Vintage pursuits

 With well-trained palates and well-stocked cellars, local wine collectors pour themselves into their passion

“Grapes are smart,” says Edward Schwartzenburg with a wink. “They love to live in the most beautiful places in the world.”

Perhaps the tendency to find grapevines growing in picturesque locales is part of what makes wine collecting such an appealing hobby for adventurous Baton Rougeans. From attending casual tastings to building serious cellars, these enthusiasts are drawn in by the subtleties of taste, the potentially excellent investment value and the ability to share their treasures with friends.

Edward, a local obstetrician/gynecologist, and his wife Cindy, an anesthesiologist, have turned their interest in fine wines into a reason to visit exquisite settings around the globe, from California and Croatia to Italy and Australia. Wherever they go, they visit local vineyards and taste varietals that are indigenous to the area.

“We love finding unique and pleasant wines that portray the region of their origin,” explains Cindy. “We try to go during harvest time, and we learn so much on these visits.”

More than just wine tourists, though, the Schwartzenburgs have put their knowledge to work in a tangible way in yet another exotic destination. During dozens of trips to Cindy’s father’s native Hungary, the couple was swept up in the romance of winemaking and eventually bought a small vineyard in that country’s Matraalja mountain region in 2003. Today, their Black Castle label—named for the English translation of the German “Schwartzenburg”—imports 17 varietals for sale in several Baton Rouge stores.

Tom Wills, whose personal collection of wine now rivals that of many fine restaurants, developed his avocation while on a vacation, some 25 years ago in Napa Valley. “I was sightseeing with a friend,” recalls the urologist, “and we went to a tasting room. I didn’t really know anything about wine, and I thought they would all taste the same. Boy, was I wrong.”

Fascinated by the nuances of flavor he experienced on that trip, Tom immersed himself in learning everything he could about wine. He went to tastings, made frequent visits to Martin Wine Cellar in New Orleans and began buying bottles that he enjoyed. The interest grew into a passion, and he converted part of the garage in his family’s home to a 10-foot-square wine cellar to properly store his purchases.

“But we soon outgrew both the house and the cellar,” Tom says. So three years ago, he and his wife Paula built a new house in the Country Club of Louisiana, complete with a 21-by-11-foot cellar capable of holding about 8,000 bottles.

“The important thing for me was to increase my storage capacity,” says Tom. “I have about 6,000 bottles now, collected over 25 years.” The new space features double-deep redwood racks, heavy-duty insulation and a “good, strong cooling unit” akin to one you’d find in a grocery store. The temperature stays at a constant 56 degrees, and humidity is kept around 70% to preserve the integrity of labels and corks.

Tom took on the task of designing the room himself, from the wrought-iron and glass arched door to the thick walls and rack configuration. Homebuilder Mark Montgomery deferred to Tom’s knowledge on completing the cellar construction. “I told him all the specs, and he built it the way I needed it,” Tom says. “He’s since called to ask more about it for other clients who are interested in building their own cellars.”

Like Tom, fellow collector Drew Blanchfield had to build around his hobby. Drew’s interest in wine actually began much earlier in life, when, as a child growing up in Wisconsin, he sometimes saw his father drive off to Chicago to buy 100 bottles or so to add to the collection in the family’s cellar. “I can remember having to haul the cases downstairs when he brought them home,” Drew says. “With an Italian background, we always had wine with meals, and I was permitted a taste on special occasions.”

While a student at LSU’s law school, Drew began his own collection. His first wine storage area was a simple hand-built rack in the bottom of a closet; but as his enthusiasm for wine grew, so did his collection, and he quickly graduated to a freestanding storage unit and then a refrigerated closet space.

Seven years ago, as part of an addition to his family’s home, Drew installed a bona fide cellar that’s easily accessible from his kitchen and family room. “My goal was to create a functional storage place for wine that fit in with the rest of the house and looked attractive,” Drew says.

To that end, he incorporated striking architectural features, including an antique pine ceiling and a cypress and glass door with views of the 2,000-plus bottles inside. As a backdrop to triangular racks on the rear wall, he placed logos from favorite wooden wine boxes in a puzzle-like pattern. Drew’s wife Melissa contributed to the room’s décor by attaching hundreds of saved corks to another wall, which also holds glasses and bottle openers.

The Schwartzenburgs built their own freestanding cellar on a slope beyond their backyard fence, with the goal of creating a spot that could be used both to store wine and host cozy wine-tasting dinners. “I can store up to 2,000 bottles, but for me the ambience was more important than the capacity,” says Edward.

The couple captured the feeling of faraway places by filling the space with souvenirs of their travels, including paintings and a chandelier from Hungary and a narrow hand-hewn table they bought on the side of the road in El Salvador, the country where Cindy was born.

“The atmosphere in there is amazing,” says Edward. “It’s like you’re escaping. … It truly gives a magical feeling of the Old World.”

That mood makes the cellar a popular spot for Black Castle wine dinners, which the couple offers on occasion through fundraising auctions for St. George School and other local organizations. Cindy and Edward handle all the cooking for these events and share five or six varietals with their guests during the evening.

“The conversation flows easily with good wine, food and company,” Edward says.

The Schwartzenburgs usually return to Hungary once a year. “We like to go during harvest time, and I especially love going right before harvest to taste the grapes right off the vine,” says Cindy. “It’s interesting to see how the quality and taste really change from year to year.”

Tom Wills made his own wine pilgrimage last year to the Bordeaux region of France with a group of like-minded friends. “It was fabulous,” he recalls. “We went to some of the chateaux that we all collect and know. It’s just a beautiful, beautiful place.”

Meanwhile, Tom holds on to the hundreds of bottles of Bordeaux he has collected over the years, watching them rise in value as worldwide demand has skyrocketed. “I’m not out to sell or make a profit, but some bottles I bought for $30 would now go for $900 a bottle,” he says. “I’m lucky that I have 20 years of collecting under my belt.”

Drew, too, buys wines for his own pleasure rather than for investment, with a mix of bottles that are ready for immediate tasting and those that get better with age. “I always buy a wine with an eye toward consumption,” he says. “I have never really collected wine as one would collect antiques. From an early age, the vast differences in so many wines caught my interest.”

To keep in the loop on new and interesting wines, Drew occasionally attends tastings held every Saturday afternoon by a local wine group. He bolsters his collection by visiting local wine shops and gathering more on his travels. He also taps into winery mailing lists for new additions, as does Tom, whose place on one coveted list has made him very popular among his friends.

“People always want to try my wines from Screaming Eagle Winery in California,” says Tom. “They’re produced in very limited quantities and considered ‘cult cabernets.’ ” In fact, the bottles are so prized that they can sell for thousands of dollars on the private auction market.

None of these local collectors, however, would venture to put a price on the enjoyment their hobby brings. They cherish the ability to share their favorite wines with loved ones. Holidays, birthdays and anniversaries all prompt the uncorking of a nice bottle, but a special occasion is certainly not always required.

“I have some large bottles from my sons’ birth years that I’m holding for when they get married or have big events in their lives,” says Tom. “But just getting together with friends is occasion enough to open something really special.”