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Cellar conditions do matter with wine storage

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I think most of us have worried at one time or another whether our cellar conditions are ideal. I have. I store wines in several places, including a temperature-controlled unit in my house, and also in my cousin’s basement. She lives in San Mateo, near SFO, and her cellar, while it’s not temperature-controlled, rarely rises above the mid-60s, even during heat waves. So I thought it was a good place to store wine.

Apparently not. We opened a 2005 Rubicon last week, for the seder dinner, and my cousin immediately noticed that it was a little brown around the edges. I told her that wasn’t necessarily a bad sign in an older wine–but it did make me worry a bit, because the wine was only 6-1/12 years old. At the time I’d rated it, in January of 2009, I’d scored it at 96 points and given it a “Cellar Selection” designation, writing that it was “Nowhere near ready for at least four years, and that may be conservative.”

But last week, when I tasted the wine I was struck by the presence of dried fruit, a plumminess that emphasized a certain overripe character. That wine was very good, mind you; we all happily drank it with the leg of lamb. But I figured we’d better drink the remaining 11 bottles over the next 18 months.

It was a personal disappointment to discover that my prognostication from 2009 was so dissonant from the reality of 2012! So it was really fascinating when, during my visit to Francis Ford Coppola yesterday, for lunch they pulled out the 2005 Rubicon and served it with the cheese course. I had earlier told the winemaker, Phillippe Bascoules (whom Francis hired six months ago; his predecessor, Scott McLeod, actually made the’05), of my experience with the wine, which elicited a raised eyebrow from him. He’d had it recently and thought it fresh and clean.

As indeed it was. The bottle at lunch was the wine I’d tasted in 2009. It obviously was just at the beginning of a long journey through this world. The inevitable conclusion was that the bottle we’d had at the seder had been compromised.

Could it have been “an off bottle”? I suppose; I’ll know for sure as we open the other bottles. That catch-all phrase “off bottle” is often used to exonerate a wine that didn’t show well. I can understand certain obvious reasons for off bottles: maybe it got cooked in the back of a delivery truck during a heat wave. Maybe it’s corked. Then there are instances where a winemaker insists the bottle is off, but there’s no apparent reason, except for some random, Heisenbergian mutation. Dan Berger used to talk about “lightstruck” wines, that being a criticism. It was never clear to me what he meant, although common sense suggested that if a bottle of wine was in direct sunlight for a period of time, it would probably suffer. But my ‘05 Rubicon had never seen sunlight. I bought it directly from the distributor.

I remember way back when I was writing about collecting wines. I met one of America’s supreme collectors, a southern Californian with maybe 100,000 rare old bottles. He had a vacation condo in Hawaii. He told me he visited his island home and took out an old Bordeaux from his cellar there. There was something off; he could tell. Upon inquiry, he discovered that the condo’s electricity had been briefly interrupted, for just a couple of hours, but enough, he claimed, to derange his wines. At the time, I thought he must have a freakishly acute palate. But now, 20-plus years later, I can see that you can taste when a good wine is off, even if by just a tiny bit. Even the best bottle can’t withstand torture by uncontrolled temperature.

So I’m going to have to find an alternative to my cousin’s basement. I don’t know what it will be, but the process begins today.

  1. Heisenbergian…nicely done, with a quick nod to another Berger -ian. Didn’t Lightstruck have a bit pop hit in the 60′s?

  2. Steve, not only do cellar conditions matter, but retail conditions are extremely important, too. All too often, older vintages sit on retailer shelves in poor conditions. Sadly, many consumers are unaware of the problems this can create and conclude that they do not like a wine without having the knowledge that it is indeed an “off” bottle. Good luck finding better storage conditions!

  3. What may be more important than the absolute temperature is the swing in temperature and its regularity. Air constantly being sucked in and out of the bottle from thermal flux could be the culprit. If the temp swings by 10 degrees regularly, then it doesn’t matter if it averages 50 or 60 or 70 degrees.

    But we also can’t rule out a bad cork. Corks are highly variable in their oxygen ingress rate. Great wine and good storage conditions with a poor cork could be the problem. There are more samples to be taken before drawing a definite conclusion.

  4. Also, ex-cellar vs. ex-distributor is still an additional ‘failure mode’ possible in the chain of provenance.

  5. Steve–

    No argument with your central thesis. My red wine cellar is kept at 54 and wines coming out from it seem to overperform against expectations.

    But, the wine you had was too young to have been badly harmed by a 65 degree storage situation assuming that the winter temps do not get to 45 or something ridiculous like that. I am guessing that they do not.

    On the other hand, I wonder if there are upper swings at work here. Temps that wander into the 70s and drop below 60 would “work” the cork and thus lead to some oxidation. But Greg is right. A ten degree swing will usually not be harmful.

    Try another bottle.

  6. We find in our wine caves that when you get in far enough into the hill that temps do not fluctuate that the temperature is equal to the year round average temperature. This is about 59 degrees up here in Saint Helena. But a basement is not deep enough for the walls to hold an even temperature and with the warmer temperature of the house above, I wouldn’t be surprised if the cellar temperature reached 70 degrees or more during the summer. It could easily drop to 50 in the winter.

    I was faced once with having to protect a lot of wine in a basement while I awaited a move to better storage. I bought a lot of 4 by 8 by 4 inch thick polyurethane insulation boards, stacked up the wine cases, including a couple barrels of cab, and built a box around the pile with the insultation boards, held together by screws and duct tape. I made a small access door sealed with tape for topping the barrels. Then I cut a hole and mounted a small airconditioner, sealed around it, set it full go “on/recirulate” with one of those accurate thermistor/electical plug controls and it held the wine at 60F for about a year. Of course, cases piled up I had limited access to the wine. But with a bit more effort and some wooden framing and shelving it could have been a nice wine closet.

  7. If you need and excuse or help opening another bottle, let me know….:-)

  8. Morton–

    My first wine cellar was the bottom of the closet in my wife’s sewing room. I was newish to collecting, had about 25 cases and growing, and created a far less techy box than you, but one you would recongize.

    I lined the bottom of the closet with styrofoam sheets held together with duct tape. The cooling was provided by milk cartons filled with water that would be taken out of the freezer in the morning and put back in before we went to bed. It worked pretty well for a while but, of course, my bad habit caused it to be filled up, and my wife wanted her sewing room back. That was when I built my first real “cellar”–essentially a restaurant storage box complete with condensor and thermostat set at 55 degrees.

    Later on, I built a second cellar for my red–based on advice from Barney Rhodes whose red wine cellar was kept at 50 or something like that to retard the changes in the wines. Barney once gave me a Heitz 62 Pinot sourced from Hanzell’s site. It had been stored in his cellar for about 15 year and then in my red wine cellar at 52 for another fifteen or twenty. When opened at age forty, it was bright, clean and alive.

    Cool temperatures do retard the aging process. I am less certain that they make a quantum difference in peak quality short of comparing them to wines in warm to hot conditions.

  9. There’s also the issue of temperature fluctuations (primarily heat) during any phase of transit and/or storage, which cause far more damage to wine than is generally understood. While only the most egregious instances result in visible damage (corks pushing), significant damage occurs inside the bottle before visible signs appear. Our research has shown that temperatures in excess of 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit) for more than 18 hours permanently degrade the wine in terms of flavor, aroma, color, and longevity. 30 degrees Celsius appears to be the “danger threshold” for wine. Between 30 degrees, when the damage begins, and 40 degrees Celsius (106 Fahrenheit), when the cork pushes, there is no indication of damage until you drink the wine, which may be years later.

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