Wine Cellar 101

With the current economic downturn forcing people to cut back at all levels, perhaps it’s foolhardy to suggest that now is the time to start a wine cellar. But paradoxically, now is a perfect time.

I’m not suggesting investing $10,000 or more in beautifully stained wooden racks, recessed lighting and an insulated, temperature-controlled room. At its most basic, a wine cellar will cost nothing more than the price of the wines by carving out a corner of your basement where you can store a half dozen cardboard cartons turned on their side. Nor am I recommending dropping thousands of dollars for top name Bordeaux or California cult wines. I think the most important wines in the cellar are the least expensive bottles. Over the long run, you will actually save money on wine purchases if you have a cellar–unless of course, like most people who get hooked on wine, you get carried away.

Why Start a Cellar?

Before giving specifics of how to build your cellar and what to put in it, the major question is, why create a cellar at all?

First, a cellar will save you from being held hostage by the limited selection offered by the closest store that happens to sell wine–especially useful if the nearest store that specializes in wine is some distance away–when friends are coming to dinner. With a cellar, you have a ready supply at home, which, if you have followed my advice, you will have purchased on sale.

Next, you can drink what you want on a particular night, rather than what your wine retailer just sold you. Maybe you want California Pinot Noir for the salmon that is coming off the grill, but your local wine store just put together and sold you a case of hearty Spanish reds because they were on sale. Those hearty reds can now go into the cellar to be brought out when the weather turns cold and you are digging into hearty stews.

Thirdly, you can take advantage of wine sales for all your purchases. With a cellar, you have a ready place for storage so you should never need to buy wine at full retail. And during an economic turndown, retailers are hurting as much as the rest of us, so prices tend to come down, especially at this time of the year when stores need to make room for new wines arriving in the fall.

For example, Park Avenue Liquor in New York City, a fine wine shop, runs a spectacular store-wide sale in August in which the second bottle is 50% less than the first, for a total of 25% off. Get on Zachy’s e-mail list and be notified of ‘Andrew’s Fridays Loss Leaders’ sale, which notifies customers of discounts of up to 50%. These sales are not limited to New York. One of California’s major wine retailers, Beverages and More, currently is running their 5-cent sale in which the second bottle of certain wines costs a nickel. In every city, wine retailers have promotions, which savvy consumers should embrace.

Sales are not limited to August. Paradoxically, Champagne goes on sale when it is most in demand, between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. With a cellar, you can stock up for the rest of the year, or years to come.

Economics aside, the major reason to cellar wines is to taste for yourself the magical development of a wine as it transforms over time from a beverage offering primary, grapey notes to one that offers what I call ‘not just fruit’ flavors. With bottle age, many well made reds develop a host of these flavors that people describe variously as akin to coffee, leather, leaves or dried fruit. Even some whites, especially Riesling and white Burgundy, develop nutty or other non-fruit flavors that add complexity.

To me, it’s this evolution of flavors that makes drinking wine special and unique. The chance to savor this transformation is becoming increasingly rare as the trend toward bold fruit-driven wine meant for early consumption continues unabated. Even when you can find mature wines in restaurants or wine shops, they are prohibitively expensive.

With a cellar you can watch–and taste–the evolution by buying a case and opening a bottle periodically (every year or so) to see how it changes. When the wine comes from your cellar and you’ve opened it specifically to see how it’s developing, most everybody–even beginning wine enthusiasts–will remember how it tasted in prior years.

The Basics for Building a Cellar

The two most important aspects of a cellar are temperature and humidity, not the racks for storage. The warmer the cellar, the faster wines will evolve, up to a point. If the cellar is too warm–over 80 degrees or so for a protracted period of time–the wines can spoil. Fortunately, most basements are cool and damp, which make them ideal for a wine cellar. Choose the coolest area of the basement–usually the corner that is most underground–and away from the furnace or vibrations. An easy and inexpensive–less than $20–way to monitor temperature is to buy a max-min thermometer, a device that allows you to see the maximum and minimum temperature over any period of time. The ideal temperature is between 55 and 65 degrees F, but in my experience, temperatures up to the mid 70s, while not ideal, are fine as long as there aren’t abrupt swings during the day.

An easy way to start your cellar is to use the cardboard cases–turned on their sides to keep the cork moist–that the wine came in. As your collection expands, you can move up to wood racks or bins, which are commercially available and easily found with a keyword search on the internet. Although bins for 12 to 24 bottles are less expensive than racks with slots for each bottle, they’re more cumbersome for accessing a specific bottle. Some people opt for elaborate–and expensive–cellars with tables and subtle lighting. While they may be architecturally beautiful, I would spend the money on the wine, not the showcase.

How to Stock a Cellar

Just as you want balance in wine, you want balance in your wine cellar. The first rule of building a wine cellar is to remember that you want to have something to drink with dinner–tonight. Yes, you want the kind of wines that will allow you to see how wines evolve and develop, but you still want to have something to drink. So you need to stock up on wines that are ready to drink to prevent you from raiding the cases of wines you are saving to see how they develop. You will also want a balance of whites and reds and a selection from both the Old and New World.

For everyday reds, stock up on Guigal’s 2005 Cotes du Rhône, which offers remarkable depth and spice for $12 a bottle and is suitable for a range of food from steak to burgers. The Los Cardos label by Doña Paula (about $11) offers simple yet sophisticated red wines as well.

Two whites perfect for current drinking are the 2007 Trivento Torrontes (about $11), a breezy, fresh wine from Argentina, or Benziger’s 2006 North Coast Sauvignon Blanc 2006, a zippy item at a bargain price (about $12). The best advice for finding wines to drink now is to search the WRO archives for wines in your price range, as the search function will enable you to pull up wines sorted by price.

Although many people assume that only expensive top level red Bordeaux are suitable for aging, I’ve had many ‘simple’ Bordeaux from great vintages, such as 1982 or 1990, that have rewarded the patience required to give them time in the cellar. Wines with a lesser pedigree–and a smaller price tag–from the superb 2005 vintage in Bordeaux should evolve beautifully. Try the 2005 Chateau Recougne (about $14), the quality of which always exceeds the expectations attached to its lowly Bordeaux Superieur appellation. Within the last few years, I’ve consumed the 1952 Chateau Recougne with pleasure on several occasions, so I wouldn’t worry about aging the 2005, a much superior vintage.

Now is the time to pluck a few remaining red Burgundies from the fabulous 2005 vintage and learn how Pinot Noir from its ancestral home develops and expands with time in the bottle. While many 2005 red Burgundies are frightfully expensive, some of Jadot’s from the Côte de Beaune, such as their Santenay Clos de Malte, Pernand Vergelesses Clos de la Croix de Pierre, or Savigny-lès-Beaune Clos des Guettes, are still available for $25-40 a bottle. Judging from past experience with their wines and tasting these 2005s, you will be happy in 5 years that they are in your cellar.

Take advantage of the WRO archive of reviews for other suggestions, consult your local wine shop, or e-mail me at for more advice.

August 26, 2008