THOMAS O. RYDER graduated from Louisiana State University in 1966 and after a number of executive positions in the publishing industry at companies such as Time Inc. and CBS Magazines, Ryder joined American Express. During his time at American Express, he elevated publications such as Travel & Leisure magazine, bought Food & Wine magazine and founded Departures. He also founded the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. Ryder is also an investor in a number of restaurants, including Danny Meyer’s esteemed restaurants Tabla, Eleven Madison Park and the Modern. In 1998, he was named Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., and the company subsequently became the world’s largest food publisher. He retired as CEO in January 2006 and as Chairman of the Board of Directors in January 2007. Ryder has four children and resides with his wife Darlene in Connecticut, USA.
In September last year approximately half of his lifetime collection of wines were put up for sale — 487 lots, which included 5,477 bottles, with a focus on Bordeaux, Rhône and California, featuring the best wines from the best years. A Louisiana native, Ryder donated a portion of the proceeds from the sale to Louisiana-based charitable organizations and schools.
Highlights of the sale included a full case of 1982 Château Pétrus, which brought $56,762, a case of 1982 Château Lafite Rothschild, which sold for $26,887 and a case of 1982 Château Mouton Rothschild which fetched $19,120. A case of 1990 Château Cheval Blanc (mentioned here) sold
What got you started in wine collecting?
It was a hobby I started when I was 25 that allowed me to escape from the stress of what I was doing at the time and the way that I gave myself intellectual relief was to go up to Napa Valley at the weekends, talk to winemakers and drink wine. This didn’t start as an effort to collect wine. Of course, it was the early days of California wine, not a lot of people went and talked to the winemakers. They were farmers, artists and scientists all wrapped into one and I found them fascinating and fun to be with.
Is wine collecting a pursuit for people with a certain kind of culture?
I’m not sure. I’ve met a lot of people who collect wine. I suspect we’re not a lot different from people who collect stamps or coins. When I was a kid I collected baseball cards and I pursued that with the same sort of intensity which I’ve pursued wine collecting.
Would you share one of your treasured bottles with someone who might not appreciate it?
I certainly have over the years. It’s not nearly so much fun. I tried not to do it twice.
Why do collectors end up having so much wine in their cellar which they can never consume?
You do get carried away. When you discover a truly extraordinary wine, let’s say a 1990 Cheval Blanc. It never occurs to you that you can’t really drink six cases. So you buy six cases and it costs a lot of money. It’s stupid and you wind up with more wine than you can drink.
How do you stop yourself drinking some of your great bottles in a rash moment either when you’re on own or in front of the TV? Doesn’t it require a lot self discipline?
The whole point of having these wines is that any time the whim strikes you, you can have a great bottle of wine. My wife and I enjoy cooking together and for us there’s nothing like cooking a simple roast chicken. I like red wine with roast chicken and we have drunk the most extraordinary bottles of wine such as Château Petrus, or great Burgundies sitting in our little kitchen. I try never to exercise discipline where great bottles of wine are concerned.
Do you ever think about the value of the wines when you drink them?
You know I didn’t for a long time but it does become a bit oppressive when you find that some of these wines have become two, three, four or even five thousand dollars a bottle. I’m not sure you ought be to drinking that. You ought to be putting it into a museum. So, yes I do think about it. For most of the time I was really good in ignoring it and just enjoying the wines for what they were but in the last few years I must say I do think about it and part of the thinking process brought us to the idea that there was something better we could do with these wines and hence the sale which is in part to support the state of Louisiana.
When the auction house folks first came around we did a sort of ‘testing the cellar’ and we picked a 1982 First Growth at random. We were enjoying the wine and it was quite extraordinary and we were really thrilled with it and it went down awfully fast so I said we should probably try something else just to make sure we understood how good it was so I picked a 1968 Beaulieu Vineyards Cabernet Private Reserve which I knew very well because I’d bought it at the winery years and years ago and kept it. There was no question - the ‘68 BV was truly one of the most magnificent wines I have ever tasted. It was significantly better then the ‘82 First Growth which cost about twenty-five hundred dollars a bottle and there was absolute unanimity about that. It had been on my list of wines to sell and I quickly took it off because it would have sold for $150 a bottle and it is simply one of the greatest wines ever made. There are some wines like that. I mentioned the 1990 Cheval Blanc. I remember that wine absolutely taking my breath away. I am selling some because I bought quite a lot but I’m keeping some. 1974 Ridge Vineyards which is a wine that is truly magnificent... and that will sell for $150 a bottle.. crazy!
Are you surprised the value top wines have acquired? Was it something you imagined 10 or 15 years ago?
Shocked! Absolutely shocked! I wish I could say that I was that smart. Hard to imagine.
Are you in the market in today to buy them?
I’m not. What I do is what I have always done which is to buy new wines which are particularly interesting for me. What I am buying now is... Riesling — fabulous wines from Germany which were a little expensive but under $120 per bottle and most a lot less than that but these are for drinking. I’ll drink them over the next few years and this will make me quite happy. I also buy really expensive Burgundy because, unfortunately, nearly all great Burgundy is really expensive.
Do you have advice to pass on to an aspiring wine collector?
Yes. First of all, decide whether you want to really collect or drink intelligently. If you want the latter there are some spectacular wines which you can buy that are less expensive than the collector wines. For example, early California wines particularly from the early 1980s and 1990s are truly magnificent wines and they are hugely under-valued compared to, say, Bordeaux often, I think, the equal to great Bordeaux. I’ve spent 40 years drinking them side by side so I feel qualified to say it. I would also say that truly magnificent bargains can be found in slightly off years in Bordeaux. I’m talking years like 1981, 1983, 1985. Years that surrounded magnificent years like 1982 where the wines just over-shadowed the market around it. These wines have never gained market currency so they are tremendously inexpensive relative to what I call the collector’s wines. They will never have great value in the market place but hell, the whole point is to drink them. The wines of the Rhône Valley are still relatively under-valued particularly wines like Hermitage and Châteauneuf du Pape. I’m also now writing a column about inexpensive wines — under $15. I would tell collectors particularly to look particularly at areas like Washington State in the US, Spain, Argentina (which may be the best developing wine region in the world), still lots of bargains in Australia. If you want to be a serious collector, something I guess I have been over the years then I think you need a strategy and a strategy for me was best wines, best years and that kind of principle gives a focus to your collecting effort.
This interview is available as a podcast on iTunes and other podcatchers - search 'People in Wine'.
This article is published in Fine Wine magazine
Interviewed by Fabian Cobb