Don Stott got the tip that pushed him into serious wine collecting in 1963, when most Americans thought high-end drinking meant soaking up very dry martinis.
At New York’s 21 Club, where Stott had often eaten with his parents, then head sommelier Mario Ricci advised him to buy cases of 1961 Bordeaux. The 24-year-old Stott listened and purchased. He still has some 1961 Château Mouton Rothschild.
But on a trip to Europe soon after, he had a “conversion” to Burgundy. Over the next 50 years he built one of the world’s great collections of the region’s seductive reds and whites. He was savvier than he imagined at the time. If you look at a list of the most expensive wines in the world today, the majority of them are from Burgundy.
This year he put thousands of cases on the block at Sotheby’s in New York. Part one, last spring, brought in $8,412,626.
Now, on Dec. 4 and 5, it’s time for part two.
Stott jokingly calls the two sales “my retirement account.”
Well, only sort of. He also spent decades on Wall Street, mostly at the New York Stock Exchange specialist firm his father co-founded, Wagner Stott Mercator. He and his partners sold it to Bear Stearns in early 2001 for more than $625 million.
I first met Stott at New York’s biannual Burgundy bash, La Paulée. He’d brought very rare jeroboams (the equivalent of 4 bottles) of 1964 and 1969 La Tâche to share ($12,000 and $8,000–$15,000 at auction, respectively).
At its peak, his collection included about 120,000 bottles.
So how did he amass such a stellar cellar? He puts it down to passion, mentors, contacts, relationships, and persistence, plus he was collecting during a period when only a few connoisseurs had their eyes on Burgundy rather than Bordeaux. “When everyone else was focused on one thing, I looked elsewhere,” he said. (Where would he look now for wines that aren’t so expensive? “Pinot from Oregon,” he said, “They’re very good, very elegant. I’m already buying some made by Dominique Lafon.”)
Money was the least of it, at the beginning.
“My passion for wine first started at Princeton,” he recalls. “I drank beer until it bored me. Then, in my junior year, I discovered Blue Nun. I served it with caviar and cream cheese on crackers.”
He began haunting Princeton’s wine shops, tasting, learning, buying.
The trip to Europe—Stott sailed over on the famous ocean liner, The France, with his best friend—was an important milestone. (A bottle of Château Lafite cost 10 francs, less than breakfast, he recalls.)
A family friend, Olivier LeBas, a French war hero and bon vivant, shepherded them through Burgundy and became another mentor. “Just remember the names of Domaine de la Romanée Conti and de Vogue” was his advice. So Stott started at the top and found the pinot noir grape spoke to him.
“It was the aroma that got me,” he says. “And the wines are not as dry as Bordeaux. Even the Bordeaux I like resemble Burgundies.” (Château Pétrus is one of them.)
Getting his hands on many of the wines wasn’t easy. “In those days very few Burgundies were available in the U.S.,” he says. “I mostly had to rely on the basic gold standard—wines from negociants Drouhin and Jadot—and collected their grands crus.”
New York sommeliers turned him on to DRC’s Le Montrachet. By the 1980s he was visiting Burgundy regularly, being introduced to growers whose wines he respected, and was often invited to dine in their homes. Winemakers he befriended introduced him to others. Going further afield led him to Anne Gros and others who later became well known.
“That exposure was important,” he says. “What really grabbed me were the people. Burgundy is like peeling an onion. You think you understand on the first layer, then see you really didn’t.” He bought through brokers, feeling it would be inappropriate to ask producers to sell directly to him.
Stott spent so much time in Burgundy that he invested in part ownership of L’Hôtel in Beaune, a small, elegant hostelry with a tiny bistro, where he often staged wine dinners. And he would often open bottles in the lounge or courtyard and share them with whomever wandered by. Among his faves are Chambolle Musigny, Romanée-St.-Vivant, La Tâche, and Musigny from Roumier (the 2005 vintage of the last one is now worth about $9,000 a bottle).
Meanwhile, Stott’s day job (he’s also been a director of the New York Stock Exchange) took most of his time, and when he wasn’t trading, he was sport fishing. After the sale of his company, he says, wine became No. 1.
Even for a megacollector, the purchase path hasn’t always been smooth. At an auction in 2006, he snagged some bottles of Roumier wines that had been consigned by now-convicted fraudster Rudy Kurniawan. A year later, Stott staged a tasting of them and invited Christophe Roumier. “They were fakes,” Stott says. “I returned them and went to the FBI.”
Last May, Sotheby’s New York auction room was packed with wine advisers such as Tim Kopec, who was buying for clients in Asia. Bidders called in from Hong Kong, Brazil, Mexico, and Canada. The top bid was $58,188, paid by an Asian private collector for a case of DRC Montrachet 1973.
If you go to Sale II, bring a fat wallet.
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