Building a Stellar Cellar
Plan the perfect wine collection
June 13 2006 by Christine Ansbacher
Not too long ago after doing my best Zorro imitation by sabering the top off a Champagne bottle as the finale to a wine tasting, I was approached by a newly minted chief executive of a high tech company, who wanted some advice on stocking a new wine cellar. He and his wife were in the midst of designing and constructing a dream house. That, in conjunction with his newfound enthusiasm for wine, created the perfect opportunity. As a wine educator, it’s not often that I can start with a bare palette.
“My wife and I enjoy entertaining and have started to really get interested in wine,” he explained. “So it seemed like a good idea to add to our small stash and create a proper storage place for what we will be collecting.”
“Let’s start with the two words you mentioned, entertaining and collecting,” I responded. “They’re not the same thing. If all you want is a supply of everyday wines with a proportion of special wines for entertaining, you’ll need a functional cellar geared to the size and number of dinners you plan to host. If, on the other hand, you want to also lay down fine and rare wines to improve with age and show your collection to friends, you’ll want a very different cellar both in construction and content.”
The CEO needed to figure out how much wine he wanted to store and then choose between building a dedicated room where he could have “visitation rights” to his wine or using a free-standing unit that can look like an ultramodern refrigerator, I added. Of course, if the end goal was collecting, then the only limit to size is money.
He didn’t hesitate. “I’d like to start with the practical approach and leave a little room for some prizes should fortune smile,” he said.
I suggested allocating 85 percent of his inventory to everyday and weekend wines and 15 percent for fine and rare wines. After we discussed my fee he preempted my next question-his budget.
“Let’s kick it off with $25,000,” he said. “What else do you need to know before getting started?”
“You need to decide how much you want to spend on average per bottle for your everyday versus your weekend and fine/rare wines,” I said, “because the cost of an everyday bottle to one person may be what someone else wants to pay for a special weekend wine.”
For my new client, this was an easy question and he shot right back: “Let’s go with everyday wines costing up to $20. When we entertain I spend $35 to $50 a bottle, and for special occasions maybe $100 or more.” He’s a man after my own heart. Like me, his budget treats wine as a special food choice, not just a beverage.
Next, we discussed the three “Cs” of wine storage: conditions, convenience and cost.
Conditions. This rule applies to any wine anywhere, any time: Wines need to be stored lying down to prevent an air pocket in the bottle causing an early loss of quality. Ideally, the temperature should be a cool 60 degrees or so, but consistency of temperature is more important than the chill. A constant 70 degrees is better than a swing of 45 to 65 degrees. I suggested that my new client buy a minimum/maximum thermometer to monitor temperature. Wines, like people, sleep better in the dark. Ditto for avoiding vibration of your wines, which should not be shaken.
Convenience. This not only means easy access to your wine- daily wine in the kitchen in a mini wine fridge and the good stuff in your cellar-but also a wide enough selection that you don’t have to run to the wine shop every time you plan a dinner.
Availability and selection brings us to the question of what to put into your cellar. The first rule of availability and selection is store what you like, not what someone else tells you to keep. Your cellar should reflect your taste. If you’re a Cabernet dude rather than a red Bordeaux man, your cellar will be heavier on Napa than Pauillac.
However, you also need enough variety to match most, if not all, of the food you may serve. Plan for more reds than whites, since reds age better than whites and therefore spend more time in the cellar. More important than the color of the wine is its weight. A well-stocked cellar boasts some light wines, such as Sauvignon Blanc, Chablis and Chianti; some medium weight wines, such as Pinot Noir and red and white Burgundy; and some heavyweights like Chardonnay, Cabernet and Barolo. A bottle or two of dessert wine such as Port or Sauterne makes a nice addition, and of course bubbly-Champagne or other sparkling wine fills almost any need, including a special event. Finally, you should have wines ready today, as well as some that need to “sleep” for a while.
Cost. Depending on your skill at product selection, early purchase plus holding costs of wine-maintenance of the space and insurance-generally produce a small profit over later purchase with minimal holding costs. But the main reason for the strategy of early purchase and hold is to assure that the wine you desire will be there when you want it. In general, really good wines become hard to find shortly after they go on sale. So early purchase and hold may not bring the return of a beach house in Nantucket, but assures you that you won’t be shut out.
When my CEO client and I next got together, we discussed how much wine he needed to store at a minimum and some strategies for getting the biggest bang for the buck. He and his wife entertain often at small dinner parties and host a few large social affairs a year. Their hospitality is reciprocated, so they regularly need gift wine. Together, we calculated his annual usage in these five categories: Everyday, Company, Gifts, Party, Special Occasions.
Everyday. If you eat out and only have dinner at home three times a week, you should have a case of red and a case of white on hand for everyday drinking wine. Plan to restock every five to six weeks, so the everyday category starts with 24 bottles. At an average price of $15 per bottle, your investment in this category averages $360 every six weeks. Seven six-week periods-since you travel for business and take vacations-add up to about $2,500 annually.
Company. If you have friends or clients for dinner eight times a year and enjoy four bottles per dinner, that equals 32 bottles. At an average price of $50 per bottle, your investment in dinner wines will run $1,600.
Gifts. Gifting 10 bottles of wine throughout the year at an average price of $75 totals $750.
Party. Your annual party for 60 friends at two to three glasses per guest requires about three cases for the party-and costs roughly $500.
Special Occasions. Serving $100 to $200 bottles of wine for six guests at four blowout dinners will run you $3,000. I’ve based this on consuming two whites and three reds per event, costing an average of $150 per bottle.
Add it up and you have a cellar capable of holding at least 10 cases, or 120 bottles, and a wine budget of $5,500-not bad for the hours and hours of drinking pleasure those beautiful bottles will afford you all year long.
For the cellar described here, plus a start in collecting fine wines at $100 to $200 a bottle that will be spectacular in five to 10 years, add $2,000 to the budget. Think of these jewels as your liquid 401(k)!
GET THE MOST FOR YOUR MONEY
There’s nothing wrong with buying top-of-the-line labels-especially if cost is no object. But if you really want to impress your clients, friends and family, show how savvy you are by pouring a great wine that was also a great bargain. They’re out there. Here’s how to find them:
Try Lesser-Known Regions. Instead of sticking with pricey Napa Valley Cabernet, try Spain’s answer to Cabernet-Tempranillo-based wines from the Ribera del Duero region and Malbec from Argentina.
Seek out “Satellites.”Wines from up-and-coming areas adjacent to famous vineyards are easier on the wallet. The St. Emilion “satellites” and Lalande de Pomerol, for example, produce quality Merlot-based wines on par with those of their tonier neighbors, but without the high prices.
Go for Extremes. Buy famous wines in poor vintages and lesser labels in great ones. In 1991, 1992 and 1993 only a few producers on the left bank of Bordeaux made superior wine, so you need to buy the big name. But in 2000, good to great wine was ubiquitous, so you don’t need to pay the label premium.
Try Seconds. The lesser labels of the famous wines in good vintages have some of the style of the “grand vin” but don’t carry the high price tags of their prestigious relatives. On release, Carruades de Lafite sells for about one-third the price of its more famous brother, Chateau Lafite.
WHITES REDS Reisling Chinon Muscadet Barbera Albarino Rioja – crianza Greco di Tufo Malbec
Under $ 20 $35 – $ 50 Pinot Gris Shiraz/Syrah Chablis Bordeaux cru Bourgeois Pouilly-Fume Chianti Classico Riserva Bordeaux Amarone $100 – $ 200 Burgundy Burgundy Reisling Bordeaux great chateaux Rhone Barolo Brunello di Montalcino Cotie Rotie
Rioja – crianza
Greco di Tufo
Christine Ansbacher is a author and wine educator based in New York