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Caring For Your Wine

"A day without a glass of wine is a wasted day " - Darren Sieben

June 10, 2001

Let's start with a toast:

"Wine improves with age - The older I get the more I like it."

This is not intended to be "Wine 101" or anything remotely considered wine education.  No one wants to read "War and Peace" on their computer monitor and a thorough dissertation on wine education would be as voluminous.  Besides, wine is not made to enjoy reading about.  Wine is made to enjoy drinking.  In addition, my knowledge of wine is limited to the budget end of varietals I personally enjoy. Bordeaux, Rhone, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Chianti and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Except for Bordeaux, I’m not even picky about the appellation.

What prompted the addition of this page to my website, is I recently suffered the terrible agony of dumping 14 bottles of absolutely wonderful old Bordeaux's and Rhone's down the kitchen sink.  These wines had some age on them when I bought them, their cost exceeded my normal trivial wine budget, and I was saving them for some special event or some special friends to enjoy them with.  After laying in my wine rack for 5 or 6 years suffering the wide temperature extremes of an Arizona household, they simply gave up their ghost and soured.

It still hurts.

I need another toast:

“Here's hoping that you live forever, and mine is the last voice you hear.”   — Willard Scott

So I discovered one of the three “gotcha’s” of wine cellaring.  Temperature.   The other two powerful enemies of wine include light and vibration.  Vibration is usually not a problem unless you live adjacent to a freeway or railroad track.  But wine likes to be stored in a nice quiet, dark, moist place at about 55 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. (13 to 15 degrees Celsius) The vibration, or motion, will more likely come into account when you purchase the wine and then transport it home.  Don’t run to the wine shop and pick up a bottle of fine wine then rush home to open it for dinner that evening.  Select and purchase your wine several days before you expect to consume it.  Place it on your rack and do not disturb it until you are ready to decant and drink it.

This is actually an excellent reason for keeping a nice wine inventory.  If you keep your favorites and several other varietals on hand, you will always have just the right wine available for dinner or other social event that evening.

Most wines made in the world today are meant to be enjoyed while young and fresh.  Buy them and drink them.  Don’t make the mistake I did and store them for long periods of time.  Today’s wines do not require ageing.  Now someone reading this will email me and say “You Fool, there are plenty of wines that should be cellared for years to gain complexity and become smoother to be enjoyed at their peak.” Well, that’s true.  But those that know that for a fact will not be reading this page for guidance.  They have their cellars and know how to use them and know which wines to place in them.  They also know that wine should always be stored in a horizontal position keeping the cork moist to prevent air from entering the bottle and oxidizing the wine.

Wines require two things to benefit from ageing.  Tannins and acidity.  This eliminates the need for ageing white wines.  Whites have no tannins and therefore will not benefit.  I’m now open for another “You Fool!”.  OK. Some Chardonnays which have been aged in oak barrels for several months prior to bottling will pick up some tannins from the barrels and indeed will mature and improve in the cellar.  The gain is usually small and one would have to be a true connoisseur to appreciate the age.  The gain will also be recognized by those of you who possess “gifted” imaginations.   It’s better to utilize the cellar space for the “Big Reds” such as Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo.

This is probably a good time to pass along my observations relating to white wines.  I will drink them, but I don’t really enjoy them.  I have never tasted a white that made me smack my lips and groan an appreciative “Ooooooh”.  I find them sweet, light bodied and devoid of character.  I know.  I know.  Tens of millions of white lovers disagree with me.  But few white lovers also enjoy reds, so we are all just a little prejudicial.  This is what is so wonderful about wine.  It is immensely complex and incontestably personal.  All wine lovers spend their lives searching for the “Perfect” wine.  And as if that weren't challenging enough, our personal tastes are constantly changing and after every vintage your favorite wines is gone forever.  We are definitely pursuing a moving target. 

Whites are more durable than reds.  They travel well, accept light better, will tolerate cold refrigeration, do not require breathing, but like reds, they do not tolerate heat.  Also, whites don't age well.  There are no old white wines.

Speaking of breathing.  Removing the cork from a bottle of red wine and permitting it to breathe for 20 minutes or more before serving is an “old wives’ tale”.  With less than one square inch of wine in the neck of the bottle exposed to oxygen you are fantasizing if you believe that one inch materially improves the wine.  Much better to vigorously pour the wine into the glass and let it rest there.  I don’t know what the surface area “Pie” is on 4 glasses with an exposed diameter of 2-1/2 inches each but it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that 5 minutes in the glass is better than 20 minutes in the bottle.

Serious wine enthusiasts (unless they happen to live in a cave) invest in free standing refrigeration units designed specifically for storing wines.  These are temperature and humidity controlled units that hold anywhere from 30 to over 1,000 bottles and range in price from $500 to over $3,000.  (Interesting thing, everyone knows light is a wine enemy, but still  the majority of these units come with see through glass doors.)  What can those of us do who enjoy wine and would like to lay down a few bottles of a big red and not have to invest more in the storage device than the value of the wine we are storing?   Well, understanding this is a compromise and a very budget minded approach to “protecting” your wines as opposed to “cellaring” them, here are a few things you can do.

First, start with quality age-worthy wines.  Bordeaux (Cabernet & Merlot), Burgundy (Pinot Noir), Rhone ((Syrah (Shiraz), Tempranillo (Rioja),  Sangiovese (includes Chianti), Nebbiolo (Barolo, Barbaresco) and of course, Zinfandel.  However, be careful with your Zinfandel because this is one varietal that should be consumed while young and fruity.  Also, Burgundy should be enjoyed while young.

Second, choose a location that is cool, away from heating or air-conditioning vents, away from direct sunlight, quiet and still.  Do not store near a stairwell, laundry equipment, heavy foot traffic or banging doors.  We want to avoid vibration.

Third, do not store in cardboard boxes.  The wooden crates the wines come in are good, a wood cabinet with doors (not drawers) is good, and excellent storage containers are insulated picnic coolers.  Here we are trying to minimize the daily temperature fluctuations that occur in the ordinary household causing severe damage to your wine.  Even if your home is air-conditioned, there are seasons when the air is turned off and/or the heater is turned on.

Fourth, do not disturb your wine.  Let it rest.  While your wine is sleeping, it is still alive and changing.  The tannins are softening, the aromas are turning into bouquet and the finish is lengthening.  “Turning” the bottles is another “old wives tale”. Once you lay your bottle down, do not disturb it.  Store your bottles with the label up so you will not have to unnecessarily disrupt a wine you are not seeking.  If you stack your wine, be careful to arrange the bottles so you will remove the top bottle first and not agitate the bottles below.

Finally, don’t wait too long to drink your wine.  Wine stored at 75F will age 3 to 22 times faster than wine stored at 55F.  If the temperature inside your storage container is approximately 75F, you will not want to keep even your “biggest” reds for more than 2 or 3 years.  While some wines stored in optimum conditions for 20 or even 100 years are still drinkable, they probably had “peaked” in their maturity years and years before.

How do you tell when your wines have peaked?  Simple.  Open a bottle and drink it.   There is no other way.  The only wine you are going to age was a quality wine to begin with.   It tasted good the day you purchased it and it will taste better every day thereafter up to a certain point.  Experience will guide you in the future and gaining this experience is one of life’s great pleasures.  When you feel your wine has peaked, drink it now.  Once peaked, it will only grow tired, lose its color, lose its bouquet and eventually become stale.

Drink your wine from a long stemmed clear glass specifically designed for wine.  The bowl is shaped to trap the bouquet and the stem will keep your hands and body heat away from the wine and keep the bowl free from smudges to further enjoy the color and appearance of the wine.  I firmly believe wine tastes better from crystal rather than plain glass.  (I’m one of those with an active imagination.)  While Riedel is the recognized leader in crystal stemware, they are terribly expensive.  You will expect to pay $25 and higher per stem.  Your local Mikasa Outlet Store has a large selection of fine crystal stemware beginning at only $2.99.  While fine stemware is desirable, it’s not necessary.  You can enjoy wine from a water glass.  A coffee cup.  Actually, any container that doesn’t leak.

If you can’t finish the bottle, cork it and place it in the refrigerator.  The very cold temperature will slow the oxidation of the wine and it will keep fine for week.  When you are ready to drink the remainder, remove it from the refrigerator and let it warm up naturally.  Red wines become "dumb" when chilled at refrigerator temperatures, so you may wish to remove the wine 2 or 3 hours prior to drinking and then place it back in the refrigerator for 15 minutes if you prefer a slight chill.

One of my favorite wine links is Robin Garr's Wine Lovers' Page:


A couple more toasts to close:

“May friendship, like wine, improve as time advances, And may we always have old wine, old friends, and young cares.“

“May you live all the years of your life.”

“May you live as long as you want, and may you never want as long as you live”.

And finally, Humphrey Bogart toasting Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca said it best: “Here's looking at you, kid.”

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