Wine, Academics Prove Good Mix

PART ONE: In Vino Veritas

The Harvard House system, based so closely on the Oxford-Cambridge model, conspicuously lacks one luxury: While Kings College, Cambridge has a wine cellar rumored to contain tens of thousands of bottles, Harvard’s Houses have remained cellar-less. Nevertheless, devotion to that “bottled poetry”—written of by Robert Louis Stevenson—runs deep among both undergraduates and professors.

When the Houses were first built in the early 1930s, the Prohibition movement was still in force. But a love of good wine is more difficult to prohibit.

A perfect example of the synthesis of academia and oenophilia is Robert N. Stavins, Pratt professor of business and government. Last year he co-founded of the “Journal of Wine Economics.” Around the same time, he threw a “Sideways” party, featuring painstakingly recreated food and wine combinations from the movie that made pinot noir—a “peculiar” grape in his words—popular.

Two copies of his “Journal of Wine Economics” lie on a desk in his darkened office, a nod to what he calls his “little obsession.”

Stavins has been collecting wine for two decades and has amassed a cellar of about 1,200 bottles.

“A lot of us economists are interested in wine and take wine seriously,” Stavins says. “I think this is true of a lot of academics, but economists like to say A is better than B and compare ratings and prices.”

Stavins is a member of an elite society of top economics professors. The Oenomony Society, a group of 14 economists from Harvard, Princeton, M.I.T., and further afield, has two requirements: a love of wine and a doctorate in economics. It meets once a year for a lavish dinner featuring rare wines.

He brings out menus from some of these dinners, filled with names that strike sharp pangs of envy into other oenophiles’ hearts: mature Château Montrose, Château Mouton Rothschild (each bottle now worth more than $1,000), and Château d’Yquem (which Thomas Jefferson liked so much that he bought 250 bottles for himself, plus a few more for George Washington). And these were only a part of a single dinner. Membership is limited to 14 because there are exactly 14 tasting portions in an ordinary bottle of wine.

Stavins jokingly refers to the “Journal of Wine Economics” as “the definition of tenure.” He is now working on the third issue.

Stavins attended the Kennedy School of Government (KSG), which once owned its own cellar. After the school was founded, it received a gift of a collection of “first growth” bordeaux—including some of the world’s most famous wines, like the famous Chateau Latour and Lafite-Rothschild, said Dillon Professor of Government Graham T. Allison ’62, then dean of KSG. According to the story, a Harvard alum was looking to get rid of his cellar.

“He had fallen on harder times, fallen into arrears on paying the storage fee on this cellar,” Allison explains. “He said, ‘If you can find someone to pay the past storage bill, I’ll give this cellar to Harvard as my donation.’”

Allison subsequently traveled to New York to check out the story.

“I was searching for funds, because at the time the Kennedy School was small and poor,” he says. “We go into this rather odd-looking warehouse...It turns out there are five to six thousand bottles. Starting in 1908, there are 1945 Lafite, Haut-Brion, all the greatest years, and a huge collection of 61s. We all thought, Woah!”

Ultimately, Allison realized the impracticality of owning such a collection. “What do Harvard people want to drink $1,000 bottles of wine for?”

Instead, the school sold the cellar and used the money to fund student fellowships.

Loeb House also once had its own cellar, according to Event Assistant Marie Forbes, but it was removed when the building was renovated several years ago.

One of the few official cellars remaining on campus is tucked away in the “O” entryway of Eliot House. It belongs to the renowned Society of Fellows, a select group of legendary Harvard luminaries such as Lamont University Professor Amartya Sen and Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value Elaine Scarry. The cellar has about 700 to 800 bottles, and has in recent years turned more towards Australian and Chilean wines, rather than the traditional French, according to Diana Morse, the society’s administrator.

Though Harvard may not have the massive cellars typical of the Cambridge overseas, academia and a love of wine seem to go hand in hand.

“People who love wine, people who like wine don’t like to drink alone and love to share, particularly with someone else who will appreciate it,” Stavins says. Cheers to the high marginal utility of a glass of good wine!

—Staff writer Alexander B. Fabry can be reached at