Aging Gracefully: Keep your wines sippingly delicious with proper storage

Centuries ago, all well-to-do wine connoisseurs had their own built-in wine cellars. The cool, dank cellars of northern and western European castles provided the ideal environment for long-term wine storage. Lucky for them, since they also had to cope with little annoyances like feudal wars, religious persecution and bubonic plague.

Fortunately, 21st-century life isn’t nasty, brutish or short. Good for us but not necessarily good for our wine. A cozy house may feel great come winter, but what’s comfortable for the average St. Louisan is not so comfortable for the above-average Cabernet Sauvignon.

Throughout history wine-loving cultures have solved the problem of storage in a variety of ways with varying degrees of success. The ancient Greeks mixed their wine with honey, topped it with olive oil and buried the jugs far beneath the earth. Renaissance-era Europeans fortified their wine with copious amounts of brandy in order to prevent it from turning to vinegar. Only once the practice of using corks and bottles began in the 18th century did the thought of aging wine also come into vogue.

Now many wine lovers are hooked on aging wine. “Some magic happens as wine ages,” said Paul Kroll, assistant general manager of the University Club and level one sommelier. “It can turn out to be something you never imagined.”

If you’ve taken the plunge and decided to store some wine, whether in hopes that it will mature or simply because you bought more than you can reasonably drink in one sitting, the two environmental factors that will affect the wine the most over the long term are temperature and humidity.

Most wine experts agree that wines mature best when kept at about 55 degrees with humidity levels of more than 50 percent – 75 percent humidity is considered ideal by many experts, although the labels might get a bit musty. If the humidity level is below 40 percent, the corks will dry out over time, which will cause certain death to wines stored longer than a year or so.

It’s important to note that most wines are meant to be drunk within one to two years – not many truly benefit from long-term cellaring of five, 10 or 15 years. The reason one might cellar a wine long term is to allow tannins to soften, to allow a wine’s structure to develop, but – generally – this is not necessary with most wines. Proper storage, however, is important for all wines. If a wine is stored above 70 degrees, it will age rapidly, so if wines will be kept for longer than a year, it would be wise to invest in some type of storage system to protect those lovely libations. The side benefit of a proper storage system is that it’s easier to serve wine at the correct temperature, something that is an oft-overlooked component in being able to fully enjoy the winemaker’s craft.

The quick fix

As wine becomes more a part of everyday life in America, a growing number of St. Louisans utilize different storage options at a variety of different price points. For the short term, most wines can store well in what wine experts call a “passive storage system,” or what most people call a basement.

“Find the darkest, coolest spot in your house and keep the wine there,” said Kevin Hodge of Parker’s Table, a wine shop in Clayton. “When I see people with their wine on top of the refrigerator in those cute little wine racks, I just want to cringe,” he said, citing the fact that the fluctuating light level and temperature of most kitchens is just not good for wine.

John Kalishman of Ladue and his wife enjoyed the way wine tasted when served at a local wine bar so much that they decided to purchase a self-contained storage unit, one that resembles a small refrigerator and keeps wine at a constant temperature. “We started to understand how much better wine tastes when it’s served at the correct temperature,” Kalishman said. “You don’t need to be a collector or have a huge volume of wine to get the benefits of a storage system.” The unit resides in an unfinished portion of his basement.

Kalishman’s unit holds 100 bottles, but models exist that store as few as 24 and as many as 600. Prices vary according to the number of bottles the unit is able to accommodate and can run from $100 up to $1,600.

In addition to having more capacity, higher-priced models often are more energy-efficient and more aesthetically pleasing. Regardless of the price, Hodge cautioned buyers to take particular note of the model’s warranty. “Sometimes the higher-priced models have better warranties. It’s like buying any other appliance,” Hodge said. “Make sure you do your homework.”

Kroll believes these self-contained units, available at large hardware stores or through a number of mail-order wine catalogues, are great for smaller collections or for people with limited space. “They are definitely an affordable luxury,” he said.

“We had just finished remodeling our home and couldn’t set aside any space dedicated to wine storage, so this option worked well for us,” Kalishman said. “But I already told my wife, my next house will have a wine room.”

Larger, more permanent storage

For those looking either for a larger amount of storage or simply for a more permanent system, a wine room is the next step up from a self-contained system. “You can do it yourself if you’re somewhat handy,” said Hodge.

Tony Piazza is one such handy person. He designed and built a wine cellar in his West County home about six years ago. He has been interested in wine for a long time and found it fun to look for good values. “When I find [a wine] I like that I think will last for a while, I want to buy more.” So he needed a wine cellar.

“I wanted something that was effective but wanted to do it for a reasonable cost,” he said. Piazza researched various books before settling on “How and Why to Build a Wine Cellar” by Richard M. Gold and using the info contained therein to build his own cellar. “It’s definitely a utilitarian wine cellar, not a fashion statement,” he reported. Piazza selected a corner of his basement that had two exterior walls, adding two interior walls and a cooling system.

The cooling system was probably the most expensive part of the whole endeavor. Piazza chose a self-contained model, the WhisperKool 3000, which keeps the temperature about 55 and maintains the humidity in the room. It is somewhat akin to a window air conditioner. Piazza bought the unit directly from the manufacturer, Vinothèque, then cut a small hole in the side of a wall, mounted the system and plugged it in. Prices can run anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 depending on the size of the room.

A cooling system is only effective if the cellar is properly insulated; Piazza added insulation to both the walls and the ceiling. He also installed a vapor barrier, which helps keep the moist air inside the room, and added a ceramic tile floor, a decorative door and a light fixture. He even designed his own racking system, which more closely resembles kitchen cabinetry than standard wine racks. The racks lack individual cubbies for each bottle, giving him the ability to more easily manipulate the racks to accommodate whole cases or
larger bottles.

Piazza estimated that he spent about $2,500 on the materials for his wine cellar, the largest cost coming from the cooling system. “I buy wine to drink, not to save,” he said, noting that his cellar can hold up to 600 bottles. “It’s fun to find good wine values that I can drink right now. I’m not looking to keep them around for the next 30 years.”

Long-term solutions

Ryan Dolnick of Ballwin approaches wine from a slightly different perspective. “When I find a good wine, I tend to buy [it] three deep, one to drink right away, one to store for four to five years and one to keep for the long term.”

His storage solution involved less sweat equity than Piazza’s. When purchasing a newly built home, Dolnick talked the builder into converting a basement bedroom into a wine cellar that measures about 12 by 14 feet, giving him space for an estimated 1,000 bottles. He also talked a local wine seller into selling him redwood racks at a very good price. “I’m a good customer,” he laughed.

For those who are not quite so handy, or so glib, options still exist for a great-looking wine cellar, albeit at a price.

A civil engineer by training, Tom Heisler of CellarMasters Midwest (314.749.6131) designs and builds wine cellars around the metro area. “A good wine cellar serves three purposes,” he said, “to store the wine, to preserve it and to age it.”

CellarMasters Midwest can design a room from the ground up or take an existing room and install racks and a cooling system. “We even have a wine professional on staff that can help with wine selection if needed,” he said. “Prices (for a cellar) vary according to the size of the room, the quality of the racks and other factors like the choice of flooring.” He estimated that customers should plan to spend anywhere from $10 (to vapor-line, rack and cool an existing room) to $20 (for a new room) per bottle, so a 500-bottle cellar will run between $5,000 and $10,000. It can take as little as three weeks to build a cellar.

Cory Lamp of Cellars LLC (314.495.3383) offers oenophiles a similarly low-stress storage solution. Lamp can design and build a custom racking system once the room itself is ready. Lamp builds the racks himself using what he calls “heart” redwood.

While many homeowners want a straightforward design, Lamp can also employ a more artistic approach. “We can build arches or what I call a ‘waterfall display’ with some of the bottles jutting out. We can also build a table into the racking system that people can use for tastings,” he said, adding that many customers want a mix of decorative and functional racks. The cost for a 1,000-bottle racking system may run between $4,000 and $6,000, which incorporates both construction and installation fees.

If you’ve got a bigger budget, you can have your wine cellar built right in when you build your new home. Bruce Korn, co-owner of Higginbotham Brothers Inc. (314.993.0079), is in the business of building luxury homes and remarked that today wine cellars are almost de rigueur in upscale custom homes. Higginbotham Brothers has built wine cellars with such lavish touches as murals, chandeliers, granite countertops, stained-glass doors and antique tasting tables. “People want to display their wine beautifully,” he said. One customer even incorporated old wooden wine crates into the floor of his cellar. “People are making wine cellars part of their home.”

Once you have amassed your wine collection, there is a little matter of organization. “You need to know exactly what you have,” said Kroll, “so you don’t kill it.”

Dolnick urged newbies to attend as many wine tastings as possible: “That way you can taste things for yourself. Pick their brains. Wine people are all closet professors. They want to tell you what they know.”

However, Kroll cautioned that people should not “pigeonhole themselves into only drinking what [they] think [they] know. Sometimes you can come up with a gem that might not be in your personal preference concept but might have just enough fruit to be phenomenal.”

All the wine professionals and connoisseurs agreed that the most common mistake people make when starting a cellar, whether they choose a self-contained unit or build an entire room, is not allowing for growth. Once they have a cellar, people tend to buy more wine. “Don’t build for what you have now, build for what you think you might want in the future,” said Hodge. As Heisler put it, “Every time you have company over, guess what they bring you?”

For the growing number of wine collectors around, that’s a good problem to have.