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A Personal Take on Wine Cellaring
By W. Blake Gray
Jan 9, 2013
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Last week I visited the off-site cellar where I put wines in deep storage.  I hadn't been in nearly two years. 

Each time I visit, my plans for what to drink when I'm as old as Robert Parker tend to evolve. 

When I first rented the climate-controlled storage locker, I filled it with wines I liked and didn't plan to drink immediately.  Almost every wine was red.  And most wines were from California.  I had a wide varietal mix, with plenty of Cabs, Merlots, Syrahs, Zinfandels and Pinot Noirs. 

I started drinking the Zinfandels with mixed success.  Ridge and Ravenswood's single-vineyard wines aged well, as you'd expect.  Most others, not so much.

Three years ago I brought home some Syrahs.  Wow, they were awful.  In 2010, I would open a half-dozen 2004 California Syrahs that I had loved on release, and couldn't find one that I could finish a glass of.  I nearly wrote a whole column on how California Syrah can't age but decided the variety has been beaten on enough.  Still, if you've got 21st century California Syrahs taking up space, reconsider.

My offsite cellar has been a zero-sum game since I moved in.  When I bring home 39 wines from it, as I did last week, I take 39 wines there.

During the Syrah debacle, my visits became more frequent, prompted by the desire to get over-the-hill wines home while they still might be drinkable.

And the types of wines I put in the cellar have changed a great deal.

I have to pause and confess that I'm not your ordinary wine lover.  I have been writing about wine for a decade now and I get hundreds of samples shipped to me every year.  Because writing is my main gig, I don't make a lot of money, so I don't go out and buy cases of wines that I like.  If you see me praising a $50 wine on this site, you can bet that the producer sent it to me, and I opened it not too long afterward.

I can get almost any California wine I want to try, with the exception of some of the top-end cult stuff.  But I don't get as many European wines, and in the beginning of my career I got almost none.

Thus my relationship with Burgundy is not the same as somebody who's been buying lots of it for a decade.  I drink it in restaurants; it has increasingly become a top choice for me.  Man, do I love Chablis and Puligny-Montrachet, for different reasons.  But I don't own a single bottle of either. 

I do, however, have two dozen California Chardonnays at all times waiting to be tasted, and if you can't find one bottle worth having for dinner out of 24, you're not trying hard enough.  So I drink a lot more California Chardonnay at home than you'd expect, given my preference for Burgundy.  And I get second bottles of them fairly often, which allows me to put one aside if the first bottle isn't corked.

I still remember the first time I put a Chardonnay in storage.  It was a super-expensive bottle from Napa that I hated.  But I had a second bottle, and decided, what the heck, let's see if that wine gets better.  For a while, it was the only white wine I stored off-site.

I just brought that bottle home last week and haven't opened it yet.  It's far from the only white wine there now.  I've got Rieslings, Chardonnays, Semillons, Albariños and Assyrtikos.  Some are from California, but more are from elsewhere.

My mix of red wines has changed as well.  I have fewer Zins and the only Syrah left is a Penfolds Grange.  I've actually got more Pinot Noir than before, and of two types:  The leaner style that people think will age best, and some of the bigger, new-oak-driven Pinots because I'm curious about what they'll taste like in five years.

I've still got plenty of Cabernets and they're mostly classic-styled wines from several countries that I expect to taste great in 2020.

Curiosity accounts for a very small percentage of wines in my cellar, because by the time I can report about whether Cameron Hughes' 2005 Rutherford and Spring Mountain District Cabs are as good as their $150 competitors 10 years later, I'm the only one with any bottles left.  The great majority of my offsite wines are there purely because I want them to be great when I drink them.

So how do I choose these wines? It's a no-brainer, literally. 

I look at the alcohol percentage. 

I just brought home 2000 Ravenswood Old Hill Sonoma Valley Zinfandel.  That used to be one of my favorite wines from California: complex but exuberant, a wine where you could taste the old field-blend style.  The 2000 is 13.9% alcohol.  The 2009 version of the same wine is 14.9% alcohol.

I'm not going to rant about this; that's been done.  Moreover, most consumers don't have an offsite cellar, and most wine is consumed soon after purchase. 

But if I had to put one bottle of Old Hill in storage to drink in 2020, I think you know which one I'd choose.  And if it was the '09 Old Hill or a much cheaper 13.5% alcohol red wine from Australia or France or Italy ...  well, I did just overlook a long list of expensive candidates to store a $20 Sawtooth Reserve Cabernet from Idaho.