Meet Miami’s most esteemed wine collectors, who seek out the finest vintages and store them in their own custom cellars
After only five years, the South Beach Wine & Food Festival has become a national, star-studded, three-day celebration of the talents of some of the world’s most renowned wine producers and chefs. Now one of the best-known events of its kind in the country, the extravaganza attracts an estimated 20,000 wine and food enthusiasts, all of whom crowd South Beach to partake in some of the delicacies and festivities.
And although many people think of the festival as primarily food-driven, it is as much about fine wine as anything else. This year, aficionados can meet noted Spanish winemaker Luis Am6zaga, Ted Baseler, who runs the wonderful Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, or Benoit Gouez, the new chef de cave at Mo6t & Chandon. There will be Wine Spectator seminars for those who want to learn a little more about wine, as well as a series of “grand tastings.” Or you can spend a couple of thousand dollars for entrance to the grand ball and every event. But when we were talking to a friend in New York about the ticket prices, he thought they were high.
“Expensive,” we said, is relative. Some bottles of wine can cost more than $10,000 each.”
“Sure, that might be,” he countered, “but are people who like that type of collectible wine living in Miami? I thought it was a margarita town.”
We quickly ended that conversation, but his cavalier retort gave us the impetus to go out and find some of Miami’s serious wine collectors, those who would be considered world-class in any town, in any country. Bob Dickinson, for example, is the president and CEO of Carnival Cruise Lines. In 1972, the year Carnival was founded, Dickinson strolled into a small wine store in Boston and was overwhelmed by the number and variety on display. “I used to drink Lancers and Mateus back then,” he admitted to us, bringing up sparkling Portuguese rosés that 340 Ocean Drive February 2006 would cause most sommeliers to go into instant cardiac arrest. Like many novices, he chose two wines from the shelves primarily because he liked their labels. He and a friend were watching the Boston Bruins play hockey on TV, and by the second period they had finished two bottles. “It was a remarkable experience. I went into the TV.” Starting that day, Dickinson promised to become more informed about wine. Today, he has a private cellar of 21,000 bottles (down from 26,000 a few years ago), considered one of the best-and largest-private collections in the U.S.
Over the years, Dickinson has traveled from Bordeaux to Australia and every wine-producing region in between. But he is convinced that Miami in particular helped fuel and refine his own interest in collecting. When he moved here in the 1970s, he met other like-minded collectors through a local store, Sunset Corners Wines & Liquors.
“We would all taste blindly,” recalls Dickinson. “‘That’s too fruity,’ one would say, ‘This has too many tannins,’ and we would learn from each other.
“I am not a collector like a stamp collector or car collector,” Dickinson told us., collect wine with the sole purpose of drinking it. I don’t show it off like people would show off stamps. The fun really is not in acquiring. My goal is to drink some mind-numbing wines-1947 Pomerols. Absolutely breathtaking. Spectacular. It will make you see double and feel single.”
But the 1947 Pomerols, such as Château Petrus, are hard to find and-cost thousands of dollars a bottle. And Dickinson is adamant that he does not want to be a “wine snob.”
“When I got involved in the cruise business over 30 years ago, it was seen as an elitist vacation, and we tried, with success, to make it accessible for everyone. Beer is seen as the beverage of every man, wine is not. I would like to change that.”
Carnival Cruise Lines has a Presidential Wine Club, vacations built around wine tastings. And not everything Dickinson enjoys costs several thousand a bottle. “I like a lot of wines. I love French Merlots. And I enjoy California Chardonnays like Kistler [about $100 a bottle] and Aubert [in the $150 range].” Dickinson’s bargain value pick is Beringer Private Reserve (under $100).
Steve Smolev, a hugely successful businessman, agrees with Dickinson that it is good to have eclectic wine tastes. He has a 20,000-bottle cellar that rivals his friend’s. “Dickinson and I are equally insane,” he told us. Smolev started collecting, coincidentally, in 1972, the same year as Dickinson. He grew up in Passaic, New Jersey, “in a highly cultured home environment, with visual arts, performing arts and wine. But not fine wine-ours came from a jug. But it was a constant staple at my house.” As opposed to Dickinson, whose wine collection is his one vice, Smolev, is a self-described “incorrigible collector -everything from paintings, sculptures and art glass to Tiffany lamps, watches, rare palms and, of course, his wines.
As do most of the collectors we spoke to, Smolev has saved special bottles for his daughters’ weddings and even has some vintages stashed away for his grandchildren when they marry in a couple of decades. He says that he never chooses the year of someone’s birth, because that could be a bad vintage. So instead he selects wines that he believes will be great and ready for drinking when he wants them. He picks impèriale-sized bottles (six liters)-what he calls “large-format” containers-and knows what bottles belong to what relative. For instance, he has imperiales of 1998 Château Pavie-Macquin and 1995 Chateau Clinet, and, ‘if I really, really like them,” 1986 Chateau Lafite and 1970 Montrose. However, he might drink the Montrose on his 75th birthday.
And like Dickinson and the other collectors, Smolev will almost always bring his own wine to a restaurant. If the restaurant won’t allow it, he sometimes won’t go. If he gets stuck at an event where the wine is terrible, there’s always water, maybe a beer, or a well limed gin and tonic.
But Smolev takes the art of bringing a bottle of wine to a restaurant to a new level: “You can’t carry a fine red with any age on it he says. It will get unresolved, and the sediment will get all mixed up. It has to be decanted beforehand, and then either brought to the restaurant decanted or recorked in the bottle so there is no problem with sediment.” For special occasions, Smolev will send bottles to the restaurant in advance. For his daughter’s wedding in Los Angeles, for instance, he sent the wines out three months early.
“And I know places in other cities if I am going to dinner, like Chanterelle in New York, which is one of my favorites. I know them well, know the sommelier well A few years ago, I did a birthday dinner for my wife, so I shipped wine there, beautiful old wines, and shipped them overnight so there would be minimum exposure to the elements I sent them a month and a half in advance so they could be in Chanterelle’s cellars and be ready for our dinner.”
As opposed to some of the other collectors and their cellars we saw, with glass doors, stained glass and small tasting tables inside the room, Smoletes is functional and utilitarian. He is most proud of his double backup with a giant generator to ensure his wines stay cool in “case of fetid swamp weather.”
Another person with a generator backup is Bob Hudson, a senior law partner at Baker & McKenzie. A week before we spoke to him, Hudson had been to Dickinson’s house, where they shared a..1929 Petrus, a bottle valued at nearly $10,000. Hudson came late to the game of collecting fine wine, starting seriously only 10 years ago. Before wines, he collected Persian rugs, crystals, even stamps as a kid, but “wine is my most serious collection.” He has 6,500 bottles crammed into his cellar and an overflow wine cave with nearly another 1,000. And Hudson’s cellar is striking. He flew in a design team from Cincinnati that specializes in high-end wine storage, and they created a space featuring hard redwood, granite slabs, chandeliers and slate floors.
Hudson also tries to avoid restaurants that won’t let him bring his own wine. An exception is Joe’s Stone Crab, which doesn’t allow outside wines. “Joe’s is the only one that won’t let it in that I still go to,” says Hudson. I’ll start off with a margarita there. But I regularly bring my own wine to Norman’s, Prime One Twelve and others. They all try to encourage the wine crowd and even waive the corkage fee.”
And he finds, as do the other collectors, that the wines he likes change over time as his taste changes. “Your palate becomes more discerning, you distinguish more flavors, you become more discriminating,” he told us. “I’ve moved from big bold wines to good Burgundies and Rhones. You start off loving Bordeaux and evolve to Burgundies.” Sometimes changes in likes and dislikes can cause major adjustments in a collection. Fifteen years ago, Smolev had between 5,000 and 6,000 bottles of California wine. Today, with his cellar nearly twice the size, he has only 40 bottles of California wines. They have been replaced by French, Italian and a surprising number of Spanish wines.
A married pair of collectors who would not agree with a reduction in New World wines is Sue and Doug Gallagher. He is the owner of a firm that provides software programs to the banking industry, and she is a regular figure around Miami, serving as co-chairperson of the Wine & Food Festival.
“We started collecting as a couple,” Doug says. “When we were first married, we drank Asti Spumante”-a sweet Italian wine that would cause as much horror among sommeliers as Dickinson’s Lancers. In 1972, the same year Dickinson and Smolev discovered their passion, the Gallaghers bought a 50-bottle wine refrigerator. “It is a little addictive,” admits Doug. Seven-thousand bottles later, Sue agrees.
Their collecting started from the same store in South Miami, Sunset Corners Wines & Liquors, which kicked it off for Dickinson. And their cellars have grown as their collection has. “Three homes ago,” says Sue, “we had an 1,800-bottle cellar. When we moved to a new home, the wine cellar was the first thing we did.” In a subsequent house, they doubled their cellar to 3,600 bottles, and in their current home, they have the capacity for 9,500.
“We are consumers,” says Sue. “We collect and consume.” When they started collecting, they enjoyed California Chardonnays. “Now we have a very global perspective-Italian, Spanish, Australian, some very unusual California, South American wines and French, also. We have an eclectic collection.” Today, Sue’s favorite is a superb Tuscan red, Masseto, whereas Doug opts for Australia’s acclaimed Penfolds Grange. Both also give thumbs-up to Washington’s highly touted Three Rivers.
The biggest problem the Gallaghers have is deciding which bottles to leave for their children. “A year ago we had an engagement party for our son,” Sue says. “We had several magnums from his birth year.” “But our kids have bad birth years,” Doug adds. “One was born in 1984, not too great a year. You can bump it up to the year of conception, but that’s about it.”
South Beach’s largest collector, dermatologist Steve Mandy, doesn’t have that problem. His only daughter, Ashley, was born in 1983, which he describes as a “fairly good year.” Mandy, who used to split his time between Aspen and South Beach, returned here full-time two years ago.
“My interest in wines started when I was a medical resident at the University of Miami,” he told us. “Louis Skinner, a dermatologist with a Coral Gables practice, was a grand gourmet and wine collector. Every year he invited all the residents to his house for a wine tasting. I was immediately smitten. Wow. He had opened a door for me.
Mandy told Skinner he wanted to learn more, and Skinner “took me under his wing.” Mandy read as much as he could and joined a nationwide wine club that sponsored local tastings, but he couldn’t start collecting in earnest until he established his practice. “If you start collecting, it is a financial thing. You have to have the money to buy fine wines, then ways to protect and store them.” In 1973, Mandy’s first cellar was a closet, and he jerry-rigged an air-conditioning box to keep the temperature at 68. “It worked quite well,” he recalls.
Mandy, whose current collection comprises 3,000 bottles, converted part of a bedroom in his South of Fifth high-rise into a luxury cellar. With prices in his building going at nearly $1,000 a square foot, his cellar, although smaller than Smolev’s or Dickinson’s, costs about the same.
Like his cohorts, Mandy also likes to go to local restaurants where he can bring his own wine. But when a restaurant-such as one of the Beach’s most popular Italian eateries, Macaluso’s-won’t allow it, he does not order the most expensive or rarest bottle. “I don’t look at what I want, but instead at what is the most realistically priced wine on the list that I can drink,” he told us. “I certainly don’t need to drink something I have in my own cellar and pay four times the cost so a restaurant can have an inflated profit margin.” But when he does go to local spots such as Tuscan Steak, Nemo, Roger’s or even the new 0-R-0, he finds they are happy to let him bring one of his best bottles.
Obviously, these like-minded collectors are not the only ones in South Florida. But Dickinson, Smolev, Hudson, the Gallaghers and Mandy are a cross section of our serious wine-collecting community. With nearly 60,000 bottles between them, valued at roughly $15 to $20 million, they certainly should change the mind of our New York friend who thinks South Floridians are only concerned with margaritas. Bacchus would be proud.
What the Collectors Love
SUE AND DOUG GALLAGHER Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse De Lalande, a grand cru from Pauillac
Penfolds Grange, an Australian Shiraz
Masseto, a Super-Tuscan made from Merlot grapes
Marcassin, a California pinot noir from the Sonoma Coast
“It’s quite hard to limit my choices, but below are some of my favorites from four of my favorite regions in my cellar.”
750 ml Château Haut-Brion (Pessac-Leognan), 1961
750 ml Domaine de la Roman& Conti La Tache (ate de Nuits, Burgundy), 1988
750 ml M. Chapoutier Hermitage “Le
Pavillon” (Northern RhOne), 1989 750 ml Harlan Estate (Napa
1953 Chateau Margaux
1959 Château Haut-Brion
1985 Guigal La Turque (ate du RhOne)
1974 Mondavi Reserve
1970 Heitz Cellars Martha’s Vineyard
1951, 1958, 1959, 1968 and 1970 Beaulieu Vineyard Private Reserve Virtually any Colgin Cellars or Harlan Estate vintage
1921, 1928, 1947, 1952 and 1961 Petrus
1947 and 1961 Château Latour, a Pomerol