Still, any serious wine collector is expected to have a small stash to show the completeness of his cellar—a case or two will suffice. This is exactly why the port accumulation of Bob Antia, 49, of Boston’s Arrowstreet Capital, LP, provokes double takes.
Scanning his inventory, Lisa Granik, a Master of Wine employed by Empire Merchants in New York, whistles. “That is one eccentric collection,” she says. Charles Curtis, head of North American wine sales for Christie’s, says, “This is a very diverse collection, with both the great years and producers as well as the less great. What sets it apart is that I’ve never seen a collection composed entirely of port.” And Robert Bohr, a globe-trotting wine consultant who presides over the wine list at New York City’s Cru restaurant, is likewise flummoxed by its single-mindedness. With an estimated worth of about $75,000, it’s not the value of the collection that staggers, but the evidence that Antia lives by port alone. He’ll drink Bordeaux and Burgundy if you off er them to him, but with Antia, it’s pretty much vintage port all the way, all the time.
No stranger to eccentricity, Antia is a nonsmoking morris dancer, a budding distiller and a vegetarian who raises steer for their meat, but can’t quite bring them to slaughter. A generously built man with a scraggly gray ponytail, the IT manager shatters the gold-buttoned, cigar-smoking, steak-eating stereotype of the port drinker. He and his wife, Sharon, have adopted four children from the inner city (all biological brothers) and, admittedly, the new family has put a crimp in his habit. Pre-sons, his inventory topped out at 2,000. At present, through trades and tastings, it has dwindled to 1,200. The oldest is 1933 (past its prime) with the bulk squarely in the important 1980s (gorgeous) and 1994 (said to be the best of the century but too young to drink). His preference is clearly for the grand houses of Dow’s or Taylor’s, but true to his adventurous spirit, he also likes to collect no-names, acquired on vacation in the Douro region.
Antia’s port palate kicked in when he worked lighting and sound for Broadway in the 1980s. After shows, he haunted a now-forgotten MacDougal Street Spanish restaurant, where he cherry-picked the port section because the price was right. “The 1963 Sandeman was the one that did me in,” he recalls. By 1990, he had a serious habit, and work took him to Boston, where he came upon the career change lucrative enough to bankroll his collection. “I had to teach myself TCP/IP for a project—it turned out that would become the Internet’s infrastructure,” he explains. Within a few months, he had more work than his new company, LeftBank Operation, could handle. Its motto was “We learn faster than you.”
“I was a single guy, living in a Cambridge rent-controlled apartment making a lot of money,” Antia says. His first serious investment was a 1967 Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas (bought for $20 and now worth $360) . “The one issue I had to solve was how to stock enough port so I’d not drink the storage. This only required cash.”
The sale of LeftBank accelerated his purchasing power and he bought a 22-acre property in the pastoral town of Lincoln, near Concord, Mass. One of the main attractions was a concrete bunker hidden in the landscape. The previous owner, the biologist Roger Payne, who discovered that whale noises were songs and recorded the hit 1970 LP “Songs of the Humpback Whale,” helped fuel the Save the Whales movement. Payne, believing the tapes were evidence of something greater than man’s own creations, built the bunker, ostensibly so his recordings could survive a nuclear Armageddon. Holding an ideal passive cellar temperature of 55 degrees, the concrete box is port-perfect as well.
Fumbling with a knot of keys, Antia opens up four sets of locks underneath the watch of a few security cameras. He creaks open the foot-thick door to reveal a tiny room crookedly crammed with crates of port. The mess is enough to give a proper Virgo agita, but, no, he says it’s one of his key collecting M.O.’s. He wants to forget what he has while the wine is aging. Sure, he might have to scrounge for his most obscure bottle—a 1963 Krohn’s, an oddball he picked up in Oporto—but he’d also like to completely forget all of the 2000 Graham’s, which he’ll start to consider opening in a decade.
Antia has other strategies: buy at auction to pick up bottles others are discarding as well as for instant oldies; buy from England as it is often cheaper and more esoteric; and, most important, share his vintages with friends in his monthly Port and Poker parties, “because it is impossible to taste a broad range of port with only a small group of people, and the older ports do not live long after uncorking.”
He also relies on strict limitations to keep his collecting urges in check—he keeps the individual bottle cost below $300. That amount is arbitrary. “I’ve never adjusted for inflation,” he says. Liquid assets can lead to sorrow, such as when the last bottle goes. This Christmas, the casualty was his last 1955 Taylor’s. He explains with palpable emotion, “The balance between fruit, tannin and the secondary aromas and nuttiness that comes from age was perfection.” While he could restock for the going rate of $750 a pop, he, a boundaried kind of man, has rules to abide by. However, he notes, “Let’s say I did some work for someone and the payment was a case of 1955—that kind of barter works for me.”
Red Guide. Here's my plug. Are you like me, a pain in the ass who will walk out of a resto because there's nothing to drink? Then you need this guide that has a rather extensive collection of addresses of international wine safe zones. On sale @ Amazon.fr and yes, full disclosure I wrote the introduction.
Now on with the mini-story.
I was in search for lunch and a good glass before I hopped the train in Beaune. Oh, for a bar a vins naturel! Ah yes! I had the Red Guide. Perhaps? Maybe? I took a peek and there it was. Who knew Les Comtoirs des Tontons existed! I didn't.
Prices at the caviste were pretty good. Why did I buy that Metras in the center of town? 4o euros for beaujolais? The Comptoirs had everything a girl could want, Vouette et Sorbees, Overnoy, the regulars and discoveries.
I heard the food was worth the trip (according to the guide) but as I couldn't get served a la minute, I went away without a bottle, without food and thought next time, next time.
Published: December 22, 2009 in the New York Times
AMONG the sleek new group of domestic distillers, Cheryl Lins is an original. Wearing a baseball cap, flannel-lined jeans and wire spectacles, she flits from store to cocktail bar, towing her cardboard box of goods, selling to old customers and looking for new. When making her sales pitch, she sometimes forgets to say that she’s the one who distills it, designs the label, waxes the cork and brings the bottles to market. And by the way: her varieties of absinthe are local.
They said it couldn't be done, taking the שטעטל girl out of NYC and bringing her to Texas, Austin at that. But Dr. J. had a big idea. He joined Julio, an importer (D'amore) who imports José Pastor Selections and a Jeff, the suave and saavy wine bar owner (very safe drinking, I might add ). They grooved and agreed and then--presto chango, Jet Blue, José shipping special wines down for the event, and the wonders of modern age... all of the sudden, here I am, reporting to you from the Dobianchi household where I am breaking from chapter 7, whilst Mrs. & Dr. Dobianchi are in their own work days.
Amongst Saturday night highlights (2008 Luneau, 1998 Lopez de Heredia rose & 2006 Domaine de Montbourgeau) a stop at a pig and bourbon party , the Broken Spoke, and the best; Ginny's Little Longhorn Saloon, where I had a couple of swell dances and saw the chicken out back that was going to be the star of the next day's Chicken Shit Bingo. Poetry in motion.
Last Thanksgiving I had the Aprés, 2008 edition, a Blanc de Bois (aka blanche dubois) and was stunned because it was Texas and it was good.
From the beginning, Lew hired Tony Coturri to make the wines: with Tony you know what you're going to get, no nothing including S02.
Heading into hill country I was taken aback, "Limestone?" Tons of it. Who knew? Of course you need more than rock to make good wine, you need climate. And Texas? So with great anticipation we drove up to Lewis teensie winery so he could show us his goods. Meeting us there was Russ Kane, Texas-centric blogger, who wrote up the morning.
Lewis cuts a fine, fine figure in his custom work boots adorned with corkscrews and soft wave in his beard. He took us to the vineyard and there across every row of vines was a spider in residence. This was not a pre-Halloween trick.
Take a look at the upper right orange spot, that is not a leaf, that is a HUGE spider.
Lewis is focusing on Black Spanish and the Blanche duBois grapes (sorry, I couldn't resist). The other big news is that the wines are lively, vibrant and Tony C. is doing a brilliant job with them. Let me add, those of you who have trouble with the Coturri wines, should try to give these a whirl.
I had favorites, of course, but I couldn't fault the wines on any account. For me, they all sang within their range, no false notes made.
The most exciting to me were:
'09 Petard Blanc: Blanc duBois grape; quite muscaty on the nose and dry and citrusy on the palate. Lewis picks this in early August to maintain the nuttin' added anything philosophy, including acid.
'06 Cuvée Jackie: Blended Black Spanish and Norton --was my favorite. Intense color, a bit sour, long finish, I'd have placed it in the old world. Powerful structure with smokey rose.
'08 Quinta la Cruz: Also Black Spanish, port-style, lively sweet, tart and tannic and that good old BS rose.
We left, stopping back at Ginny's, trying to linger long enough to see the chicken take a dump on the bingo board. Got in a little two -step to the compelling Dale Watson
Then on to a little soirée, wines by José Pastor, house by Bill Head. In the muggy night the Benaza Godello was the wine of the evening. Alfonso Cevola provided a magnum of 1960 Vega Sicilia Unico. There was a little Steiner talk, a little rock n' roll and bed.
And, just in, the wine dinner tonight at VinoVino is sold out.
Even the Pure Luck goat cheese is tart and chalky. I just might be back.
PS; The dinner at VinoVino was fantastic. Chef Esteban’s food perfectly paired José Pastor's food. The best moment for me, though, was when everyone put their nose in the Els Jelepins 2004 Sumoll and from the bottom to the top of the table, I heard an echo of "Oh, wow!"
That is the reaction you look for, hope for.
All I can say to Austin, is Oh Wow, and thank you (Dr. J. and Tracie BP? You guys are amazing.)
Sometimes going out for a small glass, has its perils. Such as last night.
My friend was in from Portland. She wanted to case out Lowcountry on west 10th. Night, with Jupitor piggybacking the moon, was balmy. I locked up my bike. She, who has been boxing, had new cut arms. Nice. We looked at the wines by the glass. Supermarket selections which made us suspicious of their cocktails. Our instincts told us, go.
Her final destination was Blue Hill so we thought, what the hell, maybe we can hang out at the bar at Babbo. It's been a while. Yes, Babbo is a star-studded place and phooey on us that we think we can go just because we're native New Yorkers and know Babbo back when Mario was in that small spot on Cornelia Street.
We score a seat at the bar. Unbelievable. It was there waiting for us, it was fated. Jupiter was on our side.
We plunk our coats on the stool and consider the options. We are thinking about the Schiopetto sauvignon, we finally get some attention, get a little taste. I forgot that I never liked the producer but this reminded me; skunky and then blasting with sweetened grapefruit juice. Nix.
She goes for some Abruzzo white blend (mostly pecorino) and I go for the Lini Lambrusco, which I just had the week before at Rachel's in Bklyn. Anyway, I know Lini and I know it mostly to be a safe zone in questionable waters. After all, we're not in David Lynch (past somm) territory anymore.
Glasses arrive. The Lini is supposed to be a glass but it's as big as a quartino. Her white is not thrilling, but decent. The Lini is flat and sweet.
I'm afraid to speak up. But then the woman behind the bar looks at us, cockeyed, like what the hell are you doing here? Silently, she starts setting up the place in front of us for service. We have the feeling we're getting displaced, but first I ask, "I know this wine and this is awfully sweet, and there's no fizz:
"It's always a fruit forward wine," she says.
Fruit forward? Heck, it was a cold port with no frizzante. I suppose, who is going to order Lambrusco at Babbo? The juice in my glass, was that flat sickly sweet chestnut honey liquid that needed a pecorino--in cheese form.
Then she delivers the punchline: "You have to move." A guest will be dining where we were hovering. Lisa and I, not exactly Thelma and Louise, but friends for enough years we often don't need words. We look around, there is no spot to move to. None. We slowly take our coats and split without paying our bill or taking more than a sip each from our glasses.
Now, Lisa D. is a restaurant pro and I've been around the block a few times. The ethics cops would tell us...what? We were wrong for stiffing the bartenders? On the other hand could you say that if we had paid our bill we were the victims of bandits?
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, what would you do?
(we went across the street to NorthSquare. Upon entry we were greeted. Lisa said, "Already the service is better."
We passed plenty of bottom spread and congenial gray hair, and then in the back boite, Crochet rosé--$12. We paid, we tipped, we conquered.)
I'm headed to Austin over the weekend where I'll be hanging, drinkin' and two-stepping with Mr. and Mrs. Dobianchi, aka Jeremy Parzen and the lovely Tracie B. If you're in town on Monday night please join in the wine dinner at VinoVino, informal with a few spectacular Jose Pastor wines, a few as yet to be seen or tasted in Texas. Come see the future of Spanish wine and see how Texas treats a redhead.
After that, insanity took over, and instead of heading home to beat my book deadline, I'm in San Francisco to launch a new secret, the Secret Wine shop. Let's see, I was doing a book signing in Paris in June and a fellow named Betrand David. Betrand mentioned a slew of winemakers who I knew in the Loire. Turned out he was tight and down with the vin au naturel, so a bond was established.
The next thing I knew, I was saying yes to help him launch his first California art show.
So if you can, book your spot for this wine and art salon. AND PLEASE EMAIL ME IF YOU WANT TO PURCHASE TIX @ A DISCOUNT. OKAY?
I won't be reading, but I'll be talking and probably drinking because in house will be the debut of the Sonoma Sagrantino I helped birth, (it better taste good.), Puzelat, Dard et Ribo (and you know how I feel about those wines), Steve Edmunds (ditto) and some of Jose Pastor's wines as well, featuring another debut, from Jordi's ! So, the wine and the conversation will flow.
I'm hunting the Leon Trotskys, the Philip Roths, the Chaucers and the Edith Whartons of the wine world. I want them natural and most of all, I want them to speak the truth even if we argue. With this messiah thing going on, I'm trying to swell the ranks of those who crave the differences in each vintage, celebrate nuance and desire wines that make them think, laugh, and feel. Welcome.
And, if you'd like a signed copy, feel free to contact me directly.