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Wine Cellar Considerations, Informed by Personal Experience

Cautionary tales and advice from decades of wine collecting
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Apr 28, 2015 12:00pm ET

Deciding what you hope to accomplish is one of the first considerations in starting a wine cellar. Most people have several goals, but one thing is for sure, as my friend who is planning a cellar is about to discover: Whatever your initial objectives might be, they're going to evolve over time, most likely dramatically. People and their tastes change.

My first cellar, if you can call it that, was my sock and underwear drawer. When I got a special bottle, such as the 1970 Heitz Martha's Vineyard that Joe Heitz gave to me, I didn't have a temperature-controlled area aside from my refrigerator.

I decided the next best thing was to place the bottle in the area where there would be the least temperature variation—the drawer.

When I bought a house in downtown Napa a few years later, it came with a complete earthen basement that kept the temperature cool even during the hottest days, but occasionally flooded.

By then I had begun to write about wine, and because most vintners believed fine wines improved with age, or at least advised as much, I needed to find out for myself. I began to assemble all sorts of mostly Napa and Sonoma wines and kept them in my cellar. Aging them proved marginal gains if any, hence my advice: Drink 'em sooner than later. This perspective has been gleaned from years of experience with what happens, or doesn't, as a wine ages.

One test I used was to buy a case of wine and drink a bottle every year or so, which should show you the benefits of cellaring, or at least the wine's evolutionary trajectory. I'd say fewer than 5 percent of the wines I've aged improved. Most stayed about the same for the first five to 10 years, and on occasion a special wine might have gained past a decade.

As I gained more exposure and experience with wine, travelling about the U.S. and Europe, I made a habit of collecting wines from say, Piedmont, or Bordeaux, or even Burgundy. I may have had elevated or unrealistic expectations, but few of those wines ever achieved what I'd hoped for based on having drunk them on their home turf. This led me to believe that wines don't travel so well, and that movement from France to New York to California, and the dangers of exposure to heat that come with it, were insurmountable hurdles. Most of you are familiar with the "it tasted better at the winery" refrain.

As I began to write in more detail about older vintages, my cellar turned into a wine library where, when needed, I could look something up. But there's also the issue of overcollecting and letting otherwise great wines slide into senility. As my friend begins to formulate and execute his cellar goals, he can expect the wine-collecting road to be full of more swerves and wrecks than straightaway triumphs. That said, there's nothing terribly interesting about a straightaway.

Brian Clouse
Philly —  April 29, 2015 3:30pm ET
Well put, James. And my advice, learned from experience: much like a start-up business loan, estimate how much money you need from the bank, and then get twice that amount. Same goes for the amount of storage room you need. Believe me, you'll use it. To paraphrase Field of Dreams, build it and the wines will come.
Steve Coleman
San Francisco, CA —  May 9, 2015 2:44pm ET
Your comment "drink em sooner than later" is incredibly surprising, and contrary to everything I've heard about most big red wines (both CA and French Bordeauxs and Rhones for example). Are you saying 95% of wine you've had is as good on release (many CA reds are released 2 years after vintage) as 5-10 years later? Or do you mean, after it's about 5 years from vintage, so it's had 5 years or so of aging? I'm especially surprised if it's the former. Even WS tasting notes often give tasting windows that suggest waiting 3-5 years after vintage.

Also, just wondering, the linked to column for "Drink em sooner than later" from 11-15-10 doesn't really seem to stand for this comment, though it may be arguably sort of related to it - was this an error and is there a different column intended to be linked to?

James Laube
Napa —  May 11, 2015 5:53pm ET
Hi Steve,

Yes, I believe what I said, but you touch on some key points. One is that most wines are released at least a couple of years after production, so yes, three to five years is a good start window. As is, something along the lines of 95 percent of all wine is consumed within days of purchase. Not many people are waiting for a magic moment.

Editors make their best guesstimates about when they think a wine should be ready, and yes I often prefer the youthful exuberance of a big red rather that wait and hope for more. But a lot depends on your expectations and experience. I can only share mine.

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