Honey, I'd like the Guestroom Back, or What to do with all that Wine
You just got home from visiting your favorite wine shop, and you're unloading some really nice stuff. You have a couple cases of classified Bordeaux that you got for a good price on the futures market last year, and a case of that great California Cabernet that your retailer always holds aside for you because you're one of his best customers. Oh, yes and a couple cases of "everyday wine" that caught your eye when you stopped by to pick up everything else (hence, the "best customer" status).
You start carrying them to your wine storage facility - the guest room. Your collection long ago overflowed the guest room closet and you can't remember how long it's been since that the little wooden rack in the kitchen was sufficient to hold your family's wine supply. The wine has since pretty much surrounded and covered the guest bed and is starting to approach the door.
Your Significant Other has stopped questioning how much gets spent on wine. "It's not hoarding," you explained, "it's investing." And your wine has surely been beating the stock market over the past few years. And you never seem to be asked to bring the salad to dinner parties any more. It's always "Oh, bring some wine if you like". But tonight your Significant Other drops a minor bombshell on what you thought was an acceptable situation: "Dear, I need the guest room back". Bam! You're confronted with innumerable cases of wine and nowhere to put them.
You knew all along that the guestroom didn't represent an ideal wine storage facility - too warm, and worse, quite variable in temperature - and here's the wake-up call to do something about it. But what? You need a quick (and hopefully cheap) solution, at least until you can convince your Significant Other of the utility of building that dream wine cellar. Fortunately, Brentwood Wine Company's website has some good information.
Here are the ideal conditions for wine storage, and probably most importantly how much you can consider varying from these conditions, at least for a year or two.
Maintaining the proper temperature is by far the most important factor in wine storage. There are two, equally important, factors in this equation: the average storage temperature and the temperature fluctuation.
Average Temperature - Our fun fact for the month is the Arrhenius Equation, named for the Swedish Nobel-prize winning chemist Svante Arrhenius who first stated it. It says that for every 10 degrees Celsius (that's 18 degrees Fahrenheit) that temperature is increased, the speed of an average chemical reaction increases between 50% and 200%. Since the aging of wine is a chemical reaction (a combination of many chemical reactions actually), this equation is key to understanding why wine collectors are so hung up on temperature. Below about 50 degrees Fahrenheit, wine hardly ages at all. A decades-old wine could taste quite young if stored continually under these conditions. Increase that temperature to 68 degrees and an ageworthy wine might reach its peak in just a few years. Place it at 86 degrees and it might peak in a just a few months.
The reactions that take place in a bottle are quite complex and proceed at different speeds. To keep these reactions proceeding in lockstep toward that "perfectly aged bottle" wine should be stored at the cooler end of the temperature range. A bottle stored to peak quality at 86 degrees will be far inferior to one stored to peak at 55 degrees.
Over time people have found the ideal wine storage temperature to be about 55 degrees (Fahrenheit - which we'll use for the rest of this article) to create balanced aging and still have a wine reach its peak within the average person's lifespan. Some folks would argue that a somewhat cooler temperature (as low as 50 degrees) is perfect for delicate wines such as white Burgundy, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Champagne and slightly higher temperatures (up to maybe 58 degrees) is better for really hearty reds like Medoc Bordeaux from great years, top-notch Syrah, knock-yer-socks-off Cabernet and vintage Port. It all gets down to how fast you want them to age, and the right answer is always in the fifties.
Storing wine at a cooler temperature than 50 is not harmful at all to wine as long as it doesn't freeze. There are three drawbacks to setting out to store wine at a really cool temperature, however. First, it hardly ages at all. If you ever expect to drink it, this is not ideal. However, if you plan to pass it down to future generations, cooler is better. And as witnessed by auction results of wine from a famous very cold castle in Scotland, cooler may also be better for investors - if you can prove it. The second drawback is that coolness tends to cost money. The average ambient ground temperature in most of the U.S. (except Alaska!) is in the mid fifties or higher, so going cooler than this means continual refrigeration, which can be costly. The third hypothetical problem with too-cool storage is keeping the humidity correct. Refrigeration tends to dry the air, a solvable problem we discuss below.
The upper end of acceptable wine storage temperature has been found to be about 65 degrees, less if delicate wines such as Pinot Noir or whites will be stored. A few months at a higher temperature, up to the seventies is okay, but that's pushing it. A few days in the eighties or hours (some would say minutes) in the nineties can definitely ruin any but the heartiest wine.
Temperature Fluctuation - As important as average storage temperature is to wine quality, temperature fluctuation is perhaps even more important. Per the Arrhenius Equation, the high end of a temperature cycle speeds up wine aging much more than the low end slows it down. More serious is the fact that temperature swings allow air into the wine. As the wine warms up, it expands. The only thing that can give is the cork. Either the cork moves out slightly or a little bit of the contents (the wine itself if the bottle's stored properly on its side) pushes past the cork. As the bottle cools, the wine contracts, drawing air into the bottle. Over many temperature fluctuations, quite a bit of air replaces wine. This leads to the low "fill level" seen in older bottles. Since oxygen, a highly reactive gas, is the single most damaging thing to wine, bottles that have undergone repeated temperature cycling tend to lose their freshness. Minimizing the frequency of fluctuation is just as important as minimizing the extent of fluctuation.
An acceptable level of temperature fluctuation is about 5 degrees around the average once per year. Fluctuations of even three degrees can be damaging if they occur daily.
This is probably the most contentious of wine storage issues. Conventional wisdom has stated that a wine should be kept in a humid environment to keep the cork moist and tight. Some experts have recently questioned this, reasoning that since the bottle is stored with cork in contact with the wine, it will stay moist regardless of the humidity of the storage facility.
I disagree with the latter logic. Several expert tastings indicate that wines stored at the proper temperature but in very dry conditions seem to lose their freshness. This seems logical when one considers that in dry conditions, the upper end of the cork, which is not normally in contact with the wine, will dry out and shrink. This loosens the cork, at least slightly, and brings air closer to the wine. During temperature fluctuations, oxidation is therefore exacerbated. I believe that storing wine in overly dry conditions is too problematic to risk. And moisture tends to be easy and cheap to create.
That having been said, humidity is much less critical to keep in a tight range than temperature. Anything under about 50 percent relative humidity is getting too dry and anything over about 80 percent creates the risk of mildew. But 50-80 percent relative humidity is fine. Notice I said relative humidity? The amount of water that can dissolve in air increases with temperature. The maximum amount that can be held at a particular temperature is 100 percent relative humidity. It's an important distinction. Just make sure that the instrument you use measures relative humidity.
Many tomes will warn you to keep wine in a dark area. This is technically true. Light, especially the short wavelengths, breaks down the complex molecules that create some of the great flavor nuances in properly aged wines. But glass absorbs virtually all ultraviolet light, and dark green glass absorbs virtually all other short wavelength light. If you're storing fine wine in clear bottles - some good whites and a few fine vintage Champagnes come this way - by all means keep them as dark as possible. But for the rest, spending a little time gazing fondly at them under normal incandescent light is not going to do too much.
Much has been made about keeping wine in a vibration-free environment. This has been pretty thoroughly checked out and found not to be important with wines that do not throw a sediment. For ones that do, the only harmful aspect of vibration is the stirring up of the bitter sediment before serving. So if your storage area does vibrate a tad, lay the wine in a quiet area for a couple weeks before serving and you'll be just fine. You should also do this for any older red wine that has been transported.
Not much is usually said about this, but I believe it is important to store the wine in a location that is free from odors, especially chemicals. While this is not usually a problem, make sure it's not in a freshly painted area, or one where solvents or aromatic food products are stored. For folks out on an old country homestead, the root cellar may be a great place to store wine, just don't put the onions and garlic in there, too. Why? Since air does get back into the wine and also permeates the cork, any strong odors or especially volatile compounds can and will get into the wine over time.
This is another topic not commonly discussed but is key to wine investors. Bottles with clean, undamaged labels and capsules will always carry a higher value than those with dirty, torn, mildewed or water-stained ones. Likewise, full cases in original, undamaged clean boxes command a premium. Contrary to the traditional image of a dirt-floored, moldy old stone cellar, care should be taken to provide a clean environment for the wine.
Keeping the moisture level below 80% (with an inexpensive dehumidifier if necessary) is probably your only concern if you're just looking for temporary space within a modern dwelling. But if you're thinking about using the crawl space or basement option, precautions taken to ensure clean storage will pay you back handsomely.
While you can (and should) leave investment wine in original boxes when possible, you shouldn't try to stack these more than 5 high (for cartons) and 8 high (for wooden boxes). Beyond this, you risk breakage, not to mention avalanches. If you want to go higher, you should assure that sufficiently strong shelves or racks are provided. We'll talk about some options in coming articles.
One other thing to look for is the construction of any wine racks you use. Some of them rely on sharp-edged metal straps to hold them together which can cause damage to labels and capsules as bottles are inserted or removed. Avoid these.
And of course, always store wine on its side, or
cork down, even for short periods. Once a cork dries out, it will never be the same.
Quick, Easy and Inexpensive Wine Storage Solutions
Okay, so you know what you're looking for - a place to store the wine that's about 55 degrees and doesn't vary by more than about 5 degrees and has a relative humidity of 50-80 percent. The guestroom really wasn't all that bad for the short term (as long as you kept your place well air conditioned in the summer), but now what? Well here are a few quick-and-easy suggestions. Make sure you monitor these spaces throughout the year to ensure the conditions are suitable.
Your basement - If you have one, a basement often provides a dark corner with about the right temperature. Obviously find a corner as far away from the furnace and hot water heater as possible on the cool side of the house. Tacking up temporary walls of insulation board to help separate it from warmer areas may be prudent. The downside is that without the appropriate modifications, it probably won't have the ideal storage conditions.
The crawlspace - If you have a house but no basement, you may have a crawlspace that will serve. If it's pretty dry and seems cool in the summer, and you have reasonable access, it's worth a try. Lay down plastic of course, if it's earth floored. Here access, storage conditions and esthetics are all compromised, but it may just be the short term solution you're looking for.
An old refrigerator (or freezer) - The world's awash in old, functional refrigerators. You can turn one or more of these into very good wine storage areas with a device called the Wine-Stat. You just plug the refrigerator into the device and insert its temperature sensor into the space you wish to regulate. It runs $149. You can get more information and order it at www.concentric.net/~winestat/. Tell 'em Brentwood Wine Company sent you.
You could even have several refrigerators set at different temperatures - one to store Pinot Noir and Burgundy at a quite cool temperature, one to store Bordeaux and Cabernet at a somewhat higher temperature and a third to keep whites at the perfect serving temperature, for instance.
Make sure you monitor the humidity of a refrigerator, however. If it drops too low, place an open container of water in it and refill as necessary. Other downsides include limited capacity, difficulty stacking bottles and finding a place for all those refrigerators. You'll notice a jump in your electric bill, too.
A cheaper operating option is to use a chest-style freezer, which is better insulated and has more useful space. Since the Wine-Stat just turns off the power when the temperature reaches the desired level, it works as well with the freezer as a refrigerator. The only risk is the small chance of the sensor failing and the freezer staying on long enough to freeze your wine. For an extra $20, you can get a Wine-Stat with a second sensor that plugs in to provide a fail-safe unit.
The Special Air-Conditioned Space
The Wine-Stat described above can also regulate a window air conditioner. You could therefore use it to set the exact temperature of any space from which you can exhaust the heat generated by an air conditioner. But again, watch the humidity. A pan filled with water with a towel serving as a wick is a quick solution. Room air conditioners can generate quite a bit of noise and consume a lot of electricity, however.
The Wine Storage Locker
Most metropolitan areas have temperature controlled wine storage facilities that rent out space for around $1-2 per case per month. Look in the yellow pages under Wine Storage. Make sure the spaces are secure and that your wine is insured. The downside here is of course access. You can't just pop down and get another bottle on a whim.
You folks in New York are lucky to have a really unique option, The Wine Cave. About an hour up the Hudson Valley from NYC is an old bluestone rock quarry modified for ideal wine storage conditions. They also support wine making and wine investing activities. Check them out at www.wine-storage.com.
The Wine Storage "Appliance"
Several companies offer complete wine storage units that are designed to fit right into your home. These vary from small units that look like mini-fridges to large storage cabinets that resemble nothing so much as big armoires or small rooms. All are well insulated, come with integral cooling and humidity control units and are fairly efficient to run. Esthetics tend to be good. These are great solutions where the amount of wine you have to store is not too large - they get up to 2000 bottles or so - and price is not too much of an object. They tend to run from about $1000 to around $7000. Figure on them costing $3-7 per bottle to purchase and adding noticeably to your electric bill. We'll talk more about these in the coming months.
The Wine Cellar
If you're a homeowner, eventually you'll probably want to move on
to building a real wine cellar - one with the perfect storage conditions, enough space to
cover all your needs, with the appropriate esthetics and energy efficiency. We'll
start discussing this option next month. But until then, at least the guest room's
free. Hopefully that's a blessing. Until then, here are:
Dave's Top Ten Places NOT to store wine:
10. The trunk of your Mercedes
9. The trunk of your Buick.
8. Blocking access to the master bathroom
7. Leaning against the hot water heater.
6. Piled up between the snow tires and those old cans of paint in the garage.
5. Anywhere the dog might stake out as "his" territory.
4. Wherever it's liable to inconvenience a member of the family who already is not too keen on your wine collecting hobby.
3. Below the annual groundwater maximum.
2. A storage locker run by a guy named named "Guido".
1. Any place you wouldn't be comfortable in a light sweater in August.
Do you have any questions or comments on storing or taking care of wine? E-Mail us at email@example.com.
May all your wines be properly stored,