Out of the cellar

One of the great things about being in the wine business for about 40 years and teaching wine appreciation at Southern Oregon University is that I get requests, from time to time, to visit personal cellars and evaluate their contents.

This happens when there is, sadly, a death in the family, divorces or folks wanting an evaluation of the treasures they have accumulated over the years. I also look at potential cellar sites, that is, places folks wish to store their wine but need a professional opinion as to what to do with the site and how to store their wine well.

I also look at wine that has been danged by flood, broken pipes or vandalism. I sometimes have to counsel widows or widowers who were never "into" collecting wine but have inherited a jumble of labels from regions that are not easily understood. This is heady stuff and requires a steady hand and a great deal of knowledge about good and bad vintages, as well as wineries and regions on a global level, that these folks might have squirreled away.

I have understood that there is usually not a reason why people purchase and hide away wine, or a system (there are notable exceptions) on wine for personal cellars. I have also noted that there is very little paperwork associated with these purchases or journals associated with the cellar that would give me guidelines as to how much the wine cost when purchased, where the wine was purchased and why the person purchased the vino. I have only seen four really well-documented wine cellars in my time and they were very complete.

Today, unlike the cellars that were built in the old days, there are spreadsheets available for home cellars that are very well planned out and will give one a good idea of what exists at any one time in the cellar. It is important to document a large cellar (anything over 10 cases) so that resale, if that is something one wishes to do, can be easier and less cumbersome. Simple ledger entry is fine, as well, but does not allow for easy electronic transfer, if that is required.

Try your best, if you own a cellar, to put the older vintages closer to the hand and the recent acquisitions deeper. This allows for the cellar owner to drink older first and not search for the past vintages.

Sometimes we find wines that get lost in a cellar and "turn" because they simply become too old to drink. The idea that all red wine ages well is not true and, unfortunately, we see many fine wines go bad at an alarming rate from those who own a cellar thinking that red wine will age forever. I have noticed and have sampled many red wines from cellars whose owners wish to sell the wine and, with great sorrow, many of these wines are too far gone to consume.

This age "problem" really manifests itself in Oregon and California Pinot Noir and California Zinfandels. This is true, however, no matter where the wine is made; these puppies are "drink now" red wines and will not get "better" with advanced age.

We are finding that Pinot Noir from the United States just is not destined for more than seven or eight years in the cellar. The attributes that we initially love with Pinot Noir tend to fade not very gracefully with age. This spice and nuance when charming within the five year range dissipates over time and leaves the Pinot lacking with heart and soul.

Zinfandel suffers from power, intensity of fruit, alcohol and gobs of oak treatment that is fun when young, but goes really whacky with time. We tend to lose fruit first in aged wines, so that when we have a high-alcohol red, such as Zinfandel, all we have left is alcohol and weird oak in the glass. With the alcohol levels seemingly soaring through the roof on Zins, we need to be careful that these wines not hit the cellar for any appreciable time. My thought is that Zinfandel is good for seven years within label date and rarely beyond that.

More on cellaring wine next week. See you then!

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