Aged to perfection: Collat Emeritus Professor Joe Van Matre uses proceeds from fine wine auction to support students

Thanks to a bit of creative philanthropy, the Van Matre family will be providing help to promising UAB students and their families for years to come.
Written by: Walter Lewellyn
Media Contact: Adam Pope

Van MatreIn the course of more than half a century teaching statistics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Collat School of Business, Joseph G. Van Matre, Ph.D., became the longest-tenured faculty member in school history. Along the way, he established the Juanita and William H. Van Matre Endowed Scholarship, a tribute to his parents, in 1986.

In 2023, Van Matre enhanced the scholarship by auctioning off most of his collection of fine wines. The $100,000 gift is the largest-ever donation by a CSOB faculty member.

Van Matre is himself a vintage figure on campus. One colleague estimated that he has educated as many as 10,000 students during his 51-year teaching career, which was honored with the Ellen Gregg Ingalls/UAB National Alumni Society Award for Lifetime Achievement in Teaching in 2015. Only 30 when he first arrived at UAB in 1971, Van Matre saw abundant opportunities in the burgeoning university. “Here was a lot of freedom,” Van Matre said. “It was young and growing, so I came and never left.”

First introduced to wine (and martinis) by his “sophisticated and charming” uncle, Joseph Gordon, who would go on to become the longest-serving dean in Tulane University’s history, Van Matre had enjoyed wine as an enhancement to fine food since his graduate student days, and he began collecting wine in 1982. His hobby evolved into a passion when he moved into a home with a spacious cellar, which proved essential as the collection grew to more than 150 cases — beginning with Bordeaux, then California, Italian and Rhône wines.

Alongside his wife, Paulette, an accomplished cook, Van Matre loved to host dinner parties. “People liked to come to our house and have dinner, because Paulette was fabulous,” Van Matre said with pride. One regular highlight: a seated dinner for 12 with all wines served from magnums.

“For years, I’ve had plans to donate the majority of my cellar’s value to the school,” Van Matre said. “Initially I thought of leaving the wine to the school, but then I started thinking: ‘How will they monetize the wine? What do they know about wine?’ And that began to bother me.” As he notes, the difference between almost identical bottles, one worth $80 and the other $800, might come down to a small line on the label.


Van Matre, who first experienced a wine auction in 1991 held by Christie’s at the Faculty Club of Chicago, determined that an auction would be the best way to realize the highest value. While major auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s deal with a wide variety of collectibles, one firm in New York, Zachys, focuses solely on wine. Holding auctions in New York, London and Hong Kong, Zachys generates sales of more than $100 million annually. After discussions with each of the three houses, he reached an agreement with Zachys.

Van Matre’s cellar is a study in chaos, with little organization and seemingly random cases of wines stacked vertically. The collectible, auction-worthy wines had to be isolated from the more moderately priced wines in the cellar. The best wines also required close examination of fill levels, torn labels, signs of leakage and more — a task that fell to Van Matre himself.

“I didn’t want to do it myself because I knew it was going to be a lot of hard work, and it was,” Van Matre said. “Thank goodness at that time I had a grandson who was young and strong, and he was able to help me. We put together a fine collection that Zachys picked up in fall of 2023 for auction in November.”

Van Matre’s wines were sold successfully, and the proceeds were used for his parents’ namesake scholarship. Combined with his prior giving, this gift will elevate the scholarship well past the $100,000 minimum requirement to qualify as an endowed eminent scholarship.

“Like wine prices, college prices have changed so much,” said Van Matre, who hails from rural Elmore County. “Many families didn’t have to borrow money for college back then. It wasn’t that expensive. Even without my scholarships, my dad could have sent me to school, helped by my summer jobs with the state highway department.”

Now, thanks to a bit of creative philanthropy, the Van Matre family will be providing help to promising UAB students and their families for years to come.