(from the Wall Street Journal Magazine)
In a concrete bunker somewhere beneath Massachusetts, one man has been quietly amassing a prodigious amount of port for more than two decades. Meet Bob Antia
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.”