He only organizes wine cellars, but the world might be better if Jeff Smith ran it. He slays chaos and creates order, then hands you a database to keep it that way.
Book Soup owner Glenn Goldman has collected wine for more than 30 years, and yet: “Total disarray.
I couldn’t find a specific bottle to save my life.” Thanks to Smith, he says, “I discovered stuff I’d long forgotten.”
As owner-operator of Carte du Vin, Smith provides wine cellar management. It’s a rarefied corner of the service industry, but Smith’s clients describe him not as a servant but as a Santa Claus.
“I’m like a little kid in anticipation of his arrival, and when he leaves, I’m a grown man crying,” says Jim Caparro, president and CEO of Entertainment Distribution Co. in New York. “Wine collecting would not be the joy it is today if it were not for him.”
Smith counts about 100 clients in 13 states, some who own 10,000 bottles or more. With that much wine, it’s easy to under- or overestimate collections by as much as 20%. That can mean hundreds of thousands of dollars, a margin of error they would not accept in their businesses.
“It’s like any other asset,” says business manager Michael Karlin, a Smith client, “but people don’t manage it properly.”
Or, as Smith says, “They forget what they drink.”
Carte du Vin began about four years ago, by accident: Smith’s father, music mogul Joe Smith, needed help moving his 4,000-bottle cellar into a new house. Then Jeff Smith’s brother-in-law, the WB founder Jamie Kellner, asked for cellar assistance.
“Next thing I knew,” he says, “I was in some of the biggest collections in town.” Among those were Warners production chief Jeff Robinov, WB network chairman Garth Ancier, producer Jim Brooks, E! topper Ted Harbert, Endeavor’s Adam Venit, producer-manager Freddie DeMann and Elliot Webb of Broder-Webb-Chervin-Silbermann.
Smith’s experience includes stints at Ticketmaster, Warner Bros. Records and Warner Television. He wrote a singles column for the Jewish Journal and a book, “Life Sentence: The Guy’s Survival Guide to Getting Engaged and Married.”
It’s not a background that suggests manhandling million-dollar wine collections. However, Wally’s Wine partner Christian Navarro says Smith is uniquely qualified. “You need to have a true understanding of wine, software and people,” he says. “He’s one of the few people I’ve met who can do all three.”
To those credentials, Smith would add a fourth: He’s willing.
“This is dirty, physical, cold work,” he says. “It’s unpleasant, and people don’t want to do it.”
In the process, Smith finds things he didn’t expect, like the false door that hid a cache of ammunition. (The cellar’s owner liked to hunt, too.) Or burlap sacks that contained silver dollars. “There must have been hundreds of those bags,” Smith says. “Stacks of bills, too.”
Mostly, Smith finds a lot of wine in disarray. Prices start at $2.50 per bottle for the initial organization of the cellar, which includes categorizing the wine by region and/or producer, labeling each bottle and providing a digitally indexed listing. He can also act as wine guru. Says Karlin: “He’s helped me pare down the good wines and acquire the great ones.”
Ancier, who brings his own wine to WB events, maintained his own cellar after Smith sorted out what was once “an incomprehensible mess.” Although he gets the occasional tip from Smith, Ancier buys the wine himself. “That’s half the fun,” he says.
Other clients need more attention.
“I needed someone to put together a wine closet, categorize it and tell me what to drink when,” Webb says. “I had 150-200 bottles, and I didn’t know one from the other.”
Thanks to Smith, his collection has grown to about 700 bottles. But Webb says he still doesn’t know much about wine.
“What I enjoy,” he says, “is drinking it.”
Wines to have and to hold.
By Dana Harris
Whether you keep your wine in an underground cave or in the back of a closet, we asked a few experts for bottles to buy now for later.
Jeff Smith says that while 55 degrees is the best temperature to maintain wine, slightly higher constant temperatures are better than a lower one that fluctuates: “Variations are the greatest enemy of wine, aside from being exposed to air.”
All prices noted are estimates.
JEFF SMITH, owner, Carte Du Vin
2002 O’Shaughnessy Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon ($75)
2003 Clos des Papes Chateauneuf-du-Pape ($95)
1996 Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame Champagne ($110)
2003 Chateau Latour futures ($430)
2002 Latour ($200 – looks like a steal!)
2001 Chateau d’Yquem Sauternes ($410)
2002 Bouchard Pere et Fils La Romanee ($670)
MICHAEL DAVIS, president-CEO of Chicago wine auction house Hart Davis Hart
2000 Bordeaux from chateaux Margaux ($500) and Leoville Barton ($150)
1999 Red Burgundy from Domaine de la Romanee Conti (from $500) and Marquis d’Angerville (from $50)
2001 Sauternes from chateaus Rieussec ($150) and d’Yquem ($410)
2001 German Riesling from J.J. Prum (from $50) and Egon Muller ($50)
2001 California reds from Harlan Estate ($750) and Arietta ($75)
CHRISTIAN NAVARRO, partner, Wally’s Wines
2002 Girard Estate ($30)
2002 Chappellet Cabernet Sauvignon ($50)
2001 Chateau Leoville Barton ($50)
2002 Versant Cabernet Sauvignon ($75)
2001 Antinori Guado al Tasso ($95)
2000 Chateau Monbousquet ($140)
2001 Chateau Pavie ($170)