by brian freedman
photography by daryl peveto | January 1, 2015 | Food & Drink
Wine may have been the nectar of the gods, but it’s also the drink of choice for many Philadelphians, who are not only educated oenophiles but avid collectors. Here, industry professionals on the front lines of the vines talk about the city’s passion for all things wine.
A selection of French and Swiss wines at Philadelphia’s Le Chéri restaurant.
The value of the wines lined up in front of me could have covered a mortgage payment on a nice house. The producer, Philippe Guigal, of E. Guigal, was sitting beside me, enjoying dish after perfectly executed dish, each one more beautiful than the next. And the private dining room, as is always the case at the Fountain Restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia (1 Logan Sq., 215-963-1500), was impeccably appointed and stunningly elegant. And the table was ringing with laughter.
So much for the supposed pretentiousness of wine-lovers.
Philadelphia, home to a vibrant and passionate wine culture, has a uniquely laid-back approach to wine. Indeed, you’d be hard pressed to find an old-school wine snob among the top collectors and experts in our area. Instead, even the most passionate oenophiles often think of their wines in terms of emotions as much as flavor profiles.
“We find in Fountain Restaurant that talking to guests about wine often leads to more personal conversations about the guests’ lives and the memories that have accompanied great wine,” says Kyle Trebilcock, sommelier and food and beverage assistant manager at the Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia. “There is an emotional connection associated with wine. You’ll never forget the bottle you had on your 10th wedding anniversary or to celebrate a big job promotion.”
Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities for Philadelphians to experience their next great wine moment, from wine dinners and tastings to BYOBs and restaurants with particularly strong wine programs. They can even add to their most precious bottles with local standouts, like those of Va La Vineyards in Avondale. Anthony Vietri, farmer and fourth generation winemaker, has nothing but positive things to say about the area’s wine scene. “We feel really blessed to be in this region,” he says. “It’s a very vibrant, savvy wine and food community centered in Philly, and these are exciting times. As small as we are, and despite our Pennsylvania pedigree, we’ve had [a] wonderful experience with folks who are serious about wine. To be honest, they are our heart and soul, and mean everything to us.”
Then there are the tasting groups that afford members the opportunity to experience wines that they might never have had the chance to otherwise. One of them, the Dead Guys Wine Society, is particularly robust. (Disclosure: I’m a member.)
Started years ago by Scot “Zippy” Ziskind, president of ZipCo and COO of My Cellar and one of the top wine-storage experts in the country, the group gathers once a month in a warehouse in New Jersey. And despite the often swoon-worthy wines that are consumed during these meetings, it’s a decidedly casual affair.
Every October, for example, the Dead Guys focus on first-and second-growth Bordeaux. And the wines, a selection that would accelerate the heart rate of any wine lover, are enjoyed alongside hoagies, pizza, cheese, and even soft pretzels. This is the unexpected nature of so much of the wine culture of our region, which is far more relaxed than the uninitiated might assume.
“It’s a crazy group of my clients and people that I’ve gotten friendly with through the industry, [and] it’s very non-pretentious,” says Ziskind. “It’s jeans and sneakers, because you’re drinking in a refrigerated warehouse on the outskirts of Pennsauken and Camden. The joke is, you don’t want to start swirling too much, because you’re in a warehouse in Camden, [but] it’s all about the wine.”
That seems to sum up exactly what makes the local wine-collecting community such a vibrant one: a focus on the joy of the juice, and a willingness to avoid pretense and simply savor the wines, just as they were intended to be.
Once oenophiles get to a certain point, however, it becomes necessary to consider properly storing their collections, not just drinking individual bottles. That’s when they call Ziskind.
Lee Schwartz, a highly regarded divorce lawyer in Center City, had been collecting for years with his wife, Lois. When they moved to Rittenhouse Plaza in 2009 and redid their kitchen, they realized that the former eating area, off the hallway, would be the perfect place for their burgeoning wine collection, which at that point wasn’t much more than 100 bottles. So after doing their research and constantly hearing Ziskind’s name come up, they enlisted him to build them a cellar in the formerly dark and isolated space.
The finished cellar, which holds 350 bottles, hasn’t just increased the number of wines that the Schwartzes have on hand, but it has given them something even more important: confidence.
“I no longer have any question about keeping wines long-term,” Schwartz says. (Before his new cellar in Center City, he relied on a relatively temperature-stable basement for his storage needs—a risky option.) “Before, whenever we would buy something that was a little bit age-worthy, it was always a worry that it just wouldn’t last as long and be as fresh as it would be if it was [stored] in really perfect conditions, which they’re in now.”
Of course, unexpected catastrophes can occur, and when they do, it is imperative to remedy the situation as quickly as possible. Last winter, Dr. David Schaffzin, a surgeon in Langhorne, and his wife, Dr. Marcella Nachmann, a urologist in the South Jersey area, faced the unthinkable: Their cellar, which a local contractor had built for them, had not only grown too small for their ever-expanding collection, but was also destroyed by a burst pipe.
On the recommendation of Charlie Beatty, an esteemed wine professional now based at WineWorks in Marlton, New Jersey, Schaffzin and Nachmann contacted Ziskind, who stored their collection in his New Jersey warehouse while redesigning and rebuilding their cellar. As it turned out, the burst pipe was the best thing that could have happened to the couple.
“We were able to utilize the same structure, which is now a much better use of space, and actually expanded the number of bottles we can have over what we already had,” Schaffzin explains. “It is beautiful… [and] withstanding future problems, should last us [all] our collecting years.” Not all wines in a collection, however, are always intended to be consumed. Some, in fact, never leave their original wooden cases: As investments, these unopened boxes, stored in pristine conditions, often represent a better investment than ordinary stocks and bonds. “In just a couple of years,” Schaffzin explains, “some of these [bottles in his collection] have a 200 to 300 percent increase in value. The stock market doesn’t do that. There’s no other investment I can think of that has that kind of growth.” But only, of course, if the wine has been stored properly.
When the time does come to open up a prized bottle or two, a great meal is often the best accompaniment. And few local restaurants have as sterling a reputation for being the places to do so as Bibou (1009 S. Eighth St., 215-965-8290) and Le Chéri (251 S. 18th St., 215-546-7700), especially when it comes to the sort of legendary French wines that collectors love. “If you’re going to bring an old, classic French bottle of wine, you might want to eat classic French food,” says Charlotte Calmels, who with her husband, chef Pierre Calmels, owns both destinations. “And that’s what we’re doing.” Bibou is BYOB, and Le Chéri, even though it has an excellent wine program, does allow guests to bring a bottle, simply charging a $20 corkage fee.
Whatever collectors fill their carefully conceived and constructed cellars with, and wherever they enjoy their favorite bottles, the wine scene in our area is better than alive and well. It’s growing and deepening, and becoming more exciting and vibrant by the year. And its distinctly joyous nature makes it that much more impressive. Whether you open a bottle of Lafite or Guigal with a slice of pizza or alongside a meal at Le Chéri or the Fountain, it’s all about the pleasures inherent in enjoying wine in a context that you love, that brings you happiness, and in the presence of people whose company you appreciate. That’s the magic of wine.
You don’t need a fortune to build a great wine collection, only passion, patience, and perseverance. Here, our top five bottles to collect.
Cantele Amativo 2011
This rich, concentrated red speaks of spice and blackberry compote, and will drink well for more than another decade.
Château Lassègue “lassègue” Saint-emilion Grand Cru 2005
With notes of cedar, currants, and tobacco, among others, this great Bordeaux is well worth seeking out. sherry-lehmann.com
Cantina Terlan “Quarz” 2012
From Alto Adige, Italy, this 100 percent Sauvignon Blanc offers an intriguing balance of fruit and savory notes. Advice: Don’t drink it too chilled. WineWorks
Patz & Hall Hyde Vineyard
CarneroS Pinot noir 2011 With flashes of tamarind paste, chanterelles, cherries, and flowers, this is a Pinot you’ll remember. WineWorks