Local Wine Enthusiasts Have Multiple Options in This Small College Town
| 2016 Q4 | story by Liz Weslander | photos by Steven Hertzog
While wine collecting is certainly about hunting down rare, unique and valuable bottles to go into a cellar, it’s also about drinking and, even better, sharing good wine.
“Investment wine is a risky proposition,” says Steve Wilson, co-manager of The City Wine Market, 4821 W. Sixth St. “Most collectors I know collect for simple enjoyment of the wine. The other thing that collectors enjoy doing is sharing their fines with others. To share it with someone else who gets why it’s a good bottle of wine—that’s the best.”
Wilson says most of the wines that causal shoppers will find in the retail market are not intended for aging and typically only have a three- to five-year window of drinkability. Even when a wine does have the potential to age well, he says there are no guarantees that it will, especially when you consider that wine only ages properly when stored at a constant temperature of 55 to 58°F and 70 percent relative humidity. With that said, when a wine does age well, the reward for the drinker is complex flavors that are not usually present in young wines.
“A young wine is fruit-forward, but as it ages, it changes chemically; the fruit flavors fade, and the more savory notes like spice, earth, and tobacco emerge,” Wilson says. “A lot of people think aged wine is what they want but can be surprised when they taste it, because it doesn’t taste like young wine. It’s sort of funky.”
Jon Heeb, a local wine enthusiast who has a collection of wine that hovers around 800 bottles, says he was actually a teetotaler throughout college and only drank socially for many years. But, when he and his wife, Barbara, were gifted a one-year wine club membership to Napa Valley’s Peju Province Winery in 2006, he started to take wine more seriously.
“There was one cabernet reserve that was kind of a revelation to me. When I tasted it, I was like, ‘So this what good wine can be like,’ ” Heeb says. “It was the first time I had really tasted high-quality wine.”
The year of good wine from the club membership inspired Heeb to start collecting a few wines on his own, and before long, he found he had enough bottles to warrant building a space in his home to store it properly. He says he favors cabernet sauvignons, Bordeaux blends and pinot noirs. The rarest bottles in his collections are Burgundy pinot noirs. He also collects “birth wines” from the years that his son and daughter were born—1999 and 1993—and says he and his wife shared one of the 1993 bottles with their daughter on her 21st birthday and plan to do the same with a 1999 bottle when their son turns 21.
“That’s a fun thing for me,” Heeb says. “I like the idea of celebrating and commemorating with something really special.”
When he and his wife recently decided to purchase and remodel a historic home in Old West Lawrence, the home’s potential for housing a wine cellar factored into their plans. The wine cellar in the basement of Heeb’s newly restored home measures 17 x 9 feet and has a large table just outside the cellar that they will use for entertaining.
“One of the reasons we bought this house was the basement, because it really appealed to me as place where we could build a new cellar,” Heeb explains. “Part of the idea behind the space is that it will be a really nice space to entertain and have people over for dinner to drink more of what we’ve collected. To me, wine is not something that I sit down with by myself. Mainly, we open wine to share with people.”
Among those Heeb and his wife enjoy sharing wine with is a small, informal club of other local wine collectors and their spouses. The group, which includes six to eight couples, gets together a few times of year for tastings and wine talk.
“We’ve definitely developed some friendships around wine,” Heeb says. “A lot of them were friends before I started collecting, but our friendships have developed quite a bit more from the common interest.”
Ken Wertzberger, who has been collecting wine since the late ’80s, is part of this friendship circle. He says he first started learning about wine after a less-than-satisfying trip to a liquor store more than 30 years ago.
“I asked this very young fellow who was working there what I should buy to go with a dinner we were having with friends,” Wertzberger says. “He told me something, and I bought it, but afterward, it occurred to me that this 21-year-old kid didn’t know anything, he was just selling me what his boss told him to sell.”
After this experience, Wertzberger started to learn more about wine by attending monthly wine-tasting dinners at a restaurant in Kansas City. In 1986, he decided collecting wine was a logical next step. Thirty years later, he sits on a collection of around 1,000 bottles that come California, France, Spain and Italy. The oldest bottles in his collection include about 25 Madeiras that date back to the 1830s.
“The guys in the wine club like it when I bring some over of these older bottles,” Wertzberger says. “A lot of them are younger than I am, so they don’t have the older bottles that I have.”
Wertzberger, who, like Heeb, has a historic home in Lawrence, stores his wine in a 7- x 12-foot wine cellar he had built in his basement in 1999. At that time, his collection was at its biggest at 2500 bottles.
“I thought having that many bottles was a little silly, so over the years, I’ve bought less,” he explains. “When we first moved the collection into the cellar, every single space was taken. Now, it’s down by half, so there’s a lot of attrition there.”
One way Wertzberger pairs down his collection is by donating bottles to local charity auctions. He has donated multiple bottles yearly to Salute!—an annual food and wine festival benefiting Cottonwood Inc.—since the fund-raiser began 18 years ago. He also helps round up donations from other local collectors for the fund-raiser, to which both Wilson and Heeb also regularly donate.
“I always try to donate something that a wine collector is going to be interested in,” Wertzberger says.
Wertzberger says he doesn’t do much wine-related travel and finds most of his wine through various e-mail lists. Prior to the rise of the Internet, he found it through wine connoisseur magazines. Heeb says he and his wife have traveled throughout California, Oregon, Washington and even Croatia visiting wineries and discovering new wines.
“To me, the most enjoyable way to collect wine is to visit places, meet the people who made it and experience their land and weather,” he says. “And then, when you open a bottle to share, you can talk about the wine’s background story and kind of reminisce about the travel, the people that you met on the way and the experience you had.”
Another way Heeb finds the wine he collects is through the Connoisseur Club at Lawrence’s City Wine Market. On a quarterly basis, the Connoisseur Club offers its members two to three bottles of ultrapremium red wines. City Wine Market co-managers Steve Wilson and Jamie Woodall-Routledge, who both have formal wine training and extensive professional experience working with wine in restaurant and retail settings, hand-select the wines that go out to club members based on their potential to age gracefully. The club currently has has between 50 and 75 members with three different price tiers.
The nice thing about being in the wine business in Kansas, Wilson says, is the supply of high-end wines often exceeds the demand. This means that when a vineyard produces a wine in very small numbers, it’s not uncommon for the City Wine Market to buy up a significant portion of the production that was allocated for sale in Kansas.
“We go out of our way to find wineries that are not making high-volume wines,” Wilson says. “When we go into other markets, we see that these kinds of wines are sold out or are heavily restricted, or they don’t go on the self, and only those who know about them can ask for them. But the availability of really outstanding wine in Kansas is pretty high.”
Wilson, who has a personal wine collection of several thousand bottles that he stores in a cellar below La Parrilla restaurant, in downtown Lawrence, says most serious wine collectors are going to come across a bottle sooner or later that did not age as well as expected.
“There’s no possible way of avoiding that,” he says. “You can easily spend $100 on a bottle, and then when you open it, it may be bad. There’s a certain amount of caveat emptor with aged wine.”
On the other hand, the risk of investing in aged wine often pays off.
“The most exciting wines are the ones that age forever, and when you open it up, it’s still a beautiful wine,” Wilson says. “It’s like a little time capsule.”