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Wine was once a highbrow hobby, the milieu of blue-bloods and academics. But the past two decades' swell of new money has democratized the pastime and propelled unprecedented growth. Today the marketplace is rife with connoisseurs clamoring to pay more than $5,000 for a single bottle of 1961 Chateau Pétrus Bordeaux, or plunk down $500 a pop on the Bordeaux futures market. A raft of get-rich-quick investors flip prized wines without ever taking a sip.
St. Louis came a bit late to the party, says Patricia Wamhoff, a sommelier who moved here from her native Toronto in 1993. As she puts it: "There was a lot of demand here for white zinfandel."
Wine lists were not a priority for most local restaurateurs. In fact, they were updated just once or twice a year and, Wamhoff adds, manipulated by distributors. "Restaurant owners bought what the salesperson told them to buy, because they didn't know any better," she explains. "The distributors said, 'Oh, I'll take care of your wine list' and 'I'll print it for you.' There was this old buddy-buddy attitude."
Wamhoff and the late Bob Kabel, former beverage director at Faust's in the Adam's Mark downtown, were St. Louis' lone sommeliers in 1993. Now, interest in the untapped trade is finally pouring forth. Eight St. Louisans are vying to join the ranks of Wamhoff and Hoel, the state's only Advanced Sommeliers (one step below Master). What's more, St. Louis' Introductory Sommeliers (three steps below Master) now number at least 100, by Wamhoff's count.
Dozens of tasting groups outside the elite Commanderie de Bordeaux and Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin (a Burgundy club) now abound in St. Louis. The city has at least five wine bars, with another slated to open this summer in Webster Groves. Busch's Grove sommelier Darin Link doesn't bat an eye when a four-top drops $8,500 on four bottles of a prized Bordeaux, as was the case one recent evening.
Four wine consultants, meanwhile, including Wamhoff and Hoel, maintain brisk businesses appraising local collectors' cellars. One of the consultants, 30-year-old Marc Lazar, caught the wine bug while working at the Wine Merchant in Clayton to put himself through graduate school. He now has a national client base for his full-time wine advising services.
Says Lazar: "The cocktail-party version of what I do is: 'I'm your stock broker, your financial planner and your wealth manager for wine.'"
Last October the Washington, D.C., native opened a 7,000-square-foot wine storage facility in Richmond Heights, where local collectors safe-keep overstock from their home cellars. It's the first storage site in the country, Lazar says, to come tricked out with a remote humidity- and temperature-control system that allows customers to check cellar conditions via the Internet.
Collectors can even print years' worth of temperature records to prove a history of proper storage to potential buyers. As in the art market, where a painting's provenance can make or break its future sale, wine collectors especially auction-goers have stepped up their demand for such quality assurances.
Auctions are a collector's nirvana, and they take place monthly or even weekly in Chicago, New York and San Francisco. More than $166 million worth of collectible wines changed hands at auctions throughout the country in 2005. One auction alone in New York last fall rang up a record-breaking $24.7 million, reports the New York Times.
"In every major wine auction, there are usually at least one or two parcels from St. Louis collectors," says Lazar, who is loath to divulge specifics about his local clients. "Put it this way: St. Louis has several dozen world-class wine collections."
The auction scene, though, is lacking. The lone St. Louis sell-off took place at Ivey-Selkirk in 2000, says Jon Gazzoli, then the cellar master of the Clayton auction house. The parcels came from cellars across the country but buyers stayed home.
"We didn't gather as much out-of-town or phone business for the auction as we would have liked," says Gazzoli. "The auction was also a missed opportunity for the majority of wine collectors in St. Louis. A small number did show up and get some very interesting wines for their cellars, but the majority didn't take advantage of it."
Two major local collectors who did hoist their auction paddles remember eyeing the small audience and salivating. "John Joyce was sitting right next to me, and every lot that came up, he'd mutter, 'Don't raise your hand! I'll share with you. Don't raise your hand!'" recalls Jeff Lehman, a St. Louis pharmaceutical executive. "We were scooping up 1985 Dom Perignon Rosé for $75 a bottle. That stuff normally goes for $400."
"Oh!" says Joyce, who lives in Webster Groves. "It was deals beyond your dreams of avarice!"
While Patricia Wamhoff works to ratchet up St. Louis' wine literacy through small tutoring groups, Chris Hoel brings it to the people.
Two years ago he and sommelier Stanley Browne debuted the St. Louis Wine Clinic, an eight-week class that covers vast terrain from viticulturalists' biographies to the virtues of the screw-top.
The class has grown from a dozen to nearly 50 enrollees this semester. Local wine distributors recently began supplying the tasting wines for free. A host of industry folk everyone from servers on up to restaurant general managers and owners have completed the clinic, along with country-club employees, wine representatives and average wine-loving Joes.