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Drinking Out Loud

What Needs To Be Said

Is it better to just let folks feel comfortable?

Matt Kramer
Posted: July 19, 2011

I had a conversation recently with a colleague that involved my telling him about a print column I was writing for Wine Spectator about cellaring wine.

Now, it seemed to me—perhaps foolishly—that for an enthusiast publication such as Wine Spectator, justifying the desirability and virtues of cellaring wines was unnecessary. My colleague disagreed.

He said, “Since so many wine lovers don’t cellar wine these days, I think you have to make more of an argument. I know many people who would view waiting 10 or 15 years as equivalent to walking on the moon. You tell them to wait, and they’ll chuckle and say, ‘How about I wait until I get home from the store?’”

“I do have to tell you,” he added, “that to most people under 40, the concept of aging wine is foreign. It’s sad but true.”

I cannot deny what we all know: Market studies repeatedly show that the majority of wines purchased in stores are consumed within 24 hours of being brought home.

So there’s no denying that not only do most folks not cellar wine, they apparently have no interest in doing so. So maybe my colleague is right in saying that it’s necessary—even in the pages of Wine Spectator—to make more of a case for what wine lovers have understood for generations: that fine wines worthy of that designation both deserve and reward additional aging in a cool space.

Have we now reached a point where certain wine things absolutely need to be said? Even if they seem obvious to some and off-putting to others? The need for, and desirability of, cellaring wines seems one such example.

Frankly, until this recent conversation with a colleague, I myself would not have thought that the desirability of cellaring wines was something that “needs to be said.” But our exchange made me think otherwise. Given the nature of what I do, I’ve probably been living too long in a cocoon.

So here’s today’s challenge: What do you think “needs to be said”? I offer my own thoughts on the matter, but I look forward to hearing yours. Something tells me that, given my aforementioned cocoon, I’m missing some very obvious but needing-to-be-said wine matters. For example:

It Needs To Be Said ...

That Fine Wines Deserve and Reward Aging. I don’t want to belabor the point, but in the spirit of the column, well, it needs to be said. If you love wine and you’re buying anything decent—let’s say any wine that costs $20 or more—you need to know that the odds are extremely good that the wine you’re buying today will taste better, and be more rewarding to you, if you stick it in a cool space for a year or even five or 10 years.

Now, I realize that creating a wine cellar is a dream for many people, especially those who are young and/or have little or no discretionary income. (I remember it all too well.) Still, if you can, you might want to think about buying an extra bottle or two and “losing it” in a cool space. Bottle by bottle, drop by drop, you will find yourself with an honest-to-gosh wine cellar. Fine wines deserve cellaring. Don’t let anybody tell you differently.

That the Crowd Isn't Always Right. Boy, if ever there was something that needs to be said, this is it. We live in an age where the “wisdom of the crowd” has become almost sacrosanct.

For a younger generation, the idea of neither trusting nor acknowledging an authority figure—any so-called expert—is the latest version of the Baby Boomers’ 1960s mantra “Don’t trust anybody over 30.” As someone who once chanted that very slogan, it would be hypocritical of me to not be sympathetic to the current mantra of trusting the crowd.

But it needs to be said: The crowd isn’t always right. Too often, a good portion of the crowd is just a bunch of sheep. Whether they care to note it or not (and usually they don’t), most of the examples of “wisdom” from the crowd are actually lifted from the research and guidance of more singular sources—the dreaded experts. As no less a genius than Albert Einstein famously said, “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.”

It needs to be said that the skepticism so rightly applied to various wine authorities—whether journalists, academics or wine industry figures—would be equally well applied to crowd wisdom. Before you invest your credulity in someone else’s opinion, it pays, in every sense, to look a little more closely at the basis for their opinions and judgments.

That There's No Such Thing As the Right Price. The current hoopla over the prices of the 2010 classified-growth red Bordeaux is only the latest example of a recurrent moral outrage rooted in the mistaken notion of a “right price.”

I’ve written frequently, and never flatteringly, about the price follies of the Bordeaux merry-go-round. Yet I long ago came to the conclusion that there is no such thing as the “right price” for any wine. And that classified-growth red Bordeaux proves it.

Allow me to point out that when the 2000 vintage Bordeaux prices first appeared, people were flabbergasted that the first-growths would cost $400 a bottle at retail. Yet by the time the 2005 vintage appeared, those same estates sold—and sell they did—for $600 or $700 a bottle retail. Now, the 2010 vintage is on offer, and the top wines will retail for well over $1,000 a bottle.

“That’s insane!” you say. That’s what people said 10 years ago, 15 years ago and even 20 years ago, too. They were saying it when Opus One first asked (for its inaugural 1979 vintage) an unprecedented $50 a bottle.

So it needs to be said: There’s plenty of big money sloshing about in the world. Just because you (and I) don’t have it, doesn’t mean that others don’t. They do, and they’re willing—happy!—to spend it. Just ask any sommelier in any fancy restaurant from Monte Carlo to Shanghai.

When it comes to wine, the free market establishes the “right price.” Everything else is just, well, huffing and puffing. Ask the owners of famous Bordeaux châteaus. They’re huffing and puffing, too—all the way to the bank.

Merlin Guggenheim
Zurich, Switzerland —  July 19, 2011 2:47pm ET
Spot on, Matt!
Adam Wallstein
Spokane —  July 19, 2011 3:40pm ET
re: the last point. There might not be one single 'right' price, but there is a range of price that represents a reasonable correlation with actual drinking pleasure. Do the first growths offer over $1000 in real joy to the eventual imbibers of those bottles? Almost definitely not. That 12K per case (and up, well up) is an investment, quite possible a shrewd, wise and defensible one, but a monetary investment, nonetheless. Those of us who buy, drink (and yes even cellar) wine only for its sensual enjoyment would never pay these kinds of prices.
David A Zajac
Akron, OH —  July 19, 2011 4:37pm ET
Adam, we all need to get over the fact that wine is totally a consumable and realize that it is just as much an investment as is gold, stocks, bonds or whatever you care to invest in. Not everyone buying the first growths are drinking them, but those that are, I would venture to say, are not ordinary hard working blue or even white collar workers, they are multi million or even billionaires. I have never drank a bottle of wine that cost $1,000+ nor will I (unless you want to invite me over for dinner?). However, those that can, well...they can! Does it matter to a billionaire that his/her bottle of wine with last nights dinner cost $1,000? I don't think so. So why do we blame the Bordelais, Burgundians or those from Napa for selling their wine for market value, whatever that value may be? Ridiculous, to you and I yes, but to some, just a Thursday nights bottle of wine.
Adam Wallstein
Spokane —  July 19, 2011 5:05pm ET
David, my point is simply that dollar for pleasure these prices are well beyond the absurd. Can some afford to pay them? Clearly yes, and I don't begrudge them for it; it's a free market, so have it. However, when wine is treated as a commodity like gold or stocks, its chances of being used as the instrument of sensual delight and ecstasy for which it is grown and made diminish dramatically. And that, to me, is a sin against pleasure, and one for which we need not apologize.
Greg Dunbar
Seattle, WA, USA —  July 19, 2011 7:06pm ET
Those who have the big bucks can spend it however they wish. If they choose to make wine an investment, so be it. I, however, would also offer that they're missing the boat on some mighty fine wines that are more "reasonably" priced. Wines that the majority of us can afford to buy and drink.

To Matt's question early on, I think it needs to be said that the average person's attempts at trying to act like a world class sommelier make them sound like buffoons. So you’ve learned a few phrases and want to impress everyone around you. Here's a news flash. We're not impressed.
Kelly Carter
Colorado —  July 19, 2011 10:27pm ET
I would add a cellar can be constructed by almost anyone with a some money (around $1,500 for framing, drywall, insulation) and a couple of months of weekends. You can build in stages, and make room for a Breezeaire or other commercial cooler as you plan ahead. Insulate well, and you will be amazed at how well it works.

I would encourage anyone with a saw, a basement, and the ability to swing a hammer to enjoy the satisfaction that comes from building your own cellar. We did just that, and I cannot express the joy that my wife and I have (along with our friends and family) of pulling out an aged bottle of wine (which does not mean 15 years or more old).

We have been acquiring various wines, and there are many places you can acquire older wines (anything from 3-10 or more years old). The prices are not as outrageous as you think (I have purchased many in the under $30 range), including 2003 Chateauneuf's, 2000 Bordeaux, and others. We enjoyed a few bottles of 2000 Tronqouy Lalande recently at our sons graduation, and the wine was fabulous. The wine was $24 a bottle.

Build up some of the older wines, and you invest in your own drinking pleasure. Now is the time to be buying 2009 Bordeaux, 2007 Chianti Classico, 2005 Burgundy, 2006 Brunello, or 2007 California Cabernets. You can also get 2004 & 2005 Rioja's, 2007 Chilean Cabernet's, and there are several 2006 Argentine Malbec's (think Catena or Andina Cruz) that should still be delicious for the next 4-5 years or longer. There are a lot of good wines, and you don't have to spend first growth cash to really have fun and enjoy a wonderful glass of red wine. Building our modest cellar has been a joy.
Jeremy Matouk
Port of Spain, Trinidad —  July 19, 2011 10:37pm ET
I have to agree with Adam and to an extent with David. There are people with so much money that "value" is an irrelevant word. It may come as some consolation that very few of them know the first thing about wine and could not tell a Latour or Haut Brion from a simple Medoc in a blind tasting. So what? Let the chumps have their fun. There's simply too much good wine available to worry about them. It's not like they are depriving us of anything. Real wine pleasure resides in the $20 or $30 bottle of nectar that they would never deign to purchase.
Andrew J Grotto
Washington, DC —  July 20, 2011 12:49am ET
Hmmm. In the spirit of your column, Matt, it needs to be said:

Many, perhaps even most, under-40 wine geeks would age wine if they could -- and it's real estate, not discretionary income, that's holding them back.

The truth is, you don't need a ton of discretionary income to build a killer wine collection with age-worthy bottles. When I was in my mid-twenties and broke living in the San Francisco Bay area, I accumulated a modest collection of about 2 cases of wine, mainly vintage Port, Rhone reds, and some random California reds and whites, for the purpose of aging. As my income has grown, so has my wine collection. The main limiting factor has always been space, and solving that problem is not as simple as throwing discretionary income at it.

Most urban dwellers like me rent or live in shoebox-sized places, where wine storage options are limited to an unimproved or non-ideal space in the house (e.g., an extra closet, for those who choose wine over wardrobe), an offsite locker rental with strange business hours, or a purchased wine fridge that takes up precious floor space and can't accommodate a large collection. Each option has its drawbacks. And I should know: I use all three!

But don't take my word for it. Wine Spectator could slice through the anecdotes and stereotypes by including questions about these issues in its periodic online survey and sharing the results. In fact, FWIW, I bet they already have the data. Ask them to share it with you!


PS -- Most of the wines I accumulated in my twenties are drinking beautifully now.
David A Zajac
Akron, OH —  July 20, 2011 9:50am ET
I guess my answer to a wine cellar is yes, it is essential....if you have cellarable wines! Not everyone is drinking 2005 Bordeaux and Burgundy...which just scream for cellaring for another 10-15 years. However, if your a white wine drinker or love your zins and California and Oregon pinot's, I am less convinced you NEED to cellar these wines. Its more about personal taste, but all should remember that your tastes do change over time.
Chris Crosby
Staten Island NY —  July 20, 2011 10:30am ET
At age 72 one must be a little more aware when it comes to aging wine.I'd like my supply to run out when I do.Timing is everything.cc
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  July 20, 2011 1:12pm ET
I disagree with your first supposition -- "That Fine Wines Deserve and Reward Aging". This "truth" is consistent with your Eurocentric view -- in general, the climate of the Old World produces wine with higher acidities and shorter chained tannins; as the tannins polymerize during the aging process, the wine becomes softer. In addition, the phenolics responsible for fruit flavors modify creating seconday fruit flavors that some (many?) find desirable. New World wines (IN GENERAL!!) tend to be riper (less acid, longer chained tannins, higher levels of phenolics) thus there is (considerably) less need for aging to make the wine drinkable and the potential benefits of secondary phenolic flavors are offset by the lack of stability in a lower acid wine. Because wine culture started in Europe -- a wine is considered "fine" if it requires aging BUT this does not mean that it is "better". If you like harsh, austere wines that require 10-15+ years to become wonderfully drinkable then knock yourself out. If you prefer wines that are more lush and drink exceptionally well within 24 hours of bringing it home from the store but do not do have the structure to age well, then that is fine too. To my palate, most New World wines drink well upon release and might improve somewhat up to decade (I am currently drinking my 2006-2009 NW reds) but anything after that rarely produces a reward. Thus, if money and/or space are limitations and you prefer Fine New World wines, then there is really not a point in having a cellar
Reggie Mcconnell
Indiana —  July 20, 2011 3:16pm ET
Hi Matt:

Boy is this column long overdue! At the risk of stating the obvious, purchasing wine by the case (and laying it down) is a *very* cost-effective strategy. I'm always echoing this point to my customers. As a young man I took this strategy to heart and as a consequence have saved thousands of dollars over the course of my life. For example, last winter my wife and I began enjoying our 1985 vintage ports. These wines were acquired for an average price of $24 per bottle (upon release) and are drinking beautifully at this time. Wine, like stocks, benefits from a buy and hold approach.
Marc Robillard
Montreal,Canada —  July 20, 2011 3:57pm ET
Thanks Matt.
What I belive needs to be said on top of all the other comments here is that "a cool place to store/lay down your wine" for 2-10 years does not have to be 12 degrees celcius or 55 F for those who prefer.
I have had bottles from my passive cellar which is at a costant 17 celcius (some times a little cooler) and they have all aged and drank beautifully. I have actually compared the same wines stored in my "cooling cabinet" cellar and in 98% of the cases there was no difference.

Rob Dobson
Off the Grid —  July 20, 2011 7:07pm ET
In wine, bigger is not necessarily better.
Terry Brown
Daphne, AL —  July 21, 2011 12:54pm ET
Hi Matt,

One thing that needs to be said is...serve wine at the proper temperature. Most casual wine drinkers here in the deep south assume that reds should be served at room temperature (often 75-78 degrees in the summer) and whites just above freezing. Serving wine at the right temperature allows the purchaser to get more bang for the buck out of every bottle regardless of price.

Rex Keith
Wichita, Kansas —  July 22, 2011 2:12am ET
What wine lovers, I think, mainly come to look for over time are experiences. We look for grape varieties (usual or obscure), blends (standard or who would have thought), style (classic or avant garde), countries (well known or never been there), location (general or ultra specific), producers (old school or just out of school), wine and food parings (by the book or throw away the book), and age (new or old).

Aging wine is an option to have an experience that sometimes money cannot buy. Top flight wine can be had at auction or otherwise procured at a much latter date from release. But much fine wine once it is sold out is gone forever. Cellering is the only option to experience it at a latter date. People may talk about "point of reference", new world vs. european etc., but to me it about an opportunity for a taste experience. Granted some people are "experience adverse". Always ordering the same thing on the menu, reading the same authors, buying the same brand of cars, shopping in the same stores, vactioning in the same local, and drinking the same style of wine. To me aging wine is another opportunity to have a different relationship with one of my favorite friends, wine.
Jeffrey Sellers
Scottsdale Arizona USA —  July 26, 2011 8:36pm ET
I am probably oversensitive, but another thing that needs to be said is: "Use a fine glass, and hold it properly!" We all know how much more enjoyment is had from using a fine glass. It becomes most obvious if you use a paper cup. Less obvious is how finger prints and food on the fine glass just detract from appearence, let alone shield the color and clarity of the wine. People don't know, and I feel snobbish to correct them, but somebody should help. Even when the crowd is there to enjoy wine, it seems like the majority is glombing on to the glass. I want to yell when the TV shows (say, Brothers and Sisters, about a family that owns a winery) or any film showing a sophisticated table serving a fine Lafite or Screaming Eagle label, shows the consumers holding their fine glasses by the bowl. Do Jack Nicholson or Meg Ryan really not know how to hold a glass of wine? I want to write a letter every time I see this. Maybe this is more pet peeve than a point of education, but for most people, I think they would appreciate wine more, not by waiting for it, but by drinking out of a proper glass that you can see through when it is refilled.
Napa, CA USA —  July 29, 2011 1:53pm ET
There are 2 Napa vintner cousins whose common ancestor arrived here in 1856 and whose families has ever since been fully engaged in growing grapes and making wine. They both produce cabs selling for $85 or more and drink similar wines regularly. They both know about as much as can be learned from experience about how wines change with age: their ages are just under 60. One prefers his Napa cabs about 1 or 2 years after the vintage date. The other likes his upwards of 8 years old. It is not possible to say that either one is right or wrong; they both know what is right for themselves.
What "needs to be said" is that the value of cellering wine is not an absolute thing. Rather, like most things about wine, it is a subjective, personal thing.
Eduardo Arosemena Esq
Puerto Rico —  August 3, 2011 2:32am ET
Great posting, as always. I have a small collection of wines of about 100 bottles that I keep in a fridge size wine cooler. I like to age what improves with time, but sometimes is a little hard to do so. For example, that 2004 Remirez de Ganuza Reserva that I had a week ago. What a wine! Regards from Puerto Rico. Just let me finish by saying that you, with Frank Prial and Eric Asimov tied for second, are my favorite wine writers. As someone who writes (mainly in spanish) I admire the ease with which you can write in a manner that seems to be very true to your thinking. Lastly, your brevity(as Wilde noted: the essence of wit) is both powerful and thorough. Cheers and keep it up!
Douglas Levin
Tempe, AZ —  September 16, 2011 5:12am ET
As usual, you picked-up on another challenge many of us "amateur" collectors struggle with. It has taken me some 10 years of collecting to learn how to select wines that will stand-up better to cellaring. This situation is made worse by so many wines being made in California aimed at the "drink now" profile. Poor choices years ago, still lead to bottles from my cellar that taste today more like flavored water, than wine. Stop for a second and think about an individual just learning wine appreciation... trying to decipher your own palate and then struggling with tasting young wines and guessing whether they will drink well in 5-10 years. Daunting! Today, I am hooked on the balance that cellared wines exhibit, over wines drunk immediately upon purchase. Although, I still remember the early years and can relate to limiting yourself to buying wines for immediate consumption. If the wine industry produces the majority of red wine for cellaring, how many would actually be willing to work at the deeper understanding this issue really requires?
Peter Leeman
Florida —  November 7, 2011 4:11pm ET
I believe cellaring becomes a necessity for the true aficionado of wine, especially if you live in the heat.
We have a time controlled thermostat that will let the house get up to 82 degrees F. Once you go beyond what will fit in your 50 bottle cooler and have stacks of cases laying around and knowing you are ruining what could be great in a few years... Cellaring becomes MANDATORY! We have a local store that will rent you a six case space for $212 a year. There is also the "supple softness" that I have come to enjoy from older wine properly stored. Even low scoring wines seem to gain a point or two when softened with passage of time for a spell. Certainly not all wines will benefit from aging, but sometimes simple "proper storage" demands the protection of your wine investment!

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