Pacific Northwest | October 12, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineOctober 12, home
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Fall Home Design

Taking Stock
Building a wine cellar is more about taste and choice than racks and bucks
PEOPLE HAVE many good reasons for starting and maintaining a wine collection, but in practical terms they boil down to just two: A well-planned wine collection, however modest, will save you a considerable amount of money, and it will provide you with a delicious range of wine choices that are uniquely tailored to your own tastes.

Regrettably, there are far more reasons not to begin your wine collecting. No space. Too expensive. Don't know enough. The dog ate my corkscrew.

Let me suggest that if you enjoy wine, and drink a glass or two with dinner at least once or twice a week, you ought to have a wine collection. It need not be housed in a wine palace, built with exotic hardwood racks and furnished like the imperial bedroom. Such cavernous wine museums don't make the wines taste any better, and their sheer size can lead to a lot of purchasing mistakes.
Paul Gregutt will speak on "Planning, Stocking and Managing Your Wine Cellar" at 2 p.m. Oct. 17, at the Seattle Interior Show.
So think small. Your wines can be stored in a closet, or a corner of a basement, as long as it's away from all sunlight, protected from frequent temperature changes (beware the furnace!) and all temperature extremes, and vibration free. If you have no such area, you might look into one of the local businesses that will rent you secure, temperature-controlled wine storage for a modest fee.

A few bricks and boards can get you started, or some cardboard wine boxes turned on their sides. The cellar conditions, not the cellar, are what's important. Your wine must be stored where the temperature rests between 50 and 70 degrees year 'round. Daily temperature swings of more than a degree or two should be avoided, but gradual, seasonal temperature changes, if kept within these limits, are not a problem.

Resources abound to help you design and build a basic wine-storage area. Companies such as Ikea and Hold Everything offer inexpensive, modular racks. National wine-catalog operations will help you plan and build a cellar if you buy materials from them. Another great source of free advice is your local wine shop. Check out the racks they use, and you'll get some good ideas to borrow.

More important is figuring out what you want to collect, then patiently, gradually building that collection. Do not make the mistake of running out and buying dozens of cases of wine all at once. You will almost certainly live to regret it.

To build a collection that saves you money and reflects your tastes, track the wines you like to drink over the course of a month or two. Buy a small diary and jot down your purchases, noting prices. Then tabulate the totals and calculate how much is white, red, sparkling, sweet and fortified. From there, compute your estimated annual consumption totals, adding another 20 percent for gifts, parties and plain old fun.

For most folks, a collection that holds about a five-year supply of wine is perfect. Knowing that you can taste through all your wines in five years will spare you the worry of wines going bad before you get to drink them. And once you have stashed away a five-year supply, your collection reaches steady state — a bottle in for every bottle drunk — and you can focus on upgrading as you replenish.

Getting started requires a bigger financial commitment, because you must purchase a bottle to save for every bottle you drink. If, for example, your estimated consumption is about two bottles a week (100 bottles a year), add 20 percent and you're up to 120 bottles, or 10 cases. Your final, five-year goal would be around 50 cases, or 600 bottles. Collecting need not be horribly expensive, but we're not talking Two-Buck Chuck, either. If those 600 wines cost you $20 each on average, you're looking at a total investment of (gulp) about $12,000!

Now, don't panic. Remember, building a five-year cellar will take five years. In this example, your budget would be about $200 a month. Too much? Tweak the variables. Buy less wine. Take eight years to ramp up. Fit the numbers to your life.

Building your collection slowly ensures that you won't buy too much of the same type of wine, or from the same few vintages. It allows plenty of time for personal growth, time to explore new wines, new regions, new styles.

Start buying wines you already know you like. Instead of getting one bottle and drinking it that night, buy three or four. Drink one with dinner and put the rest away. Note the date, and plan to drink the second bottle in a year. Meanwhile, keep steadily adding to the collection. If you taste something you like at a restaurant, or at a friend's home, buy a few bottles to tuck away.

Time is your ally here. Think about collecting wines for special occasions such as birthdays and anniversaries. Do some wine touring, and sign on to winery mailing lists that give you access to limited-edition wines. Make a habit of buying the widest possible variety of "research" bottles to drink with dinner. When you find something you really like, go get more.

Remember it will save you money to buy your wines by the case (mixed cases are allowed). Most wine shops and tasting rooms offer 10 to 15 percent case discounts, but 20 or even 30 percent is not unheard of. Which means that by the time you have filled your 50-case cellar, as many as 10 cases were free! The first time you see a bottle of one of your free wines on a restaurant wine list selling for $150 or more, you will bless the day you started collecting.

Paul Gregutt is the author of "Northwest Wines" and a free-lance writer who regularly appears on the Wine pages of The Seattle Times' Wednesday Food section. He can be reached via e-mail at Jouflas is a Seattle Times news artist.

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