James Malkin and his wine collection have traversed several continents, and the journeys haven't always been easy. When Malkin and his family relocated from Sydney to London, he owned 4,200 bottles of wine; worried that his inventory's arrival in England might be delayed, he carried eight cases of Shiraz on the plane. A subsequent move from London to New York stalled his bottles in New Jersey for more than a month, the result of concerns on the part of U.S. Customs officials that the extensive collection was serving a commercial enterprise.
Now retired from his career as a media executive, Malkin, 67, can relax knowing that his wines aren't going anywhere for a while. In 2010, he and his wife, Joan, moved full time to their home on Martha's Vineyard, and Malkin's first home improvement project was to make their basement hospitable to wine. He insulated the walls, installed a new ceiling, laid carpeting and acquired racks from a wineshop that was going out of business. The family got involved: "My son found a slab of wood and made a tasting table," Malkin says.
Wine surrounded Malkin from an early age, but his fascination developed gradually. "My parents liked all things French," he recalls. "They had lots of custom-made wine racks but never really filled them." Later, he dropped out of business school and found himself skippering chartered sailboats in the Caribbean, where he was charged with purchasing wine for charter guests. When he returned to the mainland, his own stock of wines began to grow modestly, including some bottles of 1982 Bordeaux that he drank while they were still young.
"Then in 1989, we moved to Australia," Malkin says. "We'd never been to Australia. What we knew of Australia was they made beer." The first time that he and Joan hosted friends for dinner in Sydney, their guests brought a bottle of Blue Nun Riesling, apparent confirmation that Australians did not deal in fine wine. But within a week, the Malkins found themselves at the home of another new friend, who happened to be a thoughtful collector of wines—Australian wines, no less.
"He gave me my first introduction to fine Australian wine," says Malkin. "Suddenly I was finding outstanding wines and Australian Vintage Port and really good cheese, and stickies, as they say," referring to the nation's sweet wines, often expressions of botrytized Sémillon. "And then I really started getting interested."
The Malkins' 12 years in Australia were marked by good food, drink and company. Newly enamored of the local bottlings, they made regular sojourns to Margaret River, Tasmania, Victoria and—most of all—nearby Hunter Valley. They discovered the heady pleasures of premium Shiraz. Cases of d'Arenberg The Dead Arm, Penfolds Grange and Penfolds RWT "accumulated on pallets in the crawl space of our basement," Malkin says.
"For us—and this is something we learned in our years in Australia—wine is not about price per bottle," he continues. "It's about what tastes great; it's about sitting down at a long meal with friends, kicking back and eating and enjoying what you're doing."
This is the attitude that Malkin now attempts to convey to his friends stateside. Guests at his home are invited down to the cellar to choose wines before dinner. "I usually ask people—because people tend to be a bit reticent about it; nobody wants to appear ignorant—pick a country, or pick a grape. And then we'll talk, without getting into absurdities. We'll pull a couple of bottles, taste them and take them upstairs." He finds that even inexperienced tasters "are pretty comfortable talking about flavors they know: sweet, sour, spicy, bitter."
Focused and methodical, Malkin tracks his inventory meticulously. He keeps a master spreadsheet that includes approximate drinking windows for each of his wines, based initially on the estimates of critics and retailers. "Then I modify that range as I drink a bottle of something," he explains.
He relies on Jamie McNeely of Our Market in Oaks Bluff, Mass., and Stephen Meuse to recommend new purchases. Long familiar with Malkin's tastes and budget, both merchants seek wines that he can "start drinking five years from today and drink until I die," as Malkin puts it. Thanks to McNeely and Meuse, Malkin has discovered fascinating producers from Gigondas, Pessac-Léognan, Málaga and beyond.
Still, the great Aussie Shirazes haven't lost their magic for him: "If you gave me a bottle of 2001 The Dead Arm and a piece of cheese, I'd be very happy with that."
Focus of the cellar: Australia, Bordeaux, Italy
Favorite producers: d'Arenberg, Penfolds, Venge, Emidio Pepe, Château de Fieuzal, Explotaciones Agrícola Los Aguilares, Del Dotto, Vietti
Verticals: d'Arenberg The Dead Arm, Venge Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Penfolds Grange, Penfolds RWT, Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Binomio Montepulciano d'Abruzzo
Cellar temperature: 56º F to 65º F, naturally regulated