It was the Torrontés that did it. In preparation for the notoriously difficult WSET Level III exam, Christine Bae had memorized the regions, varieties and winemaking styles of Italy, Germany, Greece, Spain and Portugal. Then came the fateful question: What is the Torrontés wine from Argentina? "And I said, ‘Oh, my goodness,' " Bae recalls. " ‘Why?' "
Bae, a Fort Lee, N.J.-based lawyer, had never failed a test in her life. "I passed my bar exam on my first try, the thousands of tests I needed to pass in order to take the bar exam, my driver's license test," she says. "And I failed my wine exam."
Bae had sailed through the first two levels of the WSET on the strengths of her decade-long deep dive into wine. Her path from enthusiast to expert is a familiar one. Beginning with a 500-bottle-capacity cellar she believed she would never fill, she was soon facing an overflow problem. When she moved to her current house, she decided she needed a bigger storage space. Now, with her 1,500-bottle wine room nearing its limit, she wonders if she shouldn't have splurged on accommodations for 2,000.
A penchant for superlatives runs through Bae's connoisseurship. From her rigorous wine education to the pedigree of the bottles she purchases, she craves the best. She describes her trajectory as an enological monomyth, a set of stages comparable to those of Joseph Cambell's The Hero's Journey: "We all begin with California Cabernet. That's what we first get exposed to, and it's such a big wine, and you say, ‘Wow, this is what wine is!' It's fruits and all the tannins and all the volume. And then you get tired of that and you discover Bordeaux or Malbec or Carmenère. And then you move on to Burgundy. That's where I am."
Among her most prized wines is a group of 2008 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti bottlings—the La Tâche, Romanée St.-Vivant, Grands Echézeaux and Echézeaux, as well as a magnum of the Grands Echézeaux—bought to commemorate the birth of her son. Verticals of Dujac Clos de la Roche and Gevrey-Chambertin Aux Combottes (both 2002-2012), and Ponsot Clos de la Roche (1998-2010), show impressive depth in the category. On the Italian front, she holds Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d'Abruzzo dating to 1974 and a set of 40- to 50-year-old Barolos she says are drinking spectacularly. "In my wine club, we tasted 1961, 1962, 1966 La Tâche," she notes by way of comparison. "We liked it; we loved it. You can still get the rose, the hint of strawberries. But it was nothing compared to the Barolos I'm tasting now. They're so full of flavor and life. You feel astonished."
Bae revels in the shared experience of wine. Her wine club meets monthly, in the homes of members or at BYOB restaurants. They frequently taste blind, discussing nuances and trying to guess the grape, region, year and producer. The atmosphere of these events is convivial but also illuminating. Bae has made numerous discoveries in the setting, including a new love of hers: white Burgundy. "I never drank white wine until recently," she says. "It wasn't my cup of tea. But one night a guest brought two bottles of white Burgundy from 1982, Chevalier-Montrachet. And out of respect to our guest, I took a sip. What I experienced was the most incredible minerality and complexity. It was done so right: the acidity, the balance, the finish. I was in heaven."
As her horizons expand, she makes an effort to pay her knowledge forward. Over dinner one night, the editor in chief of Korea Daily, among the most widely read Korean-language newspapers in the world, asked her to pen a column to help demystify wine for novice drinkers. "Everybody in Korea, they're all interested in wine," she says. "But they don't have a forum. I think it's very intimidating."
To solidify her credentials as a columnist, she registered for classes at the WSET. "I thought I would learn about different wines and what I should be drinking," she says. "Instead, I learned about the different soils and the climates of the winemaking regions." After blazing through the Level I and II exams, Bae floundered at Level III, failing twice.
But a few weeks after our initial conversation, she relayed some exciting news: She'd passed on her third try, with flying colors.
Number of wines: 1,500
Focus of Collection: Burgundy, Italy
Prized bottles: Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tâche, Romanée St.-Vivant, Grands Echézeaux and Echézeaux 2008
Verticals: Dujac Clos de la Roche and Gevrey-Chambertin Aux Combottes (both 2002-2012), Ponsot Clos de la Roche (1998-2010), Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d'Abruzzo (1974-2013)
Large-format: Jeroboam of Fourrier Gevrey-Chambertin VV 2012; magnums of Ponsot Clos de la Roche 2002, Emidio Pepe 1985, Château Haut-Brion 2008, Bruno Paillard Champagne 1996, J.L. Chave Hermitage 2007, Mascarello e Figlio Monprivato 2008
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