A wine cellar can be defined in various ways. In its basic element, I define it as a place to stash wine.
My first was a nine-bottle wooden rack placed at the back of a clothes closet on the seventh floor of an air-conditioned apartment building in New York City. Since that humble beginning, my storage space has hitched itself to my business-related moves to no less than fourteen locations. Some Bordeaux I acquired during the 70s (and still store) has crossed the Atlantic three times (twice as part of my household goods). Judging from the current condition of their cork enclosures (moist and still tight) and bottle fill levels, they seem none the worse for wear.
Today, my 15-square-foot enclosed wine cellar has a maximum capacity of 2,000 bottles, without any special equipment to control temperature or humidity levels. Those important parameters ebb and flow with the seasons in, what I have been told by a wine auction house, constitutes a “passive cellar.” Once I abandoned apartment living, it’s been my good fortune to have cellar conditions characterized by high levels of humidity, save the dead of winter, and I believe that has been the most important element of long term storage success.
Today the cellar make-up is principally red, 60% of which will likely rest there for a minimum of five years. I get a real kick out of opening a vintage of a couple of decades ago to see how it has passed its time in the waiting room. Yes, there have been some bottles cellared that I wish I had tried earlier, but totally “off” wines have been a very rare occurrence (and one never knows whether the bottle was already flawed when purchased).
After a few minutes in my cellar today, one could surmise that I am a polyglot of taste experience, which I would not deny; but, that was not always the case. In taking my first serious steps in considering wines for a longer storage period, I had to determine what to lay away. In those early days, my focus was almost exclusively red Bordeaux, and given budget restraints—plus a partner who did not enjoy wine—my selection was made on a combination of reputation, vintage rating and, of course, price. My practice then was to buy three bottles of whichever wine caught my attention, with the intent to drink the second bottle in about five years and, based on my reaction, drink or hold the third even longer.
As I took my first hesitant steps in the late sixties toward appreciating fine wine, all Bordeaux classed growths (save the handful of first growths) could be had for less than $10 a bottle. For example, The New York Times ad from 1971 includes a 1968 Château Beychevelle for $2.59! I shied away from that one based upon vintage ratings. Only later did I learn from a very savvy merchant that even in off years some decent efforts can come through. (The 1963 Château Latour is a prime example.) My one bottle purchase of Château Lafite Rothschild from the highly regarded 1966 vintage set me back $18; but, as this was going to be the shining star of a wine collection—then mostly a dream—I lovingly added it to the closet group which, at that time, consisted of a basic Beaujolais for red and Badacsony Szürkebarát from Hungary for white. Some would laugh and call that chump change for any Bordeaux first growth today, but it was a lot of money for red wine back then.
Unfortunately, that prized possession did not get much chance to age, as my wife at the time—not being told its value as I couldn’t admit to it when she never saw me spend more than $3 for a bottle of wine—decided to use it in a Boeuf Bourguignon she was preparing for my birthday dinner. Without getting into the histrionics that ensued upon arriving home and learning the fate of my cellar’s foundation stone, I will say that she explained choosing the Lafite because it had the least expensive looking label. I could not rebut that view, as the Beaujolais labels were brightly colored if not garish by comparison. For years, she maintained it was the best example of that dish she ever made.
California Cabernets were less costly alternatives to top Bordeaux, but I wanted to cellar for future enjoyment and, at the time, there was scant literature suggesting they could last. On the other hand, numerous books were available from English wine pundits that sang the praise of Bordeaux to the heavens. After all, had not the Brits been Bordeaux advocates since the 18th century? Clearly I, like many others, was short sighted in the assessment of American wine. Today I could quickly induce somnolence among my guests if I recounted the numerous examples of what California wines could have graced my cellar had I known as much during my nascent awareness of fine wine. The Napa ‘68, ’70 and ’74 Cabs were still within reach to me as my cellar thoughts evolved, but my reticence got in the way and far too few bottles were acquired. I give credit to the famous 1976 tasting of Steven Spurrier, known since as The Judgment of Paris, as an epiphany, leading me to assess California more seriously. Of those American wines from that period that I did manage to put away, I can today say they have stood the test of time extremely well, even better than some classed growth Bordeaux of that era resting nearby in the cellar.
So, why do I encourage anyone curious about creating a wine cellar to embrace it with all available energy? A wine cellar transcends mere storage convenience. Beyond its portal, lies the romance of wine. It’s Ali Baba’s Cave, and each time one enters and surveys its contents, one is afforded the opportunity to relive personal moments of discovery. How was a particular bottle acquired? Why was it chosen? How has it evolved (or not)?
I have chosen not to keep a written record of my selections, though I have made notes of when and under what circumstances certain wines were opened, a practice I have gotten away from in recent years. Seeing the bottles tangibly arrayed per schemes plotted and re-plotted gives credence that the long road from an apartment closet until now has been well worth the effort.
Should you query why the cellar scheme needs revision, the simple answer is that tastes change (at least mine do). California began to take hold in my cellar after the aforementioned tasting in Paris, to the detriment of Bordeaux. Shortly after that revelation, I was transferred to France and settled in the Lyon area and, from there, my scouting expeditions took me into Burgundy and the Northern Rhône Valley. As California wine selections were practically non-existent then in France (save Almaden carafe wine…remember those?), Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Viognier began to fascinate me, moving up in the cellar ranks. I had some family contacts in Bordeaux, but is was quite a haul to drive there from Lyon back then, and I found my palate more excited by the offering closer to me.
Upon our return to America in 1994, I jumped back into what I had been missing, not only from California, but Virginia and Oregon as well. More recently North Fork in Long Island, and some Canadian wine is in evidence at the lower level, and for value Mencia and Monestrell from Spain. I went through an Aussie phase, but that has passed, essentially with the preponderance of high alcohol of late. Having said that, I have some lower alcohol older bottles from down under that are doing just fine. There are some things from South Africa. No, wait. I have a better illustration of why I have to pay attention to what is going on in my cellar. It starts in the Sud Luberon, our favorite vacation spot in France for a good many years now.
Wine country maps adorn my cellar walls, and rolled up in a corner is a small poster from Ridley Scott’s A Good Year (2006). I smile when I think of the night scene in Cucuron, a tiny Luberon village dominated by a beautiful plane tree-lined bassin. In the scene I am referring to, lead actors Marion Cotillard and Russell Crowe are seated at a table, reminiscing about their first meeting as teenagers and I am thinking that not a kilometer distant from their table is Domaine les Vadons, a winery where I came upon Le Fourest, a 100% Grenache wine I am quite fond of, well as some lovely blends with Syrah and Mourvèdre. I knew that a few highly regarded producers in Châteauneuf-du Pape were doing solely Grenache offerings, but not at €9 a bottle. Early on I asked Vigneron Michel Brémond if he shipped to the United States and was promptly informed that, for him, the required paper work was not worth the time and effort. He explained that he off-loaded about a fourth of his grapes at harvest to the local co-op, bottles what is left, and typically sells it all to regular clients and occasional tourists who visit his property. And, he is content with that. At the end of our Provençal holiday, I have taken a few bottles now and again to add to a selection of wines I store in the cellar of my brother-in-law, north of Paris. I figure them for several additional years of staying power and future enjoyment.
When I returned home, I looked into what Grenache I had managed to cellar. It turned out to be very little, with most coming from Rasteau, an appellation that sits 30 kilometers (about 18 miles) to the north of the much better known and appreciated Châteauneuf-du Pape. I had accumulated a dozen or so bottles of Rasteau from four producers and set them aside to one day do a single village tasting. Rasteau, many years ago, was principally known as a sweet red wine area. Its dry wine was bottled as Côtes du Rhône Village until it achieved AOC status in 2010 (starting with 2009 harvest). Several years ago, I came across some vintage 2000 dry wine in New York bottled by Tardieu-Laurent, a Lourmarin-based négociant I regard very highly. I liked what I tried, and thought this to be an appellation to watch. Until I can gather a group around the table to taste the Rasteau, I am determined to add to my Châteauneuf-du Pape stock. I have recently laid in wines that cover three aging periods, namely less than three years; four to seven years; and eight plus years. I have accented the first two periods. (That seems the prudent thing to do until I can locate a fortune teller who will reveal how much drinking time I still have left.)
So on to the next wine(s) that will excite me and make their way into the cave. I recently came across a dry Italian white from Campania, vintage year 2000. The producer only released it in 2015! It knocked me for a loop, so I added both 75 ml and 1.5 ml sizes to the cellar to watch it going out over the next few years. Will it still captivate me in 2020, or possibly 2025? Also resting for a blind tasting that we just had, were four Provence whites from the 2014 vintage. I love Ugni Blanc and Rolle (Vermentino), and, though not much has been imported here from France, some American producers have been taking notice. One ringer I threw into the tasting was a Vermentino I picked up at Piccione in North Carolina last year. (Watch for my write-up of this tasting in an upcoming post.)
Laying fallow for the moment is a deeper exploration into the natural wine movement. I wrote about two natural wines, a Muscadet and a Tavel, I had at a wedding in France last year and how they both pleased me immensely. Yet, considering the aging time I am accustomed to in my cellar, I wonder if these very low- to no-sulfite wines will disappoint after a few years in storage. Sure, I can plan to drink them earlier, but then they must compete with the price points of my short-term drinking reds (under $15). Having said that, recently a natural red from the Herault at $10 impressed me and will be added to my stock when my local merchant gets his hands on more.
With the recent addition of more wines from Châteauneuf-du Pape, my normally well-organized cellar is beginning to clutter up. It’s great that there is so much good wine to choose from on the market, but the present capacity limitations of my cellar have forced me to be extremely selective. Stop buying, right? Hmmm, if I can take over the laundry room….Dare I put that forward to my wife?
I’d love to hear about your cellar…or wherever it is that you stash your wine.