NAPA, Calif. -- As investments go, wine's a risky liquid asset.
A slip of the hand can send hundreds of dollars crashing to the floor. Fire, flood, or a simple power outage can ruin a rare vintage.
Even for those wines that stay safely tucked in their cellars, the costs of buying, selling, and storing the stuff make it a questionable investment, say some economists.
None of which makes much of an impression on someone who's been bitten by the wine collecting bug.
''There's a lot of different reasons to do it," says collector John Cobus, who works in real estate banking in Southern California. ''For me, it's a combination of using my real estate skills and talking with growers and being out in the countryside. It's just a vast education."
Cobus is hardly the first person to be sold on his cellar. One of America's first wine authorities was its third president, Thomas Jefferson, who toured European vineyards looking for wine to send home.
A Jefferson selection -- a 1787 Chateau Lafite marked with the initials Th. J that apparently never got shipped -- turned into what is believed to be the world's costliest single bottle of wine, fetching more than $156,000 in 1985.
Still, there are many tales of grape expectations dashed.
Joyce P. Jacobsen, chairman of the economics department at Wesleyan University, has studied wine as an alternative to stocks and bonds and found it wanting.
Jacobsen coauthored a paper that looked at the rate of return on high-value wines from 1986 to 1996 and found that wine didn't outperform financial assets, especially after factoring in extra costs such as insurance, storage, and price markups.
''We say it should be savored rather than saved," was Jacobsen's conclusion.
It is possible to make money buying and selling wine, says Jerry Zech, chief executive of WineBid.com, an online auction house. ''But you have to know what you're doing. You have to educate yourself and deal with people that you can trust." The people who do end up making money on wine, he says, usually aren't doing it as an investment. ''They're buying wine because they love wine."
The selling part often happens when someone gets interested in a new wine-growing region and decides to clear out past purchases.
The trick to investing is getting in early; some of California's most sought-after wines are sold only by mail to subscribers who signed up long ago, and the lists are now closed.
Cobus estimates some of his purchases have appreciated substantially over the years. Not that he plans on selling much soon, noting that sales are often brought on by the ''three Ds" -- death, divorce, and debt.
In Napa, wine collector Garret Murphy has a similar outlook.
Wine is Murphy's business. He owns the Vintner's Collective, a charming tasting room in downtown Napa where visitors can get a sampling of some of the area's boutique wineries.
And he takes his work home. The cellar under his kitchen floor holds a small but cherished collection.
Murphy's more likely to drink or give away his wines than sell them, although he'd consider it. ''I have a '62 Inglenook and if I ever found out it was worth $50,000 a bottle because it was the last one remaining on earth . . . " he says, trailing off.
Stored wine certainly took a hit in 2005.
Hurricane Katrina wrecked a number of wine cellars, including the highly regarded 35,000-bottle collection at New Orleans' Brennan's Restaurant, where some fabled vintages broiled in the heat when the electricity went out.
In California, as much as $100 million in wine may have been ruined when fire broke out in October at the Wines Central storage facility in Vallejo, just south of the Napa Valley. The fire has been ruled arson but authorities haven't made any arrests.
Cobus was sorry to hear about the warehouse fire -- but not too sorry. That's because he owns a lot of the same types of wines that went up in the blaze, meaning his collection just got that much more rare.