- Steven Kolpan
- Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. Steven is co-author of Exploring Wine, which has sold more than 125,000 copies, and was nominated as Best Wine and Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation. Steven is also co-author of WineWise, a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world, which won both the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Beverage Book and the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Award for Best Wine Book of the Year. He is also the author of A Sense of Place, a history of Napa Valley's Niebaum-Coppola / Rubicon Winery (foreword by Francis Ford Coppola) that received the prestigious Versailles Award for Best American Wine Book in 2000. He is a contributing editor and the wine columnist for The Valley Table and Salon.com. In 2007, Steven Kolpan was named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. He has been a member of Slow Food International for 20 years. Steven Kolpan lives just outside of Woodstock, New York.
Your House Wines: Just Be Cool
Wine is about enjoying and enhancing the pleasures of a wonderful meal with friends and family, about good conversation, about getting to know each other better. A glass of wine with dinner is a small and quiet reward at the end of the workday, or it can be an integral part of a well planned -- or better yet-- spontaneous romantic evening. While it is true that there is a lot to learn about the fascinating subject of wine, there is no direct correlation between your level of knowledge and your level of organoleptic enjoyment.
As with so many subjects that appeal both to the instinct and the intellect, to the mind and the soul, wine has its myths. One of the major myths about wine is that older wine is better than young wine, and that fine wine must be “cellared” and aged until ready to drink. If you believe this myth then it follows that you can’t possibly be passionate about wine unless you own (or desire to own) a bunch of bottles collecting dust in a well-organized subterranean netherworld. You must also pay attention to “wine experts” who periodically announce how long you should “hold” your wine before drinking.
Hear the sound of that cork popping? That’s another myth exploding.
Let’s examine the facts:
• Better than 93% of all the wine produced in the world is consumed within one year of its vintage (the year in which the grapes were harvested); more than 96% within two years, and a whopping 99% of the world’s wine is consumed within three years of its vintage.
• In the United States, 87% of all wine purchased is consumed within 24 hours of purchase (this, of course, includes restaurant wine purchases), and 97% of all wine purchased is consumed within two weeks of the purchase date.
Bearing these facts in mind, a question arises: Do homeowners who love wine really need a wine cellar in their home? Building a wine cellar or other elaborate wine storage system seems like such an elitist thing to do when we realize that for much of the world, wine is a daily beverage that accompanies food, and when consumed in moderation gives a healthy dose of pleasure to the people of many nations -- rich and poor.
So, if you are among the many who enjoy wine with dinner and maybe have a few special bottles that you are saving for a special occasion laying down in the cupboard, do you need a wine cellar?
Frankly, there are ideal conditions for storing wine (55ºF temperature / 75% humidity, and in relative darkness), but we rarely store our wines ideally. White, sparkling and rosé wines are usually kept in the fridge, and reds are often shunted off to a too-warm corner or closet. And yet, the overwhelming majority of wines survive to please another day.
If we don’t have ideal storage conditions for our wine (and most of us, including me, don't) there are a few simple guidelines that we can follow to ensure that our wines will be in good shape to enjoy with a good meal.
• Once you put your wines in the fridge, leave them there until you are ready to enjoy them. Moving wines from a cool area to a warmer area, and then back again can play havoc with the cork, due to expansion and contraction. Once the seal between cork and bottle loosens, your wine is headed towards premature oxidation, which will ruin the taste of the wine.
•The cooler, darker, and quieter the place, the safer the wine. The enemies of wine in the bottle are heat, light, and vibration. The cooler and darker the storage area, the longer it will take the wine to mature. Also, make sure there is not a lot of vibration in the storage space; vibration, too, is rough on corks, and when the cork moves, you've got the problem of quick oxidation. Oxygen, which in controlled amounts is the agent for aging wine, becomes the enemy of wine when the cork slips. Again, once you find a safe place for your wines, don't move them until they are ready to sit on your table.
•Lay the bottles on their sides. With the possible exception of sparkling wines, whenever possible lay bottles down, especially if you plan to keep the wine in storage for more than a few weeks. Angled in this way, the cork is kept moist and expanded, and is less likely to crumble, which if unchecked will allow too much air in the bottle, leading to more oxidation and a fouled wine.
• If you have a cellar in your house, use it. The temperature underground fluctuates less than 15 degrees Fahrenheit all year round and the changes are usually subtle. As long as your cellar is in the 50ºF-65ºF range you've got a natural wine storage area in your home. If you use a small area of your cellar for wine storage feel free to employ an inexpensive humidifier or dehumidifier to adjust moisture in the cellar, but it certainly is not essential for the casual wine collection.
• Don’t kill spiders in your wine storage area. Spiders are our friends because they love to eat mildew, a widespread fungus in damp cellars. Mildew attacks and degrades labels and once again, corks, leaving an unattractive, smelly, and destructive residue. If you are arachnophobic, don’t use your cellar for wine storage, or just learn to love spiders.
Have you noticed in the above guidelines how susceptible wine corks are to multiple problems? Is it any wonder that there is a certifiable trend away from corks towards plastic-lined metal screw caps, cellulose “corks,” or rubber stoppers, even for premium wines? Cork may make the ritual of opening the bottle more romantic, but as a stopper for fine wines it has many problems, not the least of which is the increasingly serious problem of “corked” wines; the wine is ruined by the presence of 2,4,6-trichloranisole (TCA), a chemical compound that is probably connected to the chlorine used to bleach corks. The wine smells like a moldy old book and tastes even worse. Cork taint is a problem in as many as 8% to 12% of wines produced all over the world (Portugal produces about 85% of the world’s supply of wine corks), and it as likely to appear in a $40 bottle as it is in a $4 bottle -- or a $400 bottle.
The reason I bring up TCA and “corked"” wines is to illustrate that you can store your wines in absolutely pristine conditions, and still encounter problems beyond your control. It goes without saying that we are fooling ourselves if we believe that our wines were stored in perfect conditions prior to purchasing them. Retailers have become much better at storing wines, but it is still a common sight to see wine for sale sitting in the window of a wine shop, literally cooking in the blazing hot sun. Before the wines reach the retail shop they may have has spent time in a steel shipping container whose interior temperature is easily 100ºF, only to be transferred to a distributor's warehouse that is nearly as warm in the summer and dreadfully cold in the winter, and then roughly handled as the wines are placed in the cargo area of a delivery truck, which may or may not be air-conditioned.
With all that can go wrong -- and sometimes does -- it is amazing how hearty a product wine really is. Because most wines are reasonably shelf-stable, anyone can start a wine collection utilizing a minimum of care and just a little bit of money. Of course, if you want your wine collection to make a pan-aesthetic statement of architectural, sculptural, and environmental integrity, you can easily spend as much on your wine cellar as you do on your wines. Again, I maintain that the inner and profound beauty of wine is in the bottle enjoyed at the table, not the bottle itself laying in the dark, but I certainly respect anyone who employs the same grammar and principles of beautiful yet functional design for their wine cellar as they do for their home.
A custom-designed formal wine cellar can be a sizeable investment, and will bring joy to the wine collector or connoisseur. But is it a good investment? Does an aesthetically pleasing wine storage area add to the resale value of the Upstate House?
Brenda Graf, a realtor at Westwood Metes & Bounds in Ulster County remembered that “I sold a house with a temperature-controlled wine cellar to a French couple who liked wine and liked the cellar, but it was hardly a major focus of the sale. They were much more interested in the beautiful grounds, the stream, etc. I don’t believe that the wine cellar added any real value to the sale."
Shawn Jackson is a realtor for Caldwell Banker/Currier Lazier in Orange County. Jackson talked about a “$1.5 million house with a wine cellar and small in-home winery. The room impressed me and it created a quality in the home that could only help the sale, make the sale a little easier. A contributing factor, yes, and depending on the buyer I suppose it might have added $10,000 to the sale, but probably not.”
Shari Jones sells real estate for Irving Kalish Real Estate in Woodstock, NY and also believes that while a formal wine cellar can be a nice part of the house, it adds no real dollars-and cents value.
Jones summed up her position tidily when asked which home addition would add more resale value to a home, a wine cellar or a half-bath.
"Absolutely the half bath. No contest. No question."
Clearly, storing wine at home is no big deal if you use common sense. So, why do some people insist on formal wine cellars in their homes? It may sound funny to those of us naïfs who believe that wine is for enjoying and sharing with friends, but some homeowners consider wine storage --be it a cellar or a series of attractive shelves – an important decorative element in their homes.
According to Michael Babcock, president of www.wineracks.com, located in High Falls, NY, “Anyone with more than 12 bottles of wine should have some type of racking just for the ease of it. The larger the collection, the more a formal space is required, for both proper storage and organization of the wines. Many customers like to showcase their collection in their homes, so for them the decorative element is a must.”
Babcock asks his clients some basic questions when they approach him for a custom-designed wine cellar or for any of the numerous prefab storage configurations offered on-line by his company.
“We start by asking the customer some basic questions: How large is the available space? How many bottles are they interested in racking? Is the cellar to be a showplace for entertaining or purely functional? Are environmental controls – for temperature and humidity – required? What species of wood for the racks? What are the budget constraints? Are there any specific or special requirements for racking or bottle display required?”
Then, the staff of www.wineracks.com gets busy fulfilling the needs of the customer, installing the wine racks. It appears that customer need is healthy and growing. According to Babcock, “We do a high volume business in our prefabricated racking lines. We offer storage systems for just about any situation, from a counter top in a small apartment, to racks under the staircase, to systems that can handle thousands of bottles. We do see a movement for more custom racking as Americans are becoming more interested in wine & food, and seem to be spending more time entertaining at home.”
When it comes to his own wine storage needs, Babcock walks the walk. “I live in a town house with space constraints, so I have a 400 bottle free-standing self-contained wine cellar.”