A taste for what’s fine from the vine



It’s another day at the office for Marie Keep.

But the director of fine wines at Skinner is not, as you might expect, in a tasting room in Sonoma remarking upon the aroma of a 2009 Marcassin Pinot Noir or assessing the potpourri of flavors in the first sip of a Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1998.

Instead, wearing black pants, a blue polo shirt, and work shoes, Keep is on a step ladder pulling heavy cartons from a locker at the International Wine Vault, a climate-controlled storage facility in Allston that serves as a wine cellar for serious collectors.

“This is beautiful,” Keep says, pointing to the delicate artwork on the label of a bottle produced by Sine Qua Non, a cult California winery coveted by some collectors. “But, ultimately, our buyers are paying for the wine that’s in the bottle.”

How much they will pay she’s about to find out. Keep and her assistant, wine specialist Michael Moser, are in the vault to confirm the condition of bottles that will be on the block at Skinner’s wine auction on Tuesday. The auctioneer likes to say there’s a variety and vintage for everyone, but the truth is they’re called “fine wines” for a reason. Some bottles being auctioned at the Park Plaza Hotel will sell for several hundred dollars each.

The prospect of spending that kind of money for a single bottle of wine can be intimidating. Just because you’re enthusiastic about burgundy doesn’t mean you know anything about it. But Keep says buying wisely doesn’t require any special expertise. What’s important is knowing what you like.

“Just pay attention to what you’re drinking and take some notes,” she says.

Keep herself began to pay attention during a summer spent in France when she was 15. There were untold evenings of delicious food and assorted wines. She became curious about the history and geography of different types of grapes, and as she got older and sampled blends from Napa, Sonoma, Bordeaux, and Burgundy, she honed her palate. The list of what Keep likes to drink these days is lengthy but definitely includes 1978, 1985, and 1990 red burgundies.

Vagary eventually became vocation, and nearly a decade ago Keep founded the fine wines department at Skinner. The job has obvious advantages — she travels widely and assays many rare and remarkable vintages — but it’s not all glamorous.

Keep, slender as a vine, sometimes bumps her head wandering the low-ceiling cellars of the collectors who enlist Skinner to sell their wine at auction.

The reasons people choose to sell vary. Maybe their tastes have changed and a particular Cabernet Sauvignon they once thirsted for no longer satisfies. Maybe their collection is merely a commodity to be unloaded when the time — i.e. the market — is right. Maybe it’s something else.

“One of the four D’s,” Keep says. “Death, divorce, divestment, and debt.”

Whatever the reason, she says auctions are an opportunity for aspiring wine buyers who have done their homework. What does that entail? It begins with “thoughtful consuming,” Keep says. Invite friends over and tell them each to bring a bottle. Don’t just drink the wine, think about it. Figure out what color, flavor, acidity, and alcohol content you prefer. Write it down and then find a retailer who can recommend something that suits you.

“And decide what your budget — your price/enjoyment threshold — is,” Keep says. “Because you’re not going to enjoy the wine if you think you’re spending too much.”

Trevor Smith, a curator at the Peabody Essex Museum, is a good example of someone who enjoyed drinking wine but knew nothing about it. A native of Canada, which is hardly famous for its wineries, Smith resolved to educate himself by soliciting the opinions of others and trying, well, everything. That was 15 years ago. Today, he has 50 bottles in his basement, some of which he bought at auction after consulting Keep.

“It’s kind of like listening to music. After a while, you get a sense of what you’re more interested in,” Smith says. “If I buy something and I don’t like it, I don’t buy it again.”

After their trip to the vault, Keep and Moser head to Lower Falls Wine Company, the upscale wine retailer in Newton, where they have a date with a 1990 Pichon Baron and a Philip Togni Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 1992. The bottles are from the cellar of a collector whose inventory Skinner will be auctioning.

But before any wine passes her lips, Keep inspects the bottle for signs of seepage and also checks the ullage, an arcane term that refers to the space between the top of the wine and the cork. (Too much ullage can be a sign of evaporation, and that’s not good.) Then Keep aerates her pour by swirling it in the glass, pausing now and then to sniff it.

“We’re looking for off smells,” she says. “Like stewed fruit or wet dog or dank basement or moldy newspaper.”

There are none. Finally, it’s time to taste. A plebe with a primitive palate may not detect the tannins or taste the faint flavor of graphite, licorice, saddle leather, or what wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. likes to call “scorched earth.” But that’s OK.

“There’s so much wine,” Keep says. “Wine is being produced every year and it’s also aging every year. You can never know it all. But you can figure out what you like.”

Mark Shanahan can be reached at mark.shanahan@globe.com.