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Collections: Buzz Worthy Wines

A Raleigh wine collector puts her impressive 
cellars to work for a good cause

Photo: Stacey Van Berkel

One look at Eliza Kraft Olander’s fifty-five-acre home, located on the northern outskirts of Raleigh, North Carolina, and it’s obvious someone has been hopelessly and happily bitten by the collecting bug. First, there’s the yard, which is adorned with six sculptures of wolves, three thirty-foot-tall “whirligigs” made by the folk artist Vollis Simpson, and a rabble of other art pieces, including eagles, stone butterflies, a dinosaur made of old farm tools, and a fifteen-foot-tall metal woman with birdhouses for breasts. Inside the big and inviting house, dozens of French cemetery
crosses serve as a sort of psychic counterpoint to a gothic, five-compartment, walnut-shelved bookcase once owned by Edgar Allan Poe. Her friend, the chef Ashley Christensen, describes the home as “a fairyland.” As the fifty-eight-year-old Kraft Olander puts it, “I like to surround myself with things I love.”

What she loves most is wine. After all, her thirty-four-year wine-collecting career has borne much fruit. She and her “partner in crime,” Brian McHenry, who is fifty-five (“He’s a computer programmer, but he’s so fun!” she says), now have a collection of more than 24,000 bottles. She’s made legions of friends all over the world. And, most dear to her, she’s discovered a novel way of using her wine to raise money for charity.

Photo: Stacey Van Berkel

A fraction of the collection.

Kraft Olander grew up on Long Island but moved to North Carolina with her ex-husband to run a company that owned and operated a handful of Burger Kings and, later, some Applebee’s. “It wasn’t exactly fine dining, that’s for sure,” she says. Though she’s no longer involved in the business, the fast-food joints did allow her to pursue her passion. “I just started experimenting with wine one day, and I suddenly went, ‘Whoa! This is cool.’” She was drawn to other wine collectors, winemakers (“farmers, artists, and scientists all in one”), and the wine itself (“a living consumable art”). She traveled the country and the world, haunting auctions and meeting wine enthusiasts from Napa Valley to Nashville. In 2003, she and McHenry combined their collections.

Kraft Olander keeps more than a few of those bottles at her home. She has 3,600 of them in what she calls her “little girl cellar” right off her kitchen. In another cellar on an upper floor of the house that she calls her staging area, she stores 7,000 bottles that will someday be inventoried. In an off-site warehouse in North Carolina, and in two other facilities in California, she has an additional 13,000-plus bottles. They won’t be there for long, though. This fall, she will complete work on a 4,500-square-foot cave on her property and will, she says, “bring all of my babies home.” Among the favorites in her collection: a case of Château Cheval Blanc 1947, which she bought in the late 1980s and which has subsequently become the most celebrated wine of the twentieth century. “One bottle now sells for what the case did back when I bought it,” she says. “I was lucky.” (She has only two bottles left.) Kraft Olander also has a superb and wide-ranging collection of 1963 vintage ports and more than 2,000 “large format” bottles (3 to 15 liters).

In addition to filling her cellars, the wine has satiated her soul. Around two decades ago, Kraft Olander was invited to the Triangle Wine Experience, a charity event for Raleigh’s Frankie Lemmon School, which provides education for special-needs children. Shortly thereafter, it hit her that she could pair her wine—and the friends she’d made through collecting—with a good cause. Kraft Olander began donating her wines and buying others through the charity. She tapped her friends in the wine world and convinced them to come for the weekend to donate and drink wine. “It’s so much more interactive that way,” she says. For the last eight years, Kraft Olander has chaired the event, which raised close to $1 million in one weekend last February. “In Raleigh!” she says. “Can you believe it?”

A fellow North Carolinian, Christensen met Kraft Olander when she began frequenting a wine bar where Christensen was the executive chef. “She has a general effect on people that makes them want to be better,” Christensen says of her friend. “Fund-raising is hard work. She makes it less about asking for money and more about actually getting involved.” Together, they’ve become a formidable philanthropy duo, adding a few other causes to the mix, including something they call Women on a Mission, which raises money for the Southern Foodways Alliance and charities throughout the country by auctioning off Kraft Olander’s wines and dinners prepared by Christen-sen. “What I’ve discovered through wine is that if you share with people, they will share back,” Kraft Olander says. “The wine has helped me live the life I want to live. How lucky am I?”