Published: August 23, 2016
Most of our readers associate David Rago with Modern design. As founder and partner in the auction house that bears his name, he has specialized in Twentieth–Twenty First Century design and arts for over 35 years, getting his start dealing in American decorative ceramics at the age of 16 at a flea market in his native New Jersey. He lectures nationally and appears as an expert appraiser on PBS’ Antiques Roadshow for decorative ceramics and porcelain. Lesser known is that he is also quite the oenophile with his own wine cellar stocked with fine vintages.
When did you start collecting wine and what got you into this field?
I first got into wine in the mid-to-late 70s as it was really inexpensive back then — all things being relative. A great bottle of wine, with few exceptions, could be had for $50 or less, where a wine of that level today would begin at $1,000 and could be multiples of that. A case in point was the 1974 Chateau Magdelena cabernet sauvignon [Napa Valley, Calif.], a classic wine, which I once bought in magnum [double bottle] for $18. And that wasn’t an isolated price. The Heitz Martha’s Vineyard 1974 cabernet, one of the more famous bottles of California wine, was retailing for $25. Because fine wine was relatively inexpensive back then I was able to learn a lot about wine from actually drinking it.
What came first for you: the art or the wine? How does collecting art go hand in hand with collecting wine?
You learn mostly by drinking it, but with guidance. I took two classes in New York at the Waldorf Astoria in the late 1970s, Harriet Lembech’s class. She was a great teacher and walked you through a glass of wine, drinking with you and about nine other classmates, pointing out what to look for, what different tastes meant, etc. One night in the Vertes Suite at the Waldorf, Harriet took us on a drinking tour of the Cote de Beaune, tasting whites, literally walking us up Montrachet, each subsequent bottle more perfect than the last. I don’t collect for financial profit because I don’t buy the 15–20 greatest wines of the world. Instead, I’d rather buy the wine across the street from Lafite, Pichon Lalande, for tenth of the price. The differences are usually too fine for me to distinguish, and certainly not worth the exponential bump in price.
What guides you in terms of what wines/labels you buy? Are there certain wines you avoid?
I avoid wines that are “hot” on the market, like Screaming Eagle — lovely wine, $2,000 a bottle on release, or the DRC Burgundies — and look for things that have been recommended to me by wine salespeople who know something of what I look for in the grape. I also look for those wines that are next door to the major producers, also mentioned above. The big wines in Bordeaux are considered “first growths” or the blue ribbon wines. There are five — or six if you include neighboring Pomerol. But the “second growths,” like Pichon Lalande or Ducru Beaucaillou, are simply fabulous at a fraction of the cost. And in certain years, some of the second growths, called “super seconds,” can equal the quality of the bigger named neighbors. It’s a matter of being interested enough to ask, to learn and make educated guesses, just like with antiques.
How does one get the most value for their collection? Any tips for beginning collectors?
Plenty of reading material out there, and some excellent wine dealers with stores across the nation, although Pennsylvania is tough because of the liquor laws. Each state differs. Wine tastings can be ok, but you’re mostly drinking young, tight bottles that are a decade, or decades, away from maturity — reds, anyway. Whites will show much sooner. What I would suggest is to first decide what it is you want to drink. I’m pretty straightforward in that regard, cabernet and pinot for reds, and chardonnay for whites. After doing a bit of research on your own as well as asking people with knowledge — subscribing to Vinous is a must — buy a mixed case and crack them to see how you like them. One dealer who I trust and admire told me to buy a case of red and try a bottle from that case once a year, for 12 years. He said you will learn a lot about that wine. Hold your own wine tasting with a case of different wines. I’d mix up the prices, some at $25, some at $75 — because, I don’t care what people say, you’re not going to get a special wine from a wine store for $15 — cover the bottles so you’re drinking them blind, and hand out a score sheet to 12 friends listing all the wines but not with an indication of which is which; number the wrappers 1-12 as a point of reference. While serving dessert, unveil each bottle after each of your guests has had their say about bottle #1, and so on. It’s a great learning experience because you have no preconceptions about what you’re drinking, and a never-fail fun night.
What’s the best bottle you bought? Any regrets about the one that got away?
I was given a bottle of 1945 Lafite by a client whose husband died. 1982 was one of the best years of the century. 1945 was the best year, the ground said to be saturated with the blood of the martyrs of World War II, and nature’s gift for the war ending. The label was browned, the fill level in the neck scary low. I popped the cork, violets jumped from the bottle — a signature Lafite nose — and it was perfection. I regret that the house full of Nakashima furniture we sold a few years back had $750,000 in great wine that went elsewhere. We’re not allowed to sell it in New Jersey, so it went to New York. That would have been a fun preview party at our auction hall, I can tell you that.
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