Confessions of a Checklist Drinker

Charles Antin spent the better part of his 20s in the fine and rare wine department at Christie’s. But after nearly a decade mainlining some of the greatest wines of the 20th century, he'd realized just how much he'd been missing.

People in the wine business often talk about their “ah-ha” wine, a bottle that created such a strong reaction that they can recall every single rose-colored detail about the day they drank it. Sometimes it’s rare or expensive, a bottle of first-growth Bordeaux opened on their 21st birthday by Uncle Bob, the otolaryngologist. Other times, it’s something inexpensive, but of enough quality to make it distinctive from their jug wine days. When I started in the wine business, I didn’t have an ah-ha wine, but I wanted one.

I first got interested in wine during a sad, jobless and confused time in my early 20s. I spent hours watching Sex and the City on DVD while—like millions of young Charlottes before me—drinking wine. Each night I’d read from a few wine books I’d picked up. An hour later, Samantha was in the sack with some dude, Mr. Big was being non-committal, and I knew something about the history of Bordeaux, the classification system in Burgundy and I’d polished off a bottle of … something. It was never something I was reading about, because I couldn’t afford the bottles that make their way into wine books as “representative of their terroir.” I knew I was missing something, some sort of visceral emotional reaction to wine that I had read about. At the time, I thought that a higher proportion of ah-ha wines must be the fine and collectible wines of the auction world, so instead of starting in the business as many do—a job at the local wine store or a bad distribution beat—I decided to try and get a job at Christie’s in the hopes of fast tracking my goal of amassing a cache of ah-ha moments.

On my way to an interview at 20 Rockefeller Plaza, I imagined monocles and walking canes and people who knew rare things about French pronunciation and where to eat when summering at Cap d’Antibes. I didn’t own a suit at the time, so I borrowed one for the interview. The head of the department met me in a “viewing room,” a small lounge overlooking the auction room, where certain VIP clients can bid on Picassos while swilling champagne. He asked what my favorite wine was and I didn’t have an answer for him. I may have said, “malbec,” or something equally embarrassing—I don’t even remember. I was ah-ha-less. The in-house waiter came by with a silver tea service and hors d’oeuvres. There’s a reason the interview didn’t touch on the spreadsheets that make up the reality of my current day-to-day. This is how they get you—it was love at first finger sandwich.

After one particularly hedonistic night where we didn’t so much taste, as swill, a large lineup of some of the world’s greatest and most expensive wines, I woke up with a hangover (NB: the hangover from Musigny is the same as the hangover from mojitos) and decided that something was missing. That something was Neuburger. And Zwiegelt. And Shavkapito and vin jaune and orange wine and rosé.

I remember my first few days at Christie’s. I asked what DRC stood for (hint: it’s not Democratic Republic of the Congo). I worked my first event, which happened to be a five vintage vertical tasting of the quintessential and astonishingly priced California cult wine Screaming Eagle. In no time, I had tasted some legends: ’45 Mouton Rothschild, ’61 Latour, ’62 Penfolds Bin 60A, ’47 Cheval Blanc, ’82 Pichon Lalande, ’59 Haut Brion, ’59 Lafite—the list goes on. I drank 18th century Madeira from a silver wine cooler commissioned by George Washington. I spent my 29th Birthday in the cellars of DRC, (Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, one of the most collectible and expensive wines, I’d learned) drinking an $8,000 bottle of Burgundy from my birth vintage. I stopped short of buying a monocle.

One day, I realized that I had officially become a checklist drinker. I was missing out on wine from regions rarely seen at auction—with a few notable exceptions, most of the wines of Australia, Italy, Germany, Austria, Spain and even the United States. In other words, most of the wines of the world. My niche of the wine business was limiting what I was exposed to. Woe is me, I know. The wines I was getting to try were often fantastic, but none was my ah-ha wine. After one particularly hedonistic night where we didn’t so much taste, as swill, a large lineup of some of the world’s greatest and most expensive wines, I woke up with a hangover (NB: the hangover from Musigny is the same as the hangover from mojitos) and decided that something was missing. That something was Neuburger. And Zwiegelt. And Shavkapito and vin jaune and orange wine and rosé.

There’s a place for checklist drinking. Regardless of what they’ll admit, everyone in the wine business, and many out of it, want to try these wines, and to be able to say that they have. There’s an excitement to opening a vinous legend, a wine older than you are, and from a different era entirely. Plus, many of these wines are really, really good. But just as I think that if you’re not drinking aged wine, you’re missing out, I think that if you’re only drinking collectible wine, you’re also missing out. I was able to check off these wines and more, but they were drunk over the course of several years, and often times all I got were a few ounces at a tasting. If they were over dinner, the company was usually in a different age and income bracket. And it’s really hard to have an ah-ha moment of any sort when your dining partner is telling you that his life goal was to have at least $100 million in the bank by the time he hit 40. Only a few of my checklist wines were drunk how wine is meant to be drunk—with good friends, over a meal.

Over the years, outside of my day job, my curiosity led me to seek out wines from off the beaten path. Producers and regions that, I realized, most of my peers in other parts of the wine business had been drinking for years. Many of these wines were the top wines of their regions—Burgenland in Austria or Rias Baixas in Spain—yet I’d never heard of them, and this became my dirty little secret. For friends who had been drinking these wines all along, this was hardly a revelation—it was more of a “no kidding.” They didn’t understand why I’d be jealous of them, and I assured them they shouldn’t be jealous of me. None of my clients would believe that when I’m home, I’d often choose a Savignin from the Jura over a fancy bottle of Saint-Émilion.

For me, the ah-ha wine came after I’d gone from Administrator to Specialist at Christie’s. It was a ’93 Overnoy Pupillin Poulsard. This perfectly aged bottle had all of the required attributes of an ah-ha bottle. It was special because it was so fragrant, so structured, so delicious and, though celebrated in wine geekdom, obscure enough that I’d never encountered it at Christie’s, which made it resonate with me in its own way. I found that ah-ha wine at a time, and in a place, when and where I wasn’t looking. And I had it after working in fine and rare wines at Christie’s for over five years.

Since then, I find myself seeking out the diamonds in the rough, wines from regions I’m not familiar with, always looking for something that will help me remember why I got interested in wine in the first place. It took some time, but I realized that, while I won’t turn it down, tasting Burgundy older than my dad wasn’t what got me interested in wine. It was something else entirely—something that definitely didn’t require elbowing some guy for an ounce of ’82 Mouton. Ah ha.

Charles Antin is Specialist Head of Sale, Associate Vice President and auctioneer in the Christie’s Wine Department, New York. His essays and other writings have appeared in Food & Wine, the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer. His fiction has appeared in numerous publications including The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Gettysburg Review, The Michigan Quarterly Review, Alimentum, Fugue, Unstuck and Glimmer Train, where he won the award for short fiction. He holds an MFA in creative writing from New York University.