Cellaring Wine – Do-it-Yourself Solutions

Wooden Racks in a Shady Cool Coastal California Garage

Most do-it-yourself solutions for cellaring wine involve tools and pricey materials.  Simpler alternative approaches can get you decent results without all the fuss, expense, and your time … especially if you live in coastal California.

Say you’ve bought a case of some  pinot noir or other red wine you can drink now, but it has aging potential for 5 years or so. Should you bother to hold some of it? Unless Get decent cellaring results without all the fuss, expense, and your time …especially if you live in coastal California you have an appropriate storage location, you probably shouldn’t bother.  “Appropriate” means very little light, temperatures that don’t go much below 40 or much about 75 degrees F, and storage either sideways or upside down.  (The purpose of the last requirement is to keep the cork from drying out, shrinking, and letting air into the bottle.  Today’s plastic “corks” and screwtop closures don’t need special positions.) The ideal storage site is the basement of a Norman castle. Got one? Neither do we.  Read on.

Californians who own a new or remodeled home with an electronically controlled wine cellaring room do have the equivalent of a Norman castle.  If you’re one of those lucky folks, you need not read on. However, please feel free to invite us to your next wine tasting or even dinner.  But for the rest of us, is it still possible to age some wine at home? Without taking on a major  home cellar building project  please!

Location, Location, Location – Garage or Basement

Coastal California from Santa Barbara to Eureka enjoys a  Mediterranean type climate without long freezes or long heat waves. If you have one of those older pre-World War II  homes with a dry partial  canning cellar or if you have a semi-shady ranch home from the 1950s with a cement floor garage, you can probably cellar some wine for fun.  (If you don’t have such a spot, ask your friends. You folks that have stored that bottle of 1966 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild in the wine rack in your living room should donate the bottle to charity or sell it to a sucker on E-Bay. Just make sure they’re good friends first.) It’s important not to let the wine get too cold or too warm. Be realistic.  If it ever gets above 75° or below 40° F in that spot, that’s not good.  There should be no direct sunlight near your pseudo-cellar. If you actually use this the garage to park cars with hot engines, forget it. If you are thinking of more than a few hundred dollars worth of wine, consider getting a temperature USB datalogger from Amazon to collect time series temperature data about the spot and verify the temperature for a year. Or you’ll have to move up to the higher ticket solutions described later in this article.

You folks that have stored that bottle of 1966 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild in the wine rack in your living room should donate the bottle to charity or sell it to a sucker on E-Bay.  It’s highest, best use is probably salad dressing.

Cost Plus sells wooden modular racks

Boxes or Wine Racks at Home? What’s your Budget?

We’ve stored dozens of bottles in plain old corrugated boxes in our 50 year old  ranch home’s garage – no working cars allowed.  But recently we upgraded to modular wooden racks from CostPlus when they were on sale. A friend who also ages wine in his ranch home garage swears by the metal wine racks sold at Ikea. On a per bottle basis, the metal racks are probably cheaper. But we felt the wooden racks could be stacked higher and could be better stabilized for an earthquake.  Wine Enthusiast has several different lines of wood racks at various price points. Got a bigger budget?  Invest in a EuroCave.

Rent a Penthouse for your wine — even if you live in a 2-bedroom apartment!

Or if you don’t need to visit your wine regularly and can afford it, there are specialized multi-tenant wine storage and aging facilities both in Northern California and Southern California.  Get a penthouse for your valuable  wine from a list of facilities around the world.

What Wine to Hold? For How Long?

Deciding  what wine to age  is pretty easy .  Usually it will cost you over $20, have some complexity, and plenty of tannins. Tannins are easy to taste. They make your tongue pucker. Look for the winery’s tasting notes for ideas about how long to age.   If you’re at the winery, ask the folks in the tasting room for help. Some wineries post very detailed technical descriptions and notes on their websites.  Over the years we’ve put aside bottles for 2, 5 and even 10 years.  But judging how long to hold a wine continues to be something of a mystery to us. Frankly, we’re not very good judges of  how long to hold a wine.  All too often we open one we’ve held on to  and it’s going over the hill.

How to Manage Your  Wine Inventory

We don’t do anything fancy. We use a gold metallic Sakura Pen-Touch to write the year for opening right on the glass of the bottle. (Everyday wines don’t get labeled of course.) The friend with the Ikea metal racks puts an ID tag on the neck of the bottle.  Even though we are computer geeks we don’t even maintain a list of bottles.  However we are looking into Snooth.com and CellarTracker.com for their cellaring apps.  Both sites have some social networking features, but Snooth seems to be aimed at letting people share tasting notes on what wines tasted like when opened.  The problem with both websites is that we don’t know how those writing the reviews have stored their wine. In fact, we don’t know how much they know.  We posted a review of the Steven Kent Radius III on CellarTracker.com and were surprised to discover another review of that exact wine.  We were less impressed when that reviewer identified this cabernet sauvignon blend as a syrah.  But CellarTracker made the correction once we had pointed out the problem.  As one example of the storage issue, we are sure the wine aging in our garage is going to age faster than if it were stored in that Norman castle!

Hitting and Missing the Peak of Quality on the Years to Age Curve

Some people can afford to age wine the ideal way. 1) buy a whole case of the same wine. 2) make a schedule to open and drink a single bottle  in 2, 4, 6 years and so on, to check on how the wine is doing .  3) When that one bottle tastes good and there are no significant tannins left, it’s at it’s peak. 4) Drink the whole case up over a few weeks or months.

In spite of our  modest aging facilities, we had some luck hitting a near peak with a couple of bottles we opened last week — Steven Kent Radius III (2005) and Wood Family Vineyards Zinfandel (2004).  Both wineries are in the Livermore Valley AVA, which is just a few miles due  east of the San Francisco Bay area.  We bought both wines about five years ago, and when we originally tasted them, they were full of tannins and oak.  We decided to take a chance.

Steven Kent Radius III 2005
Steven Kent Radius III

Steven Kent did not disappoint.  The Radius III is a Bordeaux-style blend.  Put down in 2006, it was terrific in August 2011! Aromas of brambleberries followed by plums on the palate with a long finish that trails into spice. If you get a chance to try this one, don’t say no. Also put down in 2006, The Wood Family zin, by contrast, was past it peak and had become merely drinkable.  The tannins and oak were long gone, but the wine itself was very one-note. Perhaps there never was any complexity there.  They were a brand new start-up winery the year we bought this. And we loved the label.

Wood Family Vineyards Zinfandel 2004

Wood Family Vineyards Zinfandel 2004


About the author

Tony Lima has been a California wine fan since arriving in California from the east coast in 1974. He's lived the growth and expansion of the West Coast industry first hand. He's seen the fickle California Wine consumer fads pop up and burst... the craze for Zinfandel, then oaky Chardonnay, then Merlot, now Pinot Noir. On behalf of fellow Californian oenophiles, he hunts for great pinot noir and great values in pinot noir all along the West Coast. His day job is Professor of Economics at California State University located in Hayward. His undergrad degree in chemical engineering (MIT) and his MBA (Harvard) and Ph.D. Economics (Stanford) are the root of his interest in the Business of Wine. He is a card-carrying member of the AAWE - American Association of Wine Economists.

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