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How Not to Stock your Wine Cellar: A Collection of Lessons Learned in 20 Short Years

Monday, August 17th, 2009 at 12:08:49 PM
by Joe C., Wine Enthusiast Companies

As featured in the September 2009 issue of Wine Enthusiast MagazineJoe Czerwinski

Collecting wine doesn’t sound difficult, but I’ve made plenty of boneheaded decisions over the past 20-plus years. Just when I think I’ve started to figure it out, I realize my cellar is so far from where I want it to be that I want to give up and send it all off to auction. Here are some of the seemingly contradictory things I’ve learned along the way.
Good storage conditions are vital. When I first started collecting wine, I lived in a garden apartment with basement storage. Then I lived in a first-floor apartment and kept my wine in an interior closet or my parents’ basement. I have only a few bottles left from those early days, but when I open one up, it is invariably disappointing. In retrospect, I wasted several hundred dollars on Bordeaux, not to mention all of the costs I’ve incurred holding it since then. If you can’t provide proper storage, don’t buy the wine.

Ideal storage conditions aren’t necessary. Although the wines I purchased back in the 1980s haven’t held up, by the early 1990s I had a house with a cellar that was better suited to storing wine. In the deepest, darkest corner, away from the furnace and hot-water heater, I framed out a small space and thoroughly insulated it. Wines that I stored in this passive cellar continue to show well. Even though the temperatures ranged from approximately 50–65 degrees over the course of the year, they changed slowly, and the wines evolved harmoniously. For the past 10 years, my wines have been stored at 55 degrees or less, and their development has slowed even further—I’ve sometimes been surprised to find a wine relatively unevolved.

Buy wines that will age.
Don’t stock the cellar with wines that have short life spans. Stick to wines with track records for aging: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhône, Barolo, vintage Port and (some) California Cabernets. Feel free to gamble around the fringes with new wine regions or styles—New Zealand Pinot Noir, South African reds—but understand that those are high-risk bottles that may not always pan out. Having tried a few, I know that not every hot new California Chardonnay is the next Corton-Charlemagne, nor have my Long Island Merlots aged like top Pomerols.

Buy wines that you like.
On the other hand, there’s no point in buying wines that will age if you don’t like them. The problem with buying what you like is that if you are anything like me, your tastes will change over time. So buy what you like—but do so judiciously. I find that I am drinking through wines acquired during my “California phase” as quickly as I can, and am now cellaring more wines from France, Germany and Italy. Still, be careful….

Don’t buy too much of a particular wine or wine style. Not only may your tastes change, wines do not age indefinitely. During the late ’90s, I really enjoyed the Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays coming from cool regions of Sonoma, but I overbought. Now I’m stuck with some tired, butterscotchy Chards and $50 Pinots good only for making expensive coq au vin.

Buy enough of a wine so you can follow its evolution.
The British authors I found myself reading when I was just getting into collecting were big proponents of this, sometimes even advocating the purchase of twice what you wanted, so you could send half to auction and drink the remaining wine “for free.” A fine idea, if you can be sure the wine will appreciate enough in value to make this work, and that you’ll enjoy drinking the same wine repeatedly over the years. It’s true that I’ve learned a lot by following the evolution of my various ’86 Bordeaux, but you needn’t buy case lots to accomplish this. Three or six bottles will suffice.

Don’t assume that only expensive wines age well.
The days of those ’86 Bordeaux I purchased on release for under $15 per bottle may be over, but savvy shoppers can still find ageworthy wines for under $40. Look to some of the best cru bourgeois from top vintages, such as 2005, for wines that will improve up to 10 or 15 years.

Buy only from the best vintages. Conventional wisdom is that these are the wines that will age the best and the longest, and may increase in value the most. Passing on buying 1990 Bordeaux futures because they looked expensive coming after the 1989s has to rank as one of my bigger blunders. Does anyone who has tasted them side by side prefer the ’89 Leoville Barton to the ’90? Guess which one I have. That said, see the next piece of advice.

There’s always another vintage. Unless you are buying to commemorate a specific year, don’t get hung up on any “vintage of the century” hype. So despite my regret for not having bought 1990 Bordeaux, it’s not as if other worthwhile years didn’t come along. The ’95s and ’96s are doing fine, as are the ’98s from the Right Bank. More recently, the hype over the 2000s was memorable, but the 2005s are super wines, too. Even the ’06 and ’08 vintages offer some nice surprises. In warm regions, vintage choice tends to be less important, so if you miss out one year, don’t worry; another will be along in 12 short months.

Follow these simple rules, and soon you’ll have a cellar like a pro.

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2 Responses to “How Not to Stock your Wine Cellar: A Collection of Lessons Learned in 20 Short Years”

  1. 1 Steve in The Woodlands said:

    Inside our Houston home, the air temp. (humidty) exists in two states, each 6 mths duration: 74-76 degrees (65-80%); 70-74 degrees (55-75%). If stored on side in low light, how long will 2005 Napa Cabernet mature and keep proper? 6-mths? 1-year? 2?

  2. @Steve in the Woodlands:

    Above 70 degrees year-round isn’t going to do the wine any good, but at least it’s not much hotter, and presumably your thermostat keeps the temperature from fluctuating too much as it cycles your air conditioning on and off.

    That said, you shouldn’t plan on aging your wine under those conditions. Six months to a year is about as long as I would recommend holding it.

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