Starting your personal wine cellar

Many folks over the years have asked me for advice on starting a personal wine cellar. I tell them the payoff is worth the effort, but there are some strategies to keep in mind.

Where: Simple is best — look for a spot that doesn't necessitate the removal of two rooms and a bath. It's surprising how many places you can find if you look hard enough. The key to cellar storage is to keep the wine as close to 54 degrees as possible, though that's not a hard and fast rule. The cooler the storage, the longer it'll take for the wine to get to optimal drinkability. Keeping the wine at 60 or 65 degrees just means you'll be drinking it sooner.

My cellar fluctuates from about 50 degrees in the winter to 60 degrees in the heat of summer. I have never had a bottle deteriorate from less-than-optimal storage.

When wines start feeling temperatures of 70 degrees and above, their age worthiness declines. Higher temperatures will begin to "cook" the wine and off flavors will creep in.

How: Many of the better red wines still are sealed with cork and therefore should be put on their side for long-term aging. There are many physical choices for this, such as diamond- or cube-shaped racks. There are also vertical stacked racks, which do well.

The important thing is to choose a system of exactly how the wines will be stored so that retrieval is not only easy but systematic. Nothing is worse in a cellar than confusion.

I've seen pretty nice cellars where the owner not only couldn't find the wine he wanted but had to take down 20 bottles to finally get to it. It doesn't matter which wines are next to which, as long as your system is workable. The only rule I'd stick with, if space is a problem, is putting the wines that need to be consumed sooner in a more handy spot and those needing more age in a less accessible spot. I know this sounds obvious, but you'd be surprised how many cellars do not use such a system and end up drinking a wine that's past its prime. Wine spreadsheet programs can help you get a workable system going in no time.

What: Choosing wines to age can be tricky. The first thing to understand is not all wine ages well or at the same rate. The second is the wine you like to drink may not be made for long-term cellaring, such as Beaujolais or other lighter red wines.

Cost, too, is a consideration, but just because a wine is $40 doesn't mean it can withstand long cellaring. An example is Oregon pinot noirs, many of which hit their peak at about eight years from vintage date.

Look for wineries with a good track record in the cellar. Check out wine magazines and read what's happening with red wines for the cellar. It is impossible to know every wine or taste a fraction of what's out there, so the magazines are a nice resource for descriptors of wine that might appeal not only to your personal taste but also to your pocketbook.

Attend tastings at wine shops, wine bars and wineries. Look for those showcasing the wines you wish to cellar and evaluate them for yourself. Sometimes it takes a professional to guide you through the process of choosing wines for the cellar, but you'd be surprised how easy it is to understand the characteristics that make wines worthy of aging.

Many years ago I attended a Bordeaux tasting where the wines (a vertical selection) ranged from the 1949 vintage to the then-current vintage of 1970, which had been in the barrel for only a few months. I was struck by the older Bordeaux and the palate-opening experience of just what exactly can happen to wine after a few years in a great cellar.

This was long ago and the memories of the increasingly older, elegant wines remain fresh. I urge you to plan a cellar today, even if it is just a bottle a week. You will be pleasantly rewarded.

Lorn Razzano is owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland. Reach him at

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