by Mike Cohen

Four Cornerstones Make a Great Wine Collection

A solid foundation relies on its cornerstones. Webster defines cornerstone as a physical stone, often ceremonial in nature. According to Wikipedia (which, as we know, is infallible) a cornerstone can also be “a concept which provides the basic tools for understanding or manipulating a larger intellectual edifice.” The edifice here is your wine cellar, and its cornerstones are the basic elements that provide a fi rm foundation upon which to build—or extend—a great collection. Making cornerstone selections for your wine cellar can present a formidable challenge, since the choices are many and the costs can be considerable. But fear not, brave oenophile. Get squared away on these four building blocks and the heavy lifting can begin: A well-rounded white that does not need to age, but stands ready to deliver outstanding taste right now and for the entire year ’round.

An age-worthy red that does need some years to soften its tannins and firm the structure indigenous to the grape and the region.

A delightful boutique wine, whether red or white, which is a special personal discovery and will enhance your status among your cellar’s guests.

A prestigious trophy wine, one that commands respect both for itself and for you, and which endows you with extensive bragging rights among your peers. Feel free to bask away in such a venerable wine’s reflected glory. While these cornerstones are only guidelines, they certainly give you lots of room to indulge in personal preferences while expanding your collection. Your cellar is limited only by your own investment of time and money…and, of course, by the size of the cellar itself.

White Wines for Now The choices here are huge and include grape varietals such as chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and chenin blanc. Focusing on reliable regions such as Napa, Burgundy, Stellenbosch, and Vouvray can help to optimize your search. I personally find the white Burgundies the most versatile and satisfying in this cornerstone category. These wines are a chardonnay grape, which particularly in the subzone of the Côte de Beaune, have made wine connoisseurs sit up and take notice. The soil and the climate—predominately clay and benignly temperate—work together to bring a steeliness to the wine without compromising its unctuousness or creaminess. One particular producer in the Côte de Beaune region, Sylvan Bzikot, produces some of the most amazing white Burgundies at several different sites. Bzikot’s wines can range some in price. Since this is a wine to be enjoyed right now, I would definitely choose his Bourgogne Blanc, a stunning stainless steel vinified juice punctuated by stone fruit and lively acidity.

Red Wines for Later This category probably evokes the most controversy among serious wine enthusiasts. The battle rages over whether the best are Italian, French, Australian, or our own domestic reds. In all cases, the grapes of these wines (for example, the cabernet sauvignon, nebbiolo, syrah, and malbec) have thicker skins and possess innate properties that lend themselves to the aging process. By laying down the wine, time allows a new set of aromas and tastes to develop that differs from the wine’s inauguration. A velvety soft structure and complex fruit flavors evolve within age-worthy wines, hence the fatal attraction for red wine lovers. My favorite among the age worthiest is a really big red, Dal Forno Amarone. This is a wine comprised of several grapes indigenous to the Veneto region of Italy that are known for their power, structure and tannins. After a decade or more of aging, the other irresistible qualities of this wine are the amazing taste and aroma that spring forth from each glass to caress your senses. This beauty may be hard to come by, but it is certainly worth the effort.

Boutique Wines Whenever Boutique wines by definition are small production, hard to get and typically not very well known or popular… at least not at the time of your purchase. In fact, that is most of their charm. Wines in this category can tickle your fancy and sing to you like no others. The romance begins with the chase and blossoms with the wine’s delightful character and taste. My recommendation here has been one of my favorites for years. It is from the Brogan Cellars, a winery run by Margi Wierenga in the Dry Creek Valley of Sonoma, CA. Margi is the daughter of Burt Williams of William Seylem fame. By virtue of her father’s contacts, Margi has secured grapes from some of the most exalted vineyards in the U.S., recognized for their pinot noir production. Each year, she makes perhaps 25 cases from each of several different locales, the best of which I believe is the Russian River Valley, an area famous for the incredible strawberry and raspberry notes of its pinot noirs.

The Trophy Wines Forever Herein lie the Monsters, the Bad Boys, the true Princes of your wine cellar! A trophy wine will cost you, but if you choose wisely it will always be worth the price. After fl aunting your pride of ownership and you are finally sitting in front of a glass of this divine nectar, you will understand why it is called a trophy. Although such a wine might technically qualify in some ways as a boutique wine, most boutiques will never command the ratings and recognition of these masterpieces. A true trophy wine is a pride-filled selection, one that should be reserved to celebrate only the most auspicious occasions… perhaps a wedding, a birth, a market rally or even a hard-earned bonus (no matter how diminished in these trying times). My unrivaled selection here may surprise many, since it is not on the popular wine buyers’ radar. I nominate Chateau d’Yquem, the ultimate dessert wine produced by French wine-making masters. The wine is made only in spectacular years and consequently garners accolades from the moment it is mis en bouteille. The price is commensurate with the quality. Having had the privilege of imbibing this delicately sweet perfection after an especially memorable dinner, I can still recall my reaction to the very first sip: There was a pregnant pause and then I slowly lifted my glass to the heavens in heartfelt thanks. Nothing could have been more perfect. The trophy wine, whatever your selection, will always be the ultimate cornerstone and the crowning glory of your collection.

Mike Cohen owns the Wine Concierge (www. He specializes in locating hard-to-find wines for customers in New York and New Jersey.