An article by ABIGAIL TUCKER of The Baltimore Sun :
BALTIMORE – Almost 300 cases of the finest wine, and it evaporated like morning mist. Five-hundred-dollar bottles. Thousand-dollar bottles. The French Bordeaux from his children’s birth years, which he planned to uncork at their weddings. The 1966 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild he wanted to share one day with his brother.
The only vintage that remained in his ransacked office, Doug Eisinger said, was a single bottle of 1990 Dom Perignon. “I plan on drinking that on the day of my divorce,” he said.
Eisinger, who lives in Sherwood Forest in Anne Arundel County, Md., claims that his estranged wife, Elizabeth, absconded with his $200,000 wine collection in November, breaking into the office of his construction company where the wine was hidden, then loading about 3,500 bottles into a rental truck.
Elizabeth Eisinger’s attorney said that she had her own key to the office, that she took much less wine and that she made nowhere near $200,000 upon selling it wholesale (and not through a ritzy Washington, D.C., auction house, as her husband contends).
Who gets to keep the money won’t be sorted out until the divorce – a particularly messy affair filled with charges and countercharges – is settled, probably in the summer. Until then, all that both sides can agree on is that the booze itself is gone for good.
Custody disputes over huge, vastly expensive wine collections are bubbling up in a growing number of divorce cases across the country, lawyers say, as some Americans’ cellars age better than their marriages.
“It’s really been in the last decade,” said Sheila Sachs, a Baltimore divorce lawyer who specializes in high-net-worth divorces. “People are spending a lot on wine. It’s almost more of an asset of influence now than jewelry.”
While these disputes often are settled amicably, they can also turn as vicious as bar brawls – and not just because wine is difficult to appraise and evenly divide.
“People have an emotional relationship with their wine cellars,” Sachs said.
Last year for the first time, wine surpassed beer as the country’s alcoholic beverage of choice; in 2005, we swilled an estimated 712 million gallons of the stuff, according to San Francisco’s Wine Institute.
As the nation’s palate grows more refined, consumer tastes become more expensive and sizable cellars are increasingly common: The Wine Spectator reports that about 200,000 Americans have collections of 500 bottles or more. These racks represent an investment in future gains as serious as a stock portfolio.
Moreover, as a shared asset, wine carries a greater emotional charge than stocks and bonds. Wine can be a lubricant for courtship, and cellars can mark milestones in a marriage: wedding night whites, Valentine reds.
Tony Foreman has never seen violence at the private wine lockers of his Baltimore restaurant, Charleston, but he remembers some fairly grisly dismemberments of wine collections. Sometimes the precious vintages are sold off out of financial necessity, other times for pure spite. Almost always, though, divorce is the driving force, he said.
It is fairly common for feuding spouses to poach at least a few bottles in advance of a divorce settlement, to sell over the Internet or elsewhere, said Steve Bachman, CEO of Vinfolio, a California-based wine collectors services company.
Others manage to wait until after the divorce to savor vengeance. Cleaveland Miller, a Baltimore-area lawyer and part-owner of Calvert Fine Wines in Hunt Valley, knows of a woman who waited patiently for her half of her ex-husband’s beloved 100-bottle stock, then poured every last drop down the sink.
“Doing something to the wine is a way to hurt another person,” Bachman said.
Typically, the wounded party is the husband. Although studies show that women buy and drink more wine than men, collecting is a predominantly male hobby, aficionados say.
Not every cellar custody battle tastes of the grapes of wrath. Some couples simply and dispassionately disagree about how to appraise a collection, said Sally Gold, another Baltimore attorney who has handled several wine-drenched divorces. Even though wine is literally a liquid asset, it’s difficult to appraise and divide. Splitting a favorite case down the middle can diminish its market price, for instance, and it’s hard to measure how some wines’ worth will increase with time.
But, in mid-divorce at least, some bon vivants have little patience for legal niceties. The courts weren’t quick enough to salvage much of Roger Yaseen’s $500,000 Bordeaux collection, which the New York investment banker said his ex-wife “held hostage” in 2001 after he decided to remarry. (According to one newspaper report, he decanted some of the choicer bottles at the wedding.) The hearings dragged on while the remaining wine languished in what he claimed was the dangerous climate of his ex-wife’s house.
“The wines were going through serious, serious problems,” he said. “Inappropriate humidity conditions and everything.”
Yaseen said that more than half of his hoard soured.
As cellar disputes become more common, wedded epicures are taking steps to protect themselves. Some save receipts to prove who owns what. Others enlist the aid of private management companies to store their reserves off site, while others seal basement cellars with combination locks.
Roger Yaseen – who says his collection is just now inching back up to its original levels – did not enjoy the bitter finish of his first marriage but, like any serious wine lover, he remembered and learned from it. That’s why, when his second marriage dissolved recently, he still had 3,000-plus bottles of Bordeaux to have and to hold.
“She was entitled to money upon divorce, but nothing else,” he said. The wine was protected in the pre-nuptial agreement.