On the Job

How to Build the Ultimate Wine Collection on Board

20 October 2021By Sara Ventiera
wine cellar on board superyacht broadwater
M/Y Broadwater
Credit: Onne van der Waal

Written by

Sara Ventiera

Sara Ventiera is a contributing writer and former stewardess who covers food, travel, and other topics. Her work has appeared in a wide range of publications, including the New York Times, Food & Wine, NPR, Eating Well, and BBC Travel.

When M/Y Aurora was built by Rossinavi in 2017, its glass-encased wine storage was created as a key feature in the vessel’s main deck, Interior Designer Achille Salvagni told Boat International. “Originally, the layout had the wine cellar elsewhere, but every time we reviewed the layout [the owner] focused on the wine cellar, so I said: ‘Listen, this is too important to be relegated to the side.’ You have different light effects, according to the kind of wine, and because wine can be affected by light, we had to install a computer that can be codified according to the wine.”

And it’s not the only recently built vessel to put its wine collection front and center. M/Y Endless Summer boasts a climate-controlled wine cellar with dark wood, floor-to-ceiling wine racks highlighted by soft lighting behind a glass wall right next to the stairs to its upper deck. M/Y Andromeda, a 107-meter Kleven, has an entire wine tasting room on board, a space completely surrounded by a display of beautiful bottles.

There’s always been copious amounts of wine consumed on yachts — dating all the way to its earliest days. But, just as everything else in the industry has become more professional over recent years, so have the onboard collections of bottles.

M/Y Andromeda
Credit: Thierry Ameller

This movement has created a whole new set of responsibilities for interior crew. Many have been upping their knowledge with wine certifications; however, learning how to properly manage and grow a wine collection is nearly akin to a master’s degree, requiring years of study and dedication.

To help stews gain a better understanding of the task at hand, we spoke to top wine professionals about the basics of caring for and building out a collection of wines for yacht owners and guests.

Building a Collection

“There are only certain wines that are worth collecting,” says Alessandra Esteves, director of wine education at Florida Wine Academy. “Ninety percent of the wines we buy are to be consumed within one year, the cheap wines in the $15 to $20 range and below.” That’s not to say you shouldn’t have wines in that price range aboard the yacht, they’re just not the ones you want to age.

A good wine list should have a bit of something for everyone and should consider the style of food being served on board. Starting with sparkling wine, as that’s where a good meal and a good wine list should start, Louise Sydbeck, master of wine and founder of Riviera Wine, suggests stocking at least one Brut Champagne, one rosé Champagne, and one or two prestige Champagnes like Cristal or Krug.

For whites, Sydbeck recommends featuring at least three different styles on the list, starting with crisp, light, and unoaked wines like Sauvignon Blanc, Chablis, and Pinot Grigio. The second style should include medium to full-bodied oaked selections like Puligny-Montrachet, Meursault, and New World Chardonnay. And to pair with spicier dishes that pull from some of the bold flavors found throughout different parts of Asia, there should be aromatic whites with a bit of residual sugar like an off-dry Gewürztraminer or Pinot Gris. “Yacht chefs cook a very wide variety of food,” says Sydbeck. “If the owner or charter guests have specific taste for a certain kind of food, some wines are more suitable for pairings.”

Most rosé drinkers tend to lean toward crisp, fresh, and fruit-driven styles, so it’s important to have at least one on board. But as rosé has become increasingly popular across the world, there’s been an uptick of more serious wines in the category, says Sydbeck, so she likes to see an oak-aged version added to the vessel’s list, as well.

M/Y Aurora
Credit: Rossinavi

Red wines should cover a range of light, like Pinot Noir-based red Burgundy, and full-bodied styles from regions including Bordeaux, Tuscany, and varying New World reds, although there are plenty of different growing regions and styles that can also be added to a list depending on the owners’ preferences. “It’s always fun to have different vintages of the same wine,” says Esteves. “Guests can taste and read about different vintages to see how it differs from the previous one.”

Dessert wines are not all that popular in yachting, says Sydbeck, but she recommends keeping some around, including a Sauternes and at least one other selection from another country or region like Alsace, Vin Santo from Italy, or Tokaji from Hungary.

Again, all of these selections depend on owner and guest preferences, as well as the amount of storage space on board. “A lot of people who come aboard yachts expect classical regions — Bordeaux, Burgundy, Sancerre, PouillyFumé, and classical Italian,” says Sydbeck of the clients she works with in the Mediterranean. “They expect those more than wines from the New World.”

Although those French and Italian classics are certainly popular among American yacht owners cruising in the western hemisphere, many also want to have high-end Napa and Sonoma wines on board, as well. “U.S. wines are largely consumed by Americans,” says Esteves. “And we do have wines that reach $3,000 a bottle, so they are collecting it too.”

M/Y Suerte
Credit: Alberto Cocchi

Organizing & Storing

Once a selection of wine has been brought aboard a vessel, it’s important to present it to guests in a structured, well-organized list on nice paper in an attractive binder that can be easily updated.

Following the format of the meal (in the manner laid out above), the selections should be listed with sparkling wines first, followed by whites, rosés, reds, and dessert wines. Just as you would find in a restaurant, larger lists should break down each of those categories into smaller subcategories according to country, or country and region for more extensive lists.

Each wine should be listed in a consistent format, starting or finishing with the vintage, name of the producer, and region of origin. “When we offer to give feedback, a lot of lists we receive are badly structured and unorganized, often there’s a producer name or vintage missing,” says Sydbeck. “You can structure wine lists differently, but it needs to be consistent and logical.”

It helps to keep track of each bottle on board to ensure the selection is varied; make sure it’s being well cared for. On vessels that don’t boast bespoke cellars, it’s up to the crew to make sure the wine is stored in the best way possible. It’s easy enough to buy a wine fridge to hold bottles at the correct 55-degree temperature and humidity. One of the top rules of storing wine is that it needs to be still without any vibration — nearly impossible on a yacht. Agitation can cause the corks to pop out of the bottle. “It happens very often for sparkling wines,” says Esteves. “It happens rarely with still wines, but it does happen.”

With any large wine collection on board a yacht, especially one that frequently travels from port to port, at some point some corks will displace themselves. Even if they don’t physically come out, air will get in and affect the wine’s flavor profile.

M/Y Endless Summer
Credit: Cavan Hadley

In spite of the inherent risks to the wine, Esteves has worked with stews who manage cellars with more than 2,000 bottles that live aboard the vessel. While many home cellars are lined with wood, ideally these onboard cellars would be lined with plastic just in case it gets wet somehow and should be away from all natural sunlight in spite of how beautiful it might be to showcase the collection out in the open. So, if you work on one of these vessels with a custom-built cellar, it’s wise to regularly check the corks and the space itself.

Christopher Hoel, former lead sommelier at The French Laundry in Napa and founder of wine advisory firm Harper’s Club, recommends only carrying a couple hundred bottles aboard for a specific trip or season. He suggests that if you’re going to have bottles sloshing around for six months to a year, it’s better to stick to wines that have less sediment. Younger reds and older reds with lighter tannins, such as Barolo or Barbaresco, along with whites and Champagnes tend to be safer bets for safekeeping on rough voyages and they’re often the right picks for the lighter menus that are often served aboard yachts.

As Hoel advises, the best way to maintain a wine collection for a yacht is to keep the bottles on solid land and get an allotment shipped to the vessel at the beginning of a season or right before a trip.

Harper’s Club offers its clients use of a climate-controlled warehouse in Napa and they can ship wines out to meet the boat — preferably a couple weeks prior to departure, so the wines have time to recover from transportation, says Hoel — wherever it may be.

Riviera Wine offers clients who place large orders the option to hold the wine in its storage facility and deliver bottles througout the season or over the course of a few years. “Some owners are very into certain vintages of Burgundy, like one who bought a lot of 2009,” says Sydbeck. “We still have stock for him and we keep delivering it a few times a year."

The United Kingdom is known for its large wine storage industry, holding millions of bottles for collectors and investors in both above- and underground cellars. Cities across the world have been following suit in recent years with a wider range of specialty facilities catering to individual and investor collections.

Credit: Unsplash

Help from the Pros

And just as these services exist to store wine, there is an array of consultants that can help owners and crew build out their collection from the ground up.

Hoel’s Harper’s Club works closely with their 40 or so clients to create a bespoke collection tailored to their individual preferences. Inspired by his time working at Thomas Keller’s renowned The French Laundry in Napa, the company offers the same sort of white glove service to ensure their clients get the wines they want as quickly as possible with the best provenance. A lot of the wines are sourced directly from wineries in Europe and the United States. The average cost per bottle is about $500 — although he has sourced plenty of bottles in the six-figure range.

Hoel often starts the relationship by getting to know his clients and looking at what they already have in stock. He often finds that clients who get interested in collecting start filling up their cellars without thinking through how to build out a real collection, picking up say 3,000 or 4,000 bottles of California Cabernet before realizing they actually prefer Brunello or Bordeaux. Hoel regularly helps those folks find new homes for a lot of the wines they already have, through auctions or by selling some to his other clients and takes those funds to build out a more robust collection.

For the clients who don’t really know what they like, Hoel will often send a homework case of 12 bottles from classic regions across the world. He asks them to try each one and provide honest feedback, all the likes and dislikes, into an app called Wine Ring that helps to generate a preference profile. Users take a picture of the label and rate each bottle on a scale of one to four. The app recalibrates its algorithm with every wine that’s rated. “On the back end, we get the data and develop a wine list based on our clients likes, not the wines we like,” says Hoel.

Credit: Unsplash

Although the main goal of Harper’s Club is to help clients compile their dream wine collection, Hoel and his co-founder Joshua Prince, a Jean-Georges New York City alum, provide a full service, working with clients and their estate managers or crew to ensure they have the right glassware, enough decanters, and the know how to properly serve the selections. They’re available by text or email nearly 24/7 to advise on when a specific bottle should be opened and they offer tasting notes for each bottle, says Hoel.

Both Esteves at Florida Wine Academy and Sydbeck at Riviera Wine offer similar consultation services, as well. And just like Harper’s Club, they’re both happy to consult on food and wine pairings before a particular trip.

Taking advantage of this kind of professional help not only alleviates some important tasks — and years of study — it can also prevent some serious missteps such as picking up counterfeit wines.

Similar to handbags and other luxury foods, about 20 percent of the wine in the current market is counterfeit, according to Maureen Downey, the top international expert on wine fraud and rare wine authentication. Finding a retailer who buys their bottles from respectable sources and knows how to detect fraudulent wines is extremely important when seeking out high-value collectibles. “In the fine wine world, there is never too many or too cheap,” says Esteves. “You really have to know what you’re buying.”

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