By: John Brecher, former wine columnist for The Wall Street Journal
It’s a question we’re asked a lot. Just the other day, it came from John Bartholomew of Dakota Dunes, S.D.: “What is the optimum storage temperature for my wine? An unfinished portion of my basement rarely gets over 70 degrees. Should I still buy a cooler for our wine?”
First, here’s the simple, and best, answer — the one we always give: Unless you have a large collection of fine wines that you’re planning to cellar for many years, you’ll be fine if you put your wine in a dark, largely undisturbed place with a moderate, fairly constant temperature. The bottom of a closet is fine. Keep this in mind, from a 1934 book called Wines: How, When, and What to Serve: “No sharing of a coal bin, a kitchen, or a wareroom will do.” No coal bins!
Really, it’s important not to obsess about wine storage. We think hyper-concern over “proper” storage makes people nervous about buying wine. Relax. One thing we’ve learned over the years is that wine is much tougher than people give it credit for, and this is brought home anew every year after Open That Bottle Night, when we hear from so many people who drink bottles that “should” have gone bad years ago. Among the many notes we received along these lines this year was this one from Kathy Quayle Webber of Plandome, N.Y., who wrote us about a 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon from Sterling Vineyards in California:
“I had bought a case in the early ’80s and have moved a couple of times with it, but found a few years ago I still had four bottles. Over the years they have been on their side, upside-down, flat, right-side-up, in dampness, in heat, in cold, all over the planet. When I knew we were having dinner, I discussed it with a friend of mine who suggested the wine might not still be good and he would check with his friend, a wine guru. Of course, he came back and said, ‘Sorry, don’t count on it. You better have a backup.’ I spent about $150 on backups. We poured the bottles of Sterling into pitchers and strained them of all residue. Everyone agreed they were ‘like velvet.’ No one could remember ever having tasted anything better. The next night we had the expensive backups — hardly drinkable. I told my friend to tell his wine guru friend to stay in Wall Street instead of giving wine advice.”
It’s impossible to give definitive advice about “perfect” storage conditions, both because it’s a controversial topic — it’s the kind of thing wine geeks can argue about all day — and because there are so many factors involved, including the wine itself, of course. A great majority of the wines that most of us drink every day — Pinot Grigio, Beaujolais, many lower-priced Merlots and Chardonnays, for instance — are meant to be drunk right away anyway. For wines we might want to keep around a while, this is critical: Barring true abuse — bright sunlight, very high temperatures and so on — the issue isn’t that a wine will quickly turn to vinegar if it’s not kept in cellar-like conditions, but rather that it will age more quickly than it otherwise would. In other words, that bottle of Bordeaux might be at its peak in 2015 instead of 2020. Does that worry you?
For years, we simply kept our wines in racks on the floor, away from direct light and heat. We drank them long before they could be harmed, and we really liked them there because we enjoyed looking at them. We didn’t think of wine as something to be bought and put away. It was a part of our everyday life and our household, an omnipresent adventure beckoning in plain sight.
There are many myths surrounding wine storage, some perpetrated by the wine-storage industry, some by historical accident and some by people with state-of-the-art systems who feel that their hardware proves their credentials as oenophiles. For a marvelously provocative, myth-busting look at all of this, check out Matt Kramer’s book, “Making Sense of Wine.” Among his conclusions: “What constitutes undesirable high heat really begins at about 70 degrees.” (The emphasis is his.) But here’s the most important point of all: Your biggest concern about wine storage shouldn’t be about the wine; it should be about you. Here’s what we mean by that.
Our country cabin has radiant heat from the concrete floors (when it works) and no air conditioning. It is a Usonian home in a community designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, which means the house is at one with nature — and natural temperatures. Dramatic fluctuations in temperature aren’t a good thing for wine and, of course, we do have very fine wines that we expect to keep for many years. So we bought a wine cooler. It holds about 200 bottles, and we keep it at about 55 degrees. It works fine. On rare nights off from the column, when we’re drinking our special wines, this is where the wines most often come from. (We don’t recommend any one brand or kind of cooler over another. We bought ours simply because the company was located nearby.)
In our Manhattan apartment, we have a wine cellar, of sorts, that was built into a closet. It has individual slots for more than 700 bottles. It is not climate-controlled, but because of its placement in the apartment, it keeps a fairly constant temperature somewhere around 65, though the wines nearer the top of the closet are probably routinely warmer.
Given a choice, we prefer the Manhattan closet, hands-down, even though its conditions are far less ideal. Why? Because the wine cooler in the country is like a refrigerator, with the wines on big shelves. We open the door, peer in and try to figure out what the heck is in there. It probably works best for people who mostly buy cases of the same wine. On the other hand, we can walk into the Manhattan closet. We keep American wines on the left — Cabernet in a couple of rows, Pinot in the next and so on — drinkables on the far right, dessert wines straight ahead. The little closet is pretty; it has a riot of colors from the necks of the bottles, a diverse collection of old friends and new discoveries. We can easily and gently pull out several bottles to look at them, enjoying the tastes and memories they evoke. We can tell, from a glance, when we’re short on Burgundy. We can stand in that little closet and travel all over the world, and as far back in time as our memories allow.
If you are going to have wine storage, we think the joy we get out of our little closet is worth keeping in mind. The question isn’t what is best for the wine, but what is best for your enjoyment of the wine. And that brings us to another point. In our Manhattan apartment, we also have a tiny wine cooler that holds just 17 bottles and cost less than $200. Why have a wine cooler that holds just a few bottles? Because it keeps wine at around 55 degrees, and that’s the temperature where we most enjoy both reds and whites. It’s also small enough that we can never lose sight of what’s in there, and it fits discreetly in our tiny apartment, not an unimportant consideration. We can put our wines for, say, a few days of blind tastings in it, pull a few out every day — and replace them — and they’ll be the perfect temperature for us. Ditto for some of our lesser treasures that we plan to drink soon. It’s not about how best to keep the wine; it’s about how we like to drink it.
Our overall general advice is not to worry about storage. Buy a case of wine, put it in a closet and enjoy it. If you’re thinking about doing something more complex and expensive than that, all sorts of companies sell wine units these days, from coolers to massive built-ins. Wine magazines are full of ads for them. Two places to look are WineEnthusiast.com and IWAWine.com, because they are big players in the field and their offerings will give you some ideas about what is out there and how much it all costs.
One more thing: Another question we’re asked all the time is a kind of follow-up. OK, I have a wine cellar; now, how do I stock it? There’s this sense that, if you’re “serious” about wine, you must go out and buy a case of Bordeaux, two cases of Burgundy, six bottles of Port and so on. Again, relax. Let this happen organically. When you have a wine you like, buy another bottle of that and put it in the cellar. If you have a wine that really seems young to you — maybe it tastes hard and tight, or it makes your mouth pucker — buy two more. Before you know it, your cellar will be filled — and it will be filled with wines really worth collecting: ones you enjoy.