‘When I saw Ben Ichinose’s cellar, I recognised immediately that it was one of the greatest wine cellars in the world’
‘I bought wine like crazy,’ admitted Dr Benjamin Ichinose, who went on to build a dream cellar of perfectly stored wines. His extraordinary collection will be offered online from 16 to 31 July
‘It was perfection,’ wrote the late Michael Broadbent MW. The legendary wine critic and author, not to mention the man who launched Christie’s wine auctions more than 50 years ago, was describing the equally legendary private cellar of Dr. Benjamin Ichinose at his home in Hillsborough, California. The cellar was, he insisted, ‘absolutely perfect in every sort of way’.
Broadbent first visited the Japanese-American collector in 1972, and had been so impressed with what he’d found that he was moved to write to Ichinose: ‘Your cellar is quite as magnificent as I had heard, and expected. I only wish more people were as dedicated and scrupulous in the way the wine is stored.’
In 1973, Henri de Villaine, the late co-proprietor of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, wrote to congratulate Ben Ichniose for his ‘rich knowledge of wine and as a collector of art masterpieces, which are the great bottles in your cellar’. Three years earlier, Harry Waugh, another influential wine merchant and connoisseur, had pondered in his book, Pick of the Bunch, whether ‘there could be a better privately stocked modern cellar anywhere in the world’.
Born in Koloa, Kauai and raised on a 13-acre farm, Ben Ichinose experienced an idyllic childhood. After high school, he attended UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco, where he got his dentistry degree. He was then stationed in Yokohama, Japan as a US Army Captain practicing orthodontics, before returning to the Bay Area in late 1959, when he and his wife Mayon embarked on a new interest: wine.
Ichinose spent the early 1960s learning as much about wine as possible. His zest for educating himself was matched by his eagerness to taste as widely as possible. Years later, he recounted, ‘I bought wine like crazy’.
He joined the Berkeley Wine & Food Society, a small group of enthusiasts that also had its own wine cellar, and was exposed to some of the most discerning palates of that era. He later joined the Society of Medical Friends of Wine, The Wine and Food Society of San Francisco, and the Confrérie de la Chaine des Rôtisseurs, where he held the position of Bailli for the Pacific Northwest. In 1980, the Bacchus Society named him Mr. Gourmet of the Year.
As Ichinose’s collection began to develop, so too did his friendship with Michael Broadbent. The specialist’s expertise and knowledge of fine wines in his role at Christie’s proved the perfect resource for the collector to expand his own knowledge and the quality of the cellar.
Broadbent’s son, Bartholomew, is a respected wine expert in his own right, and remembers the Ichinose family coming to visit them in England during the 1970s. The children would be left to play, he recalls, while the parents ‘enjoyed gourmet dinners’.
In the early 1980s, just as wine critic Robert Parker’s eulogising over the 1982 Bordeaux vintage began to change the landscape of wine appreciation, drinking and collecting in the United States, Broadbent found himself being invited by America’s most prolific wine collectors to preside over tastings, to which they invited other collectors and showed off their prized cellars.
Bartholomew Broadbent, who had moved to the United States, was invited to attend these tastings with his father, usually as one of the seated tasters, sometimes to help open, decant and pour the wines.
‘At that historic time,’ he writes, ‘there were very few wine collectors and, because the wine-collecting market had not yet been developed, they had amassed the most spectacular collections without too much competition at auction.’
He found out just how spectacular Ben Ichinose’s collection had become when he was invited to visit shortly after moving to California in 1986. ‘The Ichinose family home, where they have lived for more than 50 years, was constructed in the shadows of towering redwood trees, where Ben created an immaculate Japanese garden, and housed his wine cellars,’ Bartholomew recalls. ‘The cellars were designed and constructed first, before the family (and wines) were allowed to move into the new home.
According to Michael Broadbent, Ichinose was in a league of his own as a collector
‘I had seen most of the greatest cellars in Europe,’ he adds, ‘from travelling with my parents in the late 1960s and through the 1970s every Easter holiday to France, Germany, Austria and elsewhere, to help pack up the wines destined for the Christie’s Great Rooms in London where they were put up for auction. When I saw Ben Ichinose’s cellar, I recognised immediately that it was one of the greatest wine cellars in the world.’
The first thing he noticed — after being hit by the cold temperature — was the care the collector had taken in making sure that the racks of wine were earthquake-proofed. The second was the ‘enormous pride’ Ichinose exhibited in showing him the three rooms with the most important wines.
Many of the greatest bottles were the old wines from the most important Christie’s wine auctions of the previous two decades, at which Ichinose had been one of the most prolific buyers.
As well as buying wine at auction and from leading importers, the collector placed orders directly with many California wineries: Beaulieu Vineyards, David Bruce, Hanzell, Heitz, Inglenook, Mondavi, Ridge, and Stony Hill. He also bought champagne directly from Lanson, Ayala, and Bollinger, with the latter two creating special labels for Ben’s bottles as ‘Cuvee Ichinose’.
According to Michael Broadbent, Ichinose was in a league of his own as a collector: ‘Only one man, to my knowledge, could produce from his private cellar three of the finest post-war vintages from one of Germany's most exalted estates, the Staatsweingüter, Eltville, and wine from the famous vineyard Baiken, in the village of Rauenthal.’
While he collected mostly French, Californian and German wines, as well as ports, sherries and madeiras, Ichinose also collected birth-year vintages: 1929 (his own birth year, as well as that of his wife, Mayon); 1961 (for daughter Louise); 1964 (for son Robert); and 1965 (for youngest daughter Lori).
The collection eventually reached 55,000-plus bottles, and expanded to include another underground temperature-controlled cellar he had constructed for case storage only — mostly younger California wines.
Ichinose had learned early on from Jim Guymon, an oenology professor at the University of California, Davis, that storage is of utmost importance to preserving wines. Determined to create optimal storage conditions, he constructed three underground rooms for his wine: the anteroom, for younger ports, sherry and madeira, was kept at 58 degrees (natural ground temperature); the main cellar was maintained at 52 degrees; and the second cellar, which stored older reds, whites, and sparkling wines, was at 48 degrees.
‘This auction is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to acquire some priceless wines which have the most perfect provenance’ — Bartholomew Broadbent
As a result, wines were allowed to age gracefully and at a slower pace. Even wines from off-vintages or lesser-known properties were surprisingly better than expected.
If creating perfect storage conditions was one part of his wine philosophy, the other, equally important tenet was his belief that ‘the real beauty of wine is best enjoyed in the company of friends’.
Ben and Mayon, whose palate was said to be equal or even superior to her husband’s, hosted many luncheons and dinners in order to share wine from the collection. The friends they welcomed to their table included great names from the leading wine estates in France, early wine-industry pioneers and connoisseurs with legendary palates.
Michael Broadbent was in the latter group and in October 2018, nearly five decades after their first meeting, Ichinose sent him a bottle of 1961 Chateau Margaux for no particular reason but to share it with a good friend. Fortunately Bartholomew was travelling to visit his father, and was able to deliver the bottle to London by hand. At a dinner honouring the wine expert’s storied career, the bottle was opened and found to be in perfect condition.
‘The Margaux ’61 was fantastic and such a rare treat these days,’ the grateful Broadbent wrote to Ichinose. ‘I have such marvellous memories of my times with you.’
He was not alone. ‘I have had the privilege to drink the superb wines of this cellar for over 30 years,’ remarked Master Sommelier Fred Dame in 2018. ‘I can say that of my top 10 tasting experiences of my career that at least five have come from tastings done with the Ichinose family.’
Sign up today
Christie's Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week
‘It will be with sadness that I witness such a pristine collection leaving the perfect home where the wines have been resting for the past five decades,’ Batholomew admits.
‘It will be with sadness that I see a family part from such an enormous legacy. However, it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for someone who truly appreciates the greatest wines in the world to acquire priceless wines which have the most perfect provenance.’
Many of these wines can no longer be found elsewhere. And what makes them truly remarkable is that most of them have been stored in the same superb cellar, untouched for decades.