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CELLARING / COLLECTING ...preserving the flavors while postponing the pleasures...

Sooner or later, anyone who enjoys wine regularly will probably start a collection, although often quite unintentionally. Of all wines produced, only a very small percentage will improve in either sensory or economic value by aging, and the risk of ultimate disappointment is quite high. That risk seems however, to have little deterrent effect.

Typically, the one-bottle-at-a-time wine buyer will at some point discover their regular merchant is sold out of their current and typically new-found favorite wine. So, embarking on a desperate mission of serious wine shopping, they get lucky enough to find another source with a few remaining bottles and make the decision to stock up. And so it begins: The Cellar.

This "cellar" may wind up in a counter top wine rack on display, a kitchen cupboard, or a cardboard box in a closet, crawl space, or garage. But make no mistake about the implication, this IS the ominous beginning of a wine collection. For now, we'll simply refer to it as "the stash."

"Rules" of Wine Collecting
1. Take your time; choose wisely.
(There's no hurry to fill your "cellar". There are new wines every year. Read what the critics say, but follow your own taste. Spend more money tasting than acquiring.)
2. Taste before you select.
(If you don't like it now, you won't like it later; the "ugly duckling" might mature into a swan in the fairy-tale, but an ugly-tasting wine will merely become an ugly-tasting old wine in the cellar.)
3. Buy at least 3 bottles of each.
(Diminishes the chance of committing to collect marginal wines and also of waiting too long, not wanting to drink the "last" bottle.)

Factors that will cause the drinker to morph into collector and the stash to grow (often uncontrollably) are sentimentality, discovery, boredom, and speculation.

Sentimentality results from saving the last bottle or two of a particular favorite for a "special occasion". Discovery of new favorites tends to slow depletion of the existing stash, while, at the same time, adding to its overall volume. Boredom has the same effect.

Speculation usually begins when inflation, created by supply and demand, makes monsters out of bottles that began as "great values". The drinker purchases a wine that inadvertently pays a (theoretical) dividend{1} and so decides to begin purposeful wine investing{2} (aka: collecting).

case goods.Although the popular perception is that all wine improves with age ad infinitum, this notion is 95% wrong (see September Song). Collecting wines as an investment with economic goals, rather than gastronomic ones, requires quite a different set of selection criteria and the appropriate tool to measure success is a not a corkscrew, but a spreadsheet.{3}

Regardless of either the goal or the cause, the effect of the growing wine stash is to make the drinker-cum-collector think about protecting and preserving it. Although this is the most common way wine collections start and grow, it is also completely the opposite of how it should be done.

The right way to collect wine is to invest in a proper place to store the collection first, but I won't waste another breath trumpeting this largely lost cause ... Collectors and purchasers of older wines know this Golden Rule: if in doubt about the provenance of a wine (how it has been kept), don't buy it. However, this should never deter anyone from opening and evaluating even such questionable offerings when the opportunity arises!

"Perfect" Wine Cellar Conditions

1. Constant Consistent Temperature.
(In the range of 55-58°F, with no up or down fluctuation totalling more than 3° in any 24-hour period.)

2. Dark.
(Exposure to either natural or artificial light ages wine prematurely or ruins it.)

3. Solid, vibration-free.
(Go for the cave, the slab, or the bunker; avoid the refrigerator, the second-floor bedroom, or the houseboat.)

4. Slightly Humid.
(In the range of 55-75%. Too little, the corks dry and shrink; too much, the labels and corks can develop mold that can permeate into the wine.)


The most important single factor in storing wine is CONSISTENCY of temperature. CONSISTENT temperature is absolutely vital to storing wine. The overriding consideration in storing wine is keeping that temperature CONSTANT. How many more ways can I say this?

Changes of plus or minus 10° F within a 24-hour period -- ruin wines. Although a solitary incident may not be fatal, it will nevertheless permanently change the flavors — away from the fresh-and-fruity and toward the old-and-musty. Repeated temperature fluctuations will surely ruin wine. Heated wine may smell and taste "cooked" or maderized, like Sherry or burned sugar.

The garage, the root cellar, crawl space under the house, or the unfinished basement are very bad places to store wine, because of wide and frequent temperature fluctuations. Lacking a dedicated temperature-controlled room or cabinet, it's best to store wine on the floor of an interior closet, where no wall is shared with the outdoors, a furnace, stove, refrigerator, water heater, dish washer, clothes dryer, sauna, kiln, boiler, foundry, particle accelerator, etc.

There is a tool to help find and monitor suitable temperate environments: a minimum/maximum thermometer. This relatively inexpensive and convenient device will show the highest and lowest temperature in any given time period.

Place either thermometer in the potential storage area and monitor, morning and night, for a week. If the daily Fahrenheit swing is over a few degrees (5-8?), pick a new location and begin again. Once a likely spot is found, the wine stash can be moved there, but monitoring should continue weekly, monthly, seasonally, annually, centennially, etc., until confident of the location's temperate stability.

Wine "Aging" Mysteries

Why do some wines seem to become more complex and smoother-tasting as they age?
Although a great deal of circumstantial evidence shows what factors affect wine aging, no one really knows or can explain the chemistry of wine aging.

In fact, two competing theories about tannins contradict one another — one says that astringent molecules break down into smaller pieces; the other says they they clump together to make larger ones ...

How does one know the right time to drink that aged bottle, when the wine has reached its peak of enjoyment?
Each person's palate and experience is unique and prevents a one-size-fits-all answer to this dilemma. Consumers might appreciate wine producers who would bravely put expiration dates on their bottles ... I know I would.


The great body of anecdotal evidence suggests that wines stored at lower ranges (50° - 55° F) will be preserved longer and have a longer time period when the wine is in its "peak" of drinkability. Wines stored at higher ranges (65° - 70°) will age sooner, but not as well, and have a shorter time window for maximum enjoyment.

Stored past five years in the vagarities of "room temperature", most wines are likely to show browning color and taste lifeless, flat, or tired. If stored where temperature ever reaches above 75°, the wines may taste cooked or maderized (burnt sugar, Sherry-like, but without the floral appeal).

Wine aging is not predictable with any degree of certainty and there are no guarantees that even properly stored bottles will improve. Conversely, wines that are not intended or expected to hold up well occasionally and mysteriously do improve. Both disappointments and surprises can occur and whether this risk is enticing or problematic depends more upon personality type than taste.

As the stash grows, you will lose track of individual bottles, guaranteed. Where is that bottle? I know I bought one; did I trade it? ... sell it? ... drink it? Eventually, this might become a bigger problem than keeping the temperature stable. It's an ounce-of-prevention problem that most collectors don't consider until it requires a pound-of-cure to inventory and map the cellar.

Start simple, but start somewhere. Label each box or bin with a number or letter. Keep a notebook with columns and develop consistent abbreviations for often-repeated info, like varietal, merchant, etc.. Be diligent about entering new purchases and logging consumption. As the collection swells, make tags for each bottle. Save the tags in an envelope tacked to the "cellar door" and batch-process your depletions monthly or quarterly.

Bin #







$ Paid @

New Cult

Cab. S.



Patch 1

1 -5/7/01
Jadot Chard
Chevalier Montrachet Demoiselles

Le Champ





4 -6/15/01

When hand entry gets old, the computer is the greatest collector's tool yet invented. Lacking the hacking skills to design a custom wine data base? There are inexpensive, excellent, downloadable software programs available, such as Vinoté, that keep track of even more information, such as tasting notes, and make bottle tags.

Start now. Failure to keep track will sooner of later result in Bottles Discovered Postmortem and you'll be forced to consume Procrastinators' Plonk (an excellent beverage to accompany Collector's Crow).

One can get as fancy as one wants with wine racking, cubicles, bins, whatever. A general rule seems to be, the more customized a cellar, the less flexible the storage and the sooner it is outgrown. Strictly a personal choice, of course, but I'd rather spend money on the bottles than the bottle holders.

Cardboard cartons make fine wine storage bins. They're cheap, custom fit to bottle dimensions, and modular. They protect the labels from scuffing and absorb any excess moisture. Stored on their sides, with the ends cut off, the bottles can be viewed by their end caps and the boxes can be stacked three high with relative confidence. Simple plywood shelving can add structural stability and arrangement flexibility.

cellar woodcut.Many wine bottles with cellaring potential come packed in wooden crates. These are also good storage containers for the long term. Whether cardboard or wood, the boxes should be opened and the bottles checked immediately after purchase to find any low-fills, leakers, or empties (it happens!). Re-pack after inspection. Ten years after may be the right time to pull the corks, but too late for merchant warranty.

Always store bottles on their sides. Neck-up invites air contamination from corks drying out, shrinking, and losing their seal. Neck-down results in sediment collecting on the cork where it is unwanted and nearly impossible to remove. This position also hides any seepage that may occur from defective cork seals, temperature spikes, or other causes. Bottles resting on their sides keep the corks supple, sediment sequestered, and seals visible.

Bottled wine is often available in formats other than the standard 750 milliliter{4}. Collections intended to include these larger (or smaller) containers should take their special spacial needs into consideration.

Plan ahead. Eventually, either the quality or quantity of bottles acquired may suggest a more elaborate solution than the stash of cardboard boxes on the closet floor. Escalating options may include faster consumption, renting a wine locker, purchasing a dedicated wine cabinet (see Wine Cabinet Recommendations box below), insulating and cooling a spare room, or building a passive underground cellar, winery, distillery, etc., so plan ahead (yes, this has been mentioned already...).

A refrigerator is not a good place to store wine for several reasons. Refrigerators are designed for short-term cold storage; temperatures within change over a fairly wide range, every few minutes or hours (each and every time the door is opened). The components are engineered to drop temperature rapidly to below 50° F and not necessarily maintain it within a narrow range of a few degrees.

The other more serious danger of refrigerating bottles is that reduced humidity (their operating principle) will cause some corks to dry out and fail prematurely, resulting in wine leakage out (minor problem) and air seep in (major problem). The low temperatures reached, rapid temperature swings, and vibrations from the self-contained compressors that cycle on and off several times daily, all are harmful to wine development.

Wine Cabinet Recommendations

1. Capacity Overstated; Attached Adjustable Shelves Required.
Every manufacturer overstate the number of bottles their units will hold. What they don't reveal is the bottles they refer to are the slimmest and shortest of "Bordeaux" bottles; forget fitting even "regular size" Burgundy, Champagne, Riesling, or Port bottles likely won't fit, neither will half bottles, magnums, or the proprietary- molded Italian fiasco. Removable shelves are often poorly/cheaply designed disasters waiting to happen. Adjustable, near-full-extension shelves are worth the extra expense and minutes to fine-tune.

2. Single Temperature.
"Dual" temperature units are laughable and problematic. Keep all wines at the same temperature. Before consuming, allow white and rosé bottles to chill 5 minutes in an ice water bath before opening and open and pour reds 5 minutes ahead to let them aerate and warm in the glasses.

3. Temperature Setting.
Ideal cellar temperature is considered to be 55°F for long-term aging. As a practical matter, 60°F works great. Less work for the unit to recover when the door is opened and less time to reach ideal serving temperature for either white or red (see #2 above).

4. Monitor Temperature & Humidity.
Do not rely on the built-in readout. Invest $20-60 in a digital combination thermometer-hygrometer. Make sure the temp stays in your preferred range and your humidity keeps within 55-75%.

5. Respect Your Wine Storage.
Within reason, you get what you pay for. Expect to pay about $15-20 per bottle for your dedicated 40+bottle wine cabinet.


The best dedicated wine coolers are designed to maintain thermal window with very little variation (2-4 degrees F) from their default setting (determined by intent and personal preference) and overall warmer than the temperature range of any standard household refrigerator.

Dedicated wine storage cabinets are not cheap (or small). Don't be fooled; there are many "wine chilling cabinets" on the market, suitable for wine that will be served within a few weeks or months at most, but unless the unit is more than half the size of your kitchen refrigerator and also twice the price per cubic foot, it is probably not a good long-term wine storage option..

The only time wine should be kept in a refrigerator is after it has been uncorked. In fact, the smart way to chill wine is to put it in a bucket, filled with about 2/3 ice and 1/3 water, for 15-20 minutes (using ice alone, without the water bath, takes longer, because air pockets between the cubes, even if finely-crushed, insulate against the cold).

Repeated fluctuations between normal and low temperatures can cause wine to precipitate crystals of potassium bitartrate that look like broken glass (myth), but are completely edible and perfectly harmless; they are merely an annoyance. When these crystals are dried and powdered they become "Cream of Tartar" commonly used in baking.

candle and bottles.Bottle-turning as a means of avoiding sediment buildup is a stupid urban myth and completely antithetical to removing particles and sludge. Turning disturbs natural settling, has no reasonable purpose, and the extra handling and light exposure will cause premature aging or spoilage. Sediment which settles on one side of the glass usually stays there. This build-up, in fact, makes it easier to remove by decanting and forfeit less wine in doing so. To help settle the loose stuff, stand the bottle (don't shake it) in a cool spot (not the refrigerator) for 24 to 48 hours before decanting (see Sedimental Journey).

Jim LaMar

1. Nearly all red wines and a very few white ones may improve in taste if they are allowed to rest in their bottles for periods of a few months to a couple of years at most. Only a very small percentage of the world's wines will continue to improve longer (and only under optimum conditions). A year or two after bottling, most wines will begin to decline and proceed to deteriorate at various rates until they become unappealing to consume, most of them long before a decade has elapsed. (How often must this be repeated this before it registers?) RETURN

2. If your intent in collecting wines is to achieve economic gains more than organoleptic ones, a very concise and sensible page of Wine Investment Advice is provided on the Wine Searcher site.) You may also benefit by seeking services from a firm which specialize in wine investment advice, such as Vin-X. RETURN

3. Investor-collectors may additionally choose to subscribe to the Liv-Ex 100 Fine Wine Index, which tracks investment-grade wine prices, even publishing a stock-market-like ticker-tape for wines. RETURN

4. See the previous article on Wine Packaging. RETURN

Vinoté (mentioned earlier) sells software and items related to wine cellaring. Why Start a Wine Cellar? is one of several excellent articles on their site covering all aspects of wine cellaring and collecting.

PfW Guest writer Jennifer Rosen does a hilarious turn on the mentality of collecting, titled To Have and to Hoard.

Some places where climate-controlled dedicated Wine Locker Rentals are available. Wine Searcher also has an excellent chart of wine storage facilities, by country and location, with links.

Yuri Vanetik provides Reasons to Go BIG: Large-format bottles for the serious wine collector in this article on the California Political Review site.

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Page created September 20, 2001; last updated June 13, 2018
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