John JuergensThe Rack vs. The Cellar

I frequently get questions about the best way to store wine. Few of us need to go to the extent of digging a cellar under our houses or adding on a room to accommodate our wines. However, if you have even a very modest number of wines that you don't intend to drink within a month or so, you probably should think about how you are storing these wines so you are not disappointed when it comes time to open them.

Few home decorations have as much appeal as a wine rack full of wine. There is something compelling about it. It has presence and it radiates the anticipation of fine dining, good conversation, and high times. It also makes a statement about the individual who owns the wine.

However, the problem with having your stash right out where you and everyone else can see it also exposes it to all sorts of hazards.

The primary threats to your wine, after the neoprohibitionists and thirsty friends, are heat, vibration, and light. Heat will tend to cook your wines and make them age much more quickly. Wide fluctuations in temperature (+/- 10 to 15 degrees) can also rapidly ravage a wine. Vibration does basically the same thing since it also introduces energy into the wine. And light, being yet another form of energy, can initiate certain breakdown reactions in the wine that lead to undesirable consequences. Contrary to popular belief, the green glass does nothing to stop the most harmful rays.

Case in point. I used to live in an apartment in Memphis. I bought a case of a very nice, but young, red Bordeaux wine that should have aged for at least five years before it was really ready to drink. I put it in the back of a closet that, unfortunately, backed up against the inside hallway stairs of my building. Although the wines were in the dark, I didn't realize just how much temperature fluctuation and vibration assaulted that closet. Within six months, my nice young, purple adolescent wine turned into a middle-aged, rust-red geezer that was about to go over the hill.

The operative concept in maintaining the quality and lifespan of wine, then, is to minimize the amount of energy you introduce into the wine. That's the concept behind wine cellars and the caves used by some wineries to age their wines. They are dark, quiet, and maintain a consistently cool climate. What this means is that you have to find a place in your house that is not subject to a lot of vibration, that stays fairly cool (i.e. below 70 degrees) and the temperature does not fluctuate greatly, and that does not get a lot of bright light. One of the worst places to store wines is in a rack on top of the refrigerator, and, generally, anywhere in the kitchen. You've got a good amount of heat and vibration there, as well as fluctuating temperatures. Closets are a favorite place to store wines, but you need to make sure they don't get too hot. Also, if the closet is anywhere near a stairs or a high traffic doorway, you will get a lot of vibration.

One tactic is to store your wines in Styrofoam if you can't find a place in the house that has even temperatures. The wines are pretty much in the dark, and the Styrofoam absorbs temperature fluctuations and some of the vibration. I have used old coolers and ice chests, but over time, if the ice chest gets heated up, it can have the negative effect of retaining heat.

If you are really serious about protecting your wines, you can invest in a temperature controlled wine cabinet. These things range in storage capacity from about 30 bottles to over 600, but they will cost you. The minimum price for a thirty bottle model is about $700, and the big jobs will set you back several thousand. But they sure make a dramatic addition to the house.

I have seen the poor man's version that can do the job, but it won't have the glitz of a fine wine cellar. You can convert an old refrigerator into a temperature controlled wine cabinet, but the trick is to get it to maintain the correct temperature. I have seen inexpensive control units for this purpose that seem to work very well in keeping a refrigerator at about 55 degrees. (For one detailed example of this approach, see the article "Converting a refrigerator into a cellar unit" on The Wine Lovers' Page.)

An additional challenge is that many refrigerators, like air conditioners, have a built in dehumidifier to reduce moisture condensation on the interior. This will cause your corks to dry out, which will allow air to get into the bottle and the wine to leak out. This is a bad thing. You would need to figure out how to disconnect this function.

In any case, always be sure to store your wines on their sides so that the corks stay wet. Anything with a screw cap will be fine in any position since there is no chance for leakage and these wines tend to be as durable as cockroaches.

Wine Pick of the Week:

One of the most versatile wines on the market is red Zinfandel, not pink, red. It goes with just about anything and usually packs a mouthful of fruit flavor. One wine I had the pleasure of tasting several times recently is Alderbrook 1997 O.V.O.C. (Old Vines, Old Clones), which is an excellent example of what a good red Zinfandel should taste like. It has classic rich "bramble fruit" flavors of blackberries, raspberries, sweet oak, and vanilla. It also demonstrates clearly all the good stuff that is stripped out of the wine when they make White Zinfandel. It will cost you about $17, but it's worth every penny.

Sept. 19, 2000

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