New York wine merchant Fred Shaw is on the phone with a client who wants to buy a bottle of Jaboulet's legendary 1961 Hermitage La Chapelle. The price is steep: $2,500. The client doesn't waver: He's a multimillionaire collector with a 35,000-bottle cellar. Shaw promises he'll find a bottle and it will be in pristine shape. Fred Shaw, you see, isn't just a wine merchant, he's a bounty hunter whose game is rare and expensive wine.
Shaw is a member of a unique fraternity. There are only about a dozen wine bounty hunters in the whole country. Although most are based in the New York metropolitan area, location doesn't much matter: Wine bounty hunters do the vast majority of their business via phone, fax and e-mail. And while they're not legally allowed to ship wine through the mail across state lines, there are some bounty hunters who are said to do just that.
Most bounty hunters run a traditional retail wine business up front while servicing "special client needs" on the side. Shaw and his partner Robert Grobleski, for example, just opened a shop in New York City called Fine Collections, where their walk-in customers are likely to be looking for "a nice bottle of Mâcon-Villages or an Alsatian white" while their phone orders are more likely to run to various vintages of Pétrus. That's typical of other bounty hunters, too; Filip Grufman and Patrick Boland run a retail shop-cum-bounty-hunting firm, GrapesThe Wine Company, in Rye, New York. At their store you'll see cases of good Bourgogne rouge 1997 from Groffier (about $25 a bottle) near an open case of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tâche ($1,000 a bottle). "A little something for everybody," Boland says. A few bounty hunters don't even bother with a retail shop: Eddie Gelsman and his brother Carl's operation, Wine Library Inc. in Petaluma, California, is just an office and a warehouse. But even for retailers like Grobleski and Shaw, bounty hunting can account for as much as 80 percent of their business.
So how exactly does bounty hunting work? "Tell us what you want, in what price range, and we'll go from there," says Shaw, who adds (as do the others) that the search itself is free. "Going from there," notes Gelsman, includes putting out faxes to contacts in the United States and in Europe, to producers with whom they've developed solid relationships. Most of Shaw's calls will be to Europe: "We have a dozen or more high-end sources there, mostly in London (Farr Vintners is their largest single source) but also in Switzerland and in France." Some of the phone calls will also be to fellow bounty hunters. Notes Gelsman of his compatriots, "Even if they don't have the wine you want, they might know someone who does. We do a lot of favors in our trade."
It's a trade that's based on a single-minded passion for wine. There isn't one bounty hunter who hasn't been bitten seriously by the wine bug. Shaw, for example, was a young executive at Macy's when he began investigating the world of wine. Pretty soon, he was joining tasting groups and traveling to wine country. When he decided to change careers a decade ago, he spent five years in the traditional retail wine trade. At that time Grobleski, his neighbor, was the manager of Sherry-Lehmann, the famed wine shop in New York City. "We struck up a friendship," Shaw remembers. "I liked his tastes, he liked mine. It was the beginning of a great partnership."
Eddie Gelsman's story is similar. He started out in a family business in Pennsylvania, but became interested in wine in the early 1970s. In 1986, he moved to California for the express purpose of getting into the wine trade. Patrick Boland also started out in retail, initially just to earn enough to put himself through college.
Shaw and Grobleski have a mailing list of more than 10,000 customers, but their regulars number fewer than 100, and 10 to 15 percent of those account for more than 85 percent of their business. A half dozen are really high rollers. "These are guys who think nothing of spending a million dollars or more each year on wine," Shaw says. Gelsman's customers are mostly dot-com millionaires and old money. While they tend to shop around and are aware of price, Gelsman says, to them "price ultimately matters a hell of a lot less than provenance and their personal relationship with the wine merchant."
Perhaps even more valuable are the relationships bounty hunters develop at various wine events and trips to wine regions. Shaw and Grobleski make a point of organizing several trips each year, often with clients, to keep in direct contact with growers and to taste new (and old) wines. And, of course, the clients love it.
That doesn't, however, mean all buyers have the same tastes. Says Shaw, "The dot-com crowd is into hard-to-find young California Cabs while old money is into mature Burgundy, both red and white, from a handful of growers like Leroy, DRC [Domaine de la Romanée-Conti], Henri Jayer, Ramonet, Coche-Dury and Lafon." Bordeaux, long the center of the fine- and rare-wine universe, is also important, according to the bounty hunters, and in fact, most of the best bargains are to be found in Bordeaux. "Bordeaux from 1962 and 1964 remains underpriced," Gelsman says. "And I love the 1985s for their soft, appealing fruit."
Gelsman and Shaw remain cautious, however, about buying more recent Bordeaux vintages, simply because of their high prices. "The 1996s," explains Gelsman, sounding pained, "are just so expensive." Of course, it's in his interest to say so, but in this case, he's probably right. Or as he says, "Why pay a thousand dollars a case for a 1998 Bordeaux that won't be drinkable for another decade when you could spend half that and get a tremendous 1989 or 1990 Bordeaux that's ready to drink now?" And thanks to Bordeaux's big production figures, it's not so hard to find the great 1989 or 1990 wines. But what if you're looking for an imperial of 1900 Château Margauxa very big bottle from the great château and a legendary vintage? Gelsman has one. He purchased it from a friend who bought it from the château. The price? $80,000.
Shaw says his best recent adventure was coming up with the 1949 Domaine Leroy red Burgundies that a top client wanted. "You have to understand," he deadpans, "This is a guy who believes in buying quantity." But find quantity Shaw did: Twenty-two cases of precious Domaine Leroy Musigny, Chambertin and Richebourg now reside in his client's vast cellar. The price? A mere $700,000.
The money earned by these bounty hunters is good, to be sure, but there's more to it than that. "Just last night," Shaw says, "Robert and I had dinner with one of our best clients. He asked if he could share a bottle of 1961 Château Pétrus with us." Shaw pauses, then adds: "Well, we couldn't turn the guy down, could we?"