A combination of earlier magazine work and new blog posts

Miami’s Great Home Cellars (A sequel to Magnum Force, February 2006)

Meet wine aficionados who are keeping their extraordinary vintages in the custom-designed storage facilities under their own roof

Twenty-thousand people will descend on Miami this month for the star-studded South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Last year, my wine interest was satisfied by great tastings. This year, aficionados can meet the industry’s most influential people, listen to lectures to develop a better palate and try super vintages from 40 world-class wineries.

Some new wine “collectors,” however, may not know the difference between a Château Margaux and a cheap table wine. A trend sweeping the ultrarich is creating overnight cellars for prestige. New luxury homes, for example, often come with an empty wine cellar. A Hollywood producer, who shall remain unnamed, recently hired a wine consultant for $50,000 to fill his new 800-bottle cellar with the “right wines.” “A wine cellar looks better filled up,” he says. “It’s kind of like having a Ferrari parked in the middle of your dining room.” Other collector wannabes also pay consultants, to choose thousands of wine bottles, or arrange for Stores to fill overnight orders for a decade’s worth of wine. In Los Angeles, the popular Wally’s Wine & Spirits has provided an instant collection for $1 million, while New York’s Sherry-Lehmann has had a $700,000 order to stock a new cellar.

All this talk of instant cellars made me want to discover more Miami collectors who did it the old-fashioned way, over the years accumulating a collection they love and consume. It was not hard to find an eclectic, passionate group representing some of South Florida’s most knowledgeable wine enthusiasts.

“To support my habit I am a real-estate broker,” says Christopher Zoller, who started enjoying wine early. “As a child growing up in Manhattan, my parents insisted on a carafe of white and red every evening at the dinner table. So I realized wine was a component of food and not just for imbibing alone.”

When he got to the legal drinking age, he experimented. “I had a great deal of cheap wines over the years. Then I had an epiphany.” He came across a 1966 Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Cabernet Sauvignon. “It made me realize there was very fine wine in addition to merely good wine.”

His taste has changed over the years. When Zoller lived in the Virgin Islands, it was difficult for him to appreciate big, oaky Cabernet Sauvignons. He moved to Miami in 1987 and became “a serious collector.” The next year, when he and his wife, Lee, took a second honeymoon to Sonoma and discovered little vineyards no one knew about, he became hooked on California wines. Zoller’s favorite grape of the moment is Pinot Noir, and he can wax enthusiastically about the small California vineyard where Tom Dehlinger produces only 7,000 cases annually, or Williams Selyem, which bottles extraordinary Pinot Noirs in the Russian River Valley.

“I am a collector and consumer,” Zoller told me. “I have some trophy wines, but I intend to drink them. Sometimes I do give some away to charities to raise money for their auctions, but otherwise I’ll hopefully drink everything in my cellar.”

That will be no easy task. In 1991, he bought his house in Coral Gables. “We have done three major renovations. During each, I built a larger wine cellar. I discovered that no matter how large your cellar, it’s never large enough.”

During Hurricane Andrew, the Zollers found safety inside their cellar. To build it, he blew out a dining-room wall and made a nine-by-12 foot room with 12-foot ceilings, designing it himself for maximum capacity. Like most collectors, he has a decanting table in the center and a backup generator in case power is lost. There are 3,300 bottles on the redwood and cedar shelves, with another 1,500 crammed in every spare spot. It’s about 50-percent California Pinot Noir, then California Chardonnays, red Bordeaux, California Zinfandels and some Alsatians.

Like many other collectors, Zoller will not go to restaurants that won’t let him bring his own wine, which he will sometimes decant 15 to 35 days beforehand. “I know every sommelier in town,” he says. “I call in advance to let them know I’m coming. Wine is a big profit maker for restaurants, and I understand why they don’t want us to bring our own, but the better ones are always accommodating.” That’s why you’ll often find Zoller at Evolution in South Beach’s Ritz-Carlton, Norman’s or La Palme d’Or in the Gables, Two Chefs in South Miami or Miami’s North One 10 (where Dale LoSasso is the sommelier, and her husband, Dewey, the chef). When Zoller travels, he orders from a list, but then, since he is often in Provence or Sonoma, it hasn’t been a problem.

“It has really become a passion,” he says. “And since we don’t have children, we’re saving special years for our own events. We have some wonderful 1988s, the year we married. We can’t wait to drink those on our upcoming 20th anniversary.”

Mark Friedman is the owner of South Beach’s most acclaimed dry cleaners, Mark’s. His first experience with wine was at 18, when he tried some Chateauneuf du Pape. Then, when stationed in Germany while in the army, he discovered Rieslings. In 1966, he married his wife, Ellen, and they lived in Manhattan. “There was a wonderful shop in Bloomingdale’s,” he recalls. “In those days, you could buy first-growth Bordeaux and topflight Burgundies for $10 a bottle.”

He drank everything from fine Château Haut-Brions to Gallo Hearty Burgundy. In 1973, he quit his Wall Street job at Smith Barney, hoping to open a wine bar. “I had read about wine clubs in London,” he told me, “and spent a year on it. Then in 1975 the economy tanked.”

Mark kept enjoying wines and then, in 1994, got the bug to start a serious collection. “I have eclectic tastes,” he says. “I like wines that represent themselves and their soil. I drink varietals from around the world, although I’m less enchanted with Bordeaux than I was. The great vintages they rave about have incredible tannins in the grapes, they don’t reach their peaks of sugar for many years and they are good if you want your grandchild to enjoy them.”

“I like the investment side of it. I don’t sell; I just keep it. But I like the value you get by purchasing early on, at the right time. I have dozens of bottles that have increased a lot in value.”

Mark and his wife-whom he describes as a hypertaster, someone with 10 times as many taste buds as most people-prefer drinking their wines rather than storing them forever. And his “cellar” is more unorthodox than those of most serious collectors. He doesn’t have the space in his apartment for a full-fledged cellar, so he stores 200 bottles in a wine refrigerator, another 100 in a spare shower, and 1,850 in a storage facility. Originally, his collection was almost exclusively French Bordeaux and Cabernets. Today, almost half are American, with French and Italian about a quarter each. Reds predominate.

His special-year wines are saved for his children’s marriages. “My daughter married into a Sephardic Jewish family, so I had to resort to kosher. My son got married last September, and I arranged with an Italian vintner to provide an excellent Barbera.

As do other collectors, Mark prefers bringing his own wine to restaurants and sometimes will pass on those that don’t allow it. “Most restaurants have immature wines at four times the price they’re worth,” he says. When traveling he purchases off the list but often finds good local wines.

Being an enthusiast has its perks. In 2001, he, Ellen and some friends, traveled to Italy. One night, they dined at Portofino’s Hotel Splendido. “During the dinner, the general manager recognized my passion for wine,” he recalls. Suddenly, the manager brought him a glass. It turned out to be a 1997 Ornellaia Masseto, a phenomenal red. it was $1,000 a bottle at that restaurant. It turns out someone ordered it a few days before but only wanted one glass. He gave the rest back.”

A few days before leaving Italy, he spotted the same wine in a Milan restaurant. It was an astonishing $100, a tenth of the Portofino price. “The smart thing was that I bought a bottle,” he told me. ‘The stupid thing was that I only bought one.”

Kim Wood and her husband, Tom, are co-owners of Norman’s, the acclaimed Coral Gables restaurant. Like Zoller, Kim was introduced to wines while growing up. “My grandparents are from Spain,” she says, “and it was accepted as a kid that you could drink wine. It was part of my heritage.”

When Kim and Tom married in 1990, they were given a wine-bottle dossier and began logging the vintages they drank. Tom’s father introduced them to Spanish Albarinos.

During the 1990s, Kim enjoyed heavier wines, tasty Cabernets, “the type that would stick to your tongue.” Today, she prefers lighter Pinot Noirs (Zoller turned her on to them), as well as an eclectic mixture from many regions. “I’m an urban girl,” she says. “Jeans and white T-shirts. My wine is like my lifestyle.”

And Kim has a spectacular cellar in her Southern-plantation-styled home In Pinecrest in which to store It. The cellar, which she and her husband built five years ago, replaced a porch and took two years to build. It’s adjacent to her dining room.

“I didn’t want just a cellar with racks,” she recalls. “I also wanted it to look great.” The result is a functional room that has a floor of “rain-forest green” marble with burgundy veining that reminds Kim of vines. She had the Brazilian-walnut and mahogany racks stained dark, and then used a woven marble cut as a basket weave as the presentation wall for her 30 finest bottles. The room’s back- splash is marble, and soft backlighting highlights the collection of 3,000 bottles, half the room’s capacity. Music is piped In. “Sometimes when I take friends there,” she says, “they want the Rolling Stones, and sometimes jazz.” An antique corking mechanism is on its way.

On social evenings, Kim and Tom take their friends, after dinner, to the adjacent billiards room. There they have a wine fridge. “And when it comes to the time of the evening to tell secrets,” she says, “we go to the wine room.”

The collection includes champagne, since Kim likes it, and is pretty evenly split between European and American wines. As opposed to many other collectors, she has no problem going to a restaurant that does not allow her to bring an outside bottle (her own place, Norman’s, does permit it). “I enjoy trying different wines. I am still a student. I am so young [in her 30s], and it’s great to have amassed such a database ahead of my time. But I have learned and listened.”

She recently acquired a young Peter Michael wine with a limited production. “Oprah and Emeril also got bottles,” she says. “I love rock-star wines.

“Wine is a great equalizer,” she adds. “It’s there to be enjoyed, to lie back and savor life. That’s why I like it so.”

Jim Ferraro is a Miami attorney. “Twenty years ago I started going to

Europe for business, particularly France and Italy,” he says. “I soon found myself having some wonderful regional wines, wines I couldn’t get here. That started me off.”

He has been collecting for nearly 10 years, but when he moved into his three-story penthouse in Segovia Tower in Coral Gables, “they had the perfect space to build a wine cellar. So I built a big concrete tomb where I can store high-end wine.” It has, as do many others, its own backup generator.

In a short time, Ferraro has collected 2,000 bottles. “I have about 100 bottles of great champagne, some vintage Mats and some Cristal, but that’s more trendy. The rest is about 40-percent European and the others American.” He admits to a bias for reds, especially Burgundies.

“I like the investment side of it,” he says. “I don’t sell; I just keep it. But I like the value you get by purchasing wines early on, at the right time. I have dozens of bottles that have increased a lot in value. I have a Shafer that is worth about $20,000. On my son’s college graduation, he might get to drink that with me.”

Ferraro says he’s a “birth-year guy.” He has bought special wines in the years each of his children was born: 1986, 1989 and 1993. “Nineteen eighty nine is the best,” he says. If I had had another kid, it would had to have been 2000.” For his own 50th birthday in a few months, Ferraro expects to drink some of his best. “I’m planning a big event for it,” he says.

“It’s great that the wine market has boomed so,” he told me. “When the stock market was rolling, people started paying crazy prices for wine. It’s not a direct relationship, but there is a correlation with the art market. When people are paying $50 million for art, what goes with that? Wine. And many more people buy wine. In some ways, it’s the poor man’s art, at least for some very good wines.”

INTERESTED IN JOIN1NC THE GAME?

Check out vinfolio.com, which has great info and sells some super, well-priced bottles. Not sure how to develop the right palate? This month, the University of Miami offers a four- week course, “Wine 101.” It costs $795, but in addition to getting a crash course in wines, you’ll also get plenty of tastings. There’s also FIU’s School of Hospitality and Tourism Management’s more intense semester-length 3-credit course. And if all else fails, try one of the less expensive bottles at Total Wine & More on Biscayne and 147th Street. The collectors above may not be interested, but it might not be such a terrible way to put your foot into the seductive world of wines.