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In Vino Veritas

America's most passionate wine collector expounds on love, truth and his restaurant, Veritas

Park B. Smith may or may not be America's greatest wine collector. With more than 40,000 bottles to his name, each one of impeccable provenance, stored in four cellars (all under the same country house in Connecticut), he can certainly claim the credentials. But the title Smith truly deserves, without question, is America's greatest wine romantic.

When Smith talks about wine, the word romantic crops up more often than it does in a Cole Porter song. For unlike many wine collectors, whose word of choice is most often money, Smith likes to talk in terms of love. "I can get a little flowery sometimes," he admits. But this 67-year-old former Marine and founder of a highly successful home furnishings company that bears his name is no mere sentimentalist. "I probably drink about a bottle of wine daily," he says. "I consider a day without wine a wasted day."

Smith defies the convention of what a wine collector should be in other ways as well. He'll pull out a rare wine, like the legendary 1947 Calon-Ségur, for a simple Friday night supper. Or he'll open his best bottles for strangers, though everything in his collection is a "best," so it's pretty hard not to. At first glance, it looks as if Smith's cellars hold as many first growths as you'll find in the cellars of Mouton or Margaux (including 60 cases of the Parker 100-point 1982 Mouton alone). There's also case after case of every California wine worth mentioning from the past 25 years. All the great old names can be found there--Stony Hill, Heitz Martha's Vineyard, Chalone, Hanzell--as well as the newer labels that would leave a Wall Streeter weak with envy: Dalla Valle Maya, Araujo, Colgin Cellars Herb Lamb and, of course, Harlan Estate, which, Smith says approvingly, is "the most passionately made wine in America."

There are rows of Rhône Valley greats, including Smith's three favorites, the 1978, 1990 and 1995 Château Rayas; superstar Super-Tuscans; Barolos; and tête de cuvée Champagnes. In fact, just one thing is missing: Burgundy. Oh, there are a few exemplary bottles, some from the legendary Henri Jayer and a fair amount of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, but Smith has given most of his Burgundies away.

"I've been burned too many times," he explains. "I've opened three bottles of Burgundy in a row, all great years, all from great producers, and every one of them was corked." But more important, Smith stopped collecting Burgundy when his friend Robert M. Parker, Jr., the wine critic, was sued by the Burgundy house Faiveley after criticizing its wines. Smith, who had quite a few Faiveley wines in his cellar at the time, gave every one of them away. "People told me I was crazy, but I couldn't stand to look at them. And I wouldn't sell them," he says. "Julian and Alex [Julian Niccolini and Alex von Bidder, managing partners of the Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan] will laugh if they read this, realizing that's why they got so much Faiveley for Christmas."

Smith and Parker have known each other for about 12 years, and like all true friends, they both recall the details of their meeting exactly. "There was a wine merchant in D.C. who kept telling me, 'You have to meet this guy Park Smith,'" Parker says. "This went on for several months until we finally had lunch at Sam & Harry's restaurant. We've been friends ever since."

Parker, who has seen his share of remarkable collections, finds it hard to believe that there is any cellar of greater depth and quality than Smith's. "There are people who collect and put museums together," Parker notes. "Then there are people who just want to get press. But Park is the antithesis--he does it because he loves it. And he's the kind of guy who will share his wines with anyone. I find that to be true of all real wine connoisseurs."

Smith took sharing his wine to a whole new level last January when he and three partners (including Scott Bryan, a former F&W Best New Chef) opened the restaurant Veritas in Manhattan. Smith and his wife, Carol, vice chairman of the Park B. Smith Company, were loyal fans of Bryan's cooking while he was at Luma. "We used to eat there every eight or nine days," Smith says. And in 1998, when the laws changed, allowing private collectors to sell wines to restaurants, a long-held fantasy of Smith's suddenly became an attainable reality. (And a chance remark of Carol's played a role as well: "Even if you drank a bottle a day," she told Park, "it would take you 109 years to go through everything in your cellar.")

As a result, the Veritas wine list comes in two parts: a market list of affordable everyday wines (many in the $25 range) and a reserve list that features wines from Smith's and restaurant partner Steve Verlin's cellars. (Verlin supplies the Burgundy and Champagne selections.) Good buys abound, albeit at exalted prices, including Krug Grand Cuvée, whose $165 price tag is just $40 or so over retail. There's also a vertical selection of Araujo Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, notably the sought-after 1994, which at $315 is nearly $200 less than it is at Le Cirque 2000 uptown. And no wine is subjected to more than a modest mark-up. "There isn't a wine whose wholesale price we've come even close to doubling," Smith asserts.

Smith's wife came up with the name Veritas. She was also the one who brought order to his collection, creating and maintaining a database for his cellars, since the inventory until then had existed only in his head. And she is designing her husband's fifth and supposedly last cellar. Slated for completion sometime late in the fall, this 2,500-square-foot space will include a dining room, kitchen and bathroom, as well as storage areas. Carol, her husband indicates, possesses the superior palate. "I think most women do have better palates," he says. "I'd hate to see Bob Parker taste against his wife, Pat."

The Parkers have been weekend guests at the Smiths' home in the Connecticut countryside, and the consumption of wine during those visits can best be described as heroic. Parker recalls one time when Smith pulled 100 wines from his cellar: "I think we got through 51."

Even though the friendship between the two men is close, Smith is quick to point out that it has obvious boundaries. For example, Parker would never divulge the score of a wine to Smith prior to publishing it in his newsletter. "Parker is ruthlessly honest," Smith says. Nevertheless, they do share a similar taste in wines, especially when it comes to California and the Rhône Valley. For it is in the California and Rhône Valley cellars (Nos. 1 and 2) that Smith's true passion lies.

In fact, the only thing equal to, and perhaps even surpassing, Smith's love for Golden State and Rhône Valley wines is his fondness for large format bottles. He has magnums, double magnums, jeroboams and Methuselahs, many of which were designed just for him. Wineries that don't produce magnums have been known to make them for Smith, so great is his passion and influence. And all his large bottles, housed in the magnum cellars (Nos. 3 and 4), are displayed in specially designed racks.

"Why magnums?" I ask, anticipating the standard response: "The larger the bottle, the more slowly the wine ages." But Smith just sighs and says, "There's something so romantic about magnums."

Published September 1999
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