The call of port: Private collection numbers more than 1,100 bottles

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Bob Antia is a man I've wanted to meet since I first heard about his love of port, the fortified wine that can age for decades. It's usually pulled out for celebrations but rarely is it collected the way Bob does it. He's not a wealthy man, but he's amassed hundreds of precious bottles. 

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: How many bottles of port do you have?

Bob Antia: Every year I do an inventory. I think it's around 1,100 right now.

LRK: How did this collection happen? What is the draw of port?

BA: How do you explain a love? It just happened. I was in a Spanish or Mexican restaurant in the early '80s, looking for some after-dinner wine, and I saw port. I remember it clearly. It was a '63 Sandeman vintage bottle and it was spectacular. I fell in love with it on the spot.

I didn't start collecting it right at that moment, because it was so cheap at the time. I remember very clearly that we could find bottles of '63 Sandeman for $20 apiece.

LRK: That's a pretty good vintage from what I gather?

BA: It is. It's absolutely wonderful. I'd probably pay $150 or $200 for it now. The economics of port slowly dawned on me over time. You really can't have good port at a reasonable price unless you buy it when it's produced and lay it down.

LRK: Do you drink it with all kinds of food, or do you always have it at the end of a meal?

BA: I have it all the time, no matter the occasion. The only problem with drinking port, and it's a rule I have, is you can't open a bottle unless there are at least three people around. Good ports don't last very long sitting in a bottle, so a 25-year-old might last a day or two. At its peak flavor, it oxidizes and the flavor goes downhill. 

LRK: What's the oldest bottle you've got, and what makes it so special?

BA: It's a bottle of Croft Port from 1933. It's special because of its age. I bought two of them, and the first one I had was pretty awful. It was too long after it hit its prime. It was like a mediocre sherry.

LRK: Which one do you think, at this moment, may be the most phenomenal that you'll drink?

BA: Oh, that's simple. Hands down, it's the '55 Taylor. Taylor Fladgate. It is what I consider a perfect port: It's a mixture and an interesting balance. I think of it as a triangle of the tannins, the sweetness and the heat of the alcohol. The '55 Taylor is just a perfect isosceles triangle; it's not too hot, it's got fruit, it's got some sweetness, and the heat is there but not predominant. And the tannins are in balance with the fruit. Really wonderful bottle.

LRK: In your estimation, is there an affordable sort of starter port?

BA: Absolutely. There are a number of types of port; there's not a oneness in port.

There's a vintage port that makes up 1-3 percent of the total production, and that's what I collect. It's stuff that you lay down, and it improves with age.

The rubies and the tawnies always taste the same; they're like a blended whiskey. Their tasters are going after a particular taste profile, which is usually good, but I like tasting the variations of these ports.

There's something called the late-bottle vintage, which sits in the casks of aging vessels for 18 months or longer. It has all the qualities of port but it isn't a blended. They're inexpensive enough, usually under $20, and have that variation that I prefer. It'll say "late-bottle vintage" or "LBV" on the label. I wouldn't say they're hard to find, but they're not easy to find. They don't really improve with age. You have one now and you have one later.

LRK: I wish I lived near you. I have a feeling I could cadge some good port from you.

BA: What I've consciously tried to do is get rid of the pretentiousness of port. That was the only thing that I didn't like about it. There's an old English manor house thing that goes around with port, and I've tried to kill that off with my monthly port and poker games. Just a group of friends who get together once a month and we open two to three bottles, depending on how many people are there. We sample it, discuss it and play poker.

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