Technology's nice, but not as elegant

Today there are software programs enabling wine aficionados to know instantly where a specific wine is in their cellar, what vintage dates and varietals they have and what they paid for each case or bottle and where they purchased it.

This type of inventory and retrieval system keeps a wonderful log of what goes in and out of the cellar as well as what needs to be consumed, sold, re-purchased or given away to good friends.

My first inventory control "system" seems so arcane in today's fast-paced world as to seem hilarious.

I was working in France as a kid at a small winery which has, sadly, been absorbed by a larger concern (as far as I am told), essentially doing work no one else would do. Since I was eager to learn the wine business from the very bottom, that's where I was put.

My jobs consisted of pulling weeds, clearing dog poop, watering, rolling wine barrels from the cellar to the surface, cleaning lines (hoses), presses, crushers and connectors, and doing laundry for the workers. If I got done early, I peeled and prepared, diced and boiled in the kitchen with the three paid cooks and chef as well as set the tables and washed dishes.

This was a far-from-glamorous beginning for a wine guy, but as luck would have it, people moved, were fired or simply quit, which allowed me to let the "new" kids do some of the grunt work and freed me up to take stock of myself and learn some valuable winery stuff to get ahead.

The owners of the winery (this was in Beaujolais) had an extensive cellar under the chateau that was personal and private and guarded with what looked like jail-cell bars and doors to keep folks away.

This cage-like enclosure had two locks on the door exactly as one sees in bank vaults for safety deposit boxes today. The doors were opened by the owner and the cellarmaster by inserting each of their keys into each lock and turning the keys at the same time. Crazy.

The first time I saw this done was when I was summoned by the owner to get the cellarmaster so he could get an older bottle of Burgundy to take to a tasting in Beaune. I found out later, after working there for a while and gaining some familiarity with the cellarmaster, that the cellar had been raided by an alcoholic older brother of the owner and the cellar had to be secured against theft. In fact, and I thought this was an affectation of sorts until I got to know the cellarmaster better and found him to be very serious, he wore the key around his neck every day.

One evening, while having a rare day off, I was heading to Lyon to see a few friends when the cellarmaster asked me whether I wanted to peruse the private cellar of the owner. They had opened the cellar for inventory purposes, something they did three times yearly. Yes, of course!

The cellar itself was as one would expect it to be, with the timbers and brick and neatly stored bottles of fine vintages of red and white wines from around France. What I found astounding was the wine ledger. This ledger was 20 or so years old and every wine that entered the cellar or was removed was categorized by price, vintage, producer and where the wine was purchased or otherwise obtained.

What was more wonderful was the handwriting in the ledger, which was elegant, firm and simply beautiful. The ledger was a piece of artwork. The cellarmaster told me he had been originally hired as their bookkeeper many years earlier and morphed, because of his classical penmanship, into the keeper of the ledger and the cellar. He then showed me ledgers from over 100 years earlier and there, in those pages, were the lists of priceless wines and, again, simply beautiful, almost calligraphically perfect penmanship.

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

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