(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on May 10, 2012)
Kids’ birthday parties are par for the course for us these days. And we got invited to a fun one this past weekend, with a luau theme. We went for the kids, sure, though I’ll jump on any chance to show off any of my flower-patterned apparel.
As kids ran for cover from water balloons that had quickly become weapons of choice on a toasty afternoon, I followed our host to their guest house in the back. Chardonnay had been sipped and we were now on the hunt for red. But he was very apologetic as we approached. “It’s a mess in there,” he warned me, “and it’s nothing fancy.” Messy, it wasn’t. But simple it was. A few cases on the ground, in the corner, placed side by side. We pulled a few bottles out to see what we had to choose from – recent club membership offering from Gainey and Foxen, mainly – and finally settled on a 2009 Gainey merlot. The wine, by the way, was delicious; a pleasant earthiness for such a young cab, and plenty of rich fruit..
Of course, as simple as our friend’s wine storage was, the fact is it was practical. And it was well positioned. The basics of wine storage – which we’ll cover in a moment – were met. The wine we shared was good. Nothing fancy required. But the fact our friend felt like he needed to downplay his storage sounded familiar. And that’s because I do it, too, all the time.
Fact is, space has always limited how much wine storage we’ve had at home. We rented apartments in Santa Barbara for years and the small home we purchased in Carpinteria, what with kids and pets and years of memories that must be stored forever, is bursting at the seams as it is. No extra elbow room for fancy wine storage. So our “cellar” generally consists of a small closet by the front door, where we might keep a case or two, and a pair of racks near the dining room. Yes, they get replenished often; we do go through wine regularly, both because of my work and (mainly) because sharing wine is routine for us. But our personal space for storing wine is generally limited to that: two racks with a combined capacity of about 65 bottles.
Do I wish I had more space, glitzier space, to store our bottles? Of course. I love beautiful cellars: the way they’re designed, the way space is stretched, the way décor alone inspires thirst. Our community is home to some gorgeous private cellars, and they add wonderful flair – not to mention property value. They are also practical, of course, because they allow their owners to get serious about expanding their collections.
But I’ve come to realize that it’s not where you store your wine that matters, but how. Be proud of your own, personal “cellar” – even if it’s a 3-bottle wrought-iron rack sitting on a countertop. Just be sure to follow the basic tenets of storage to ensure your wine is as good as it can be when you pop its cork.
For one, keep your space cool. I remember being advised years ago to shoot for 55 as an ideal wine storage temp. But you could swing five, even 10 degrees in either direction and still manage to keep wine just fine, especially the stuff you’re planning on drinking soon. Too much colder, though, and you risk drying out corks; and having your spot too much hotter will just spoil your wine. One tip I’ve learned over time: any room that sees spikes in ambient temperature, like your kitchen or your laundry room, are not ideal spots to put away wine.
And keep humidity in mind, since dampness can cause mold and excessive dryness can dry out your corks; I don’t own a hygrometer, but the rule of thumb for wine storage is about 50-75% humidity, which is standard for the gorgeous little part of the world we call home.
You also want to keep sunlight in check. Direct sunlight will heat your wine, of course, but prolonged exposure to UV rays alone is enough to corrupt wine in a bottle. That’s why a dark closet works well, as do any racks tucked away in shaded, stable corners of any room.
And if you’re thinking about holding on to a bottle for a little while – several months, say – place your bottles on their side. Constant moisture against the inside of the cork will help ensure it doesn’t dry out. Fans of screwcaps, this does not apply to you, of course.
A lot of us will get to the point, one day, when even the decorative racks won’t suffice. Or when the floor space in the dark closet by the front door becomes inundated with pantry items. We’ll need to look at bigger options, and better ones. Nice wine is an investment, after all, and one that bears protecting. At that point, converting a nook in the house might make sense. Or you’ll need to look at professional storage options; there are several in our community – from wine shops to stand-alone storage stores – that don’t charge that much for varying degrees of space that are always temperature-, humidity- and UV-controlled, and which are often under 24-hour surveillance.
Or you can call up one of your fine friends with a few empty slots in their modest rack at home; we’ll happily oblige.
Gabe Saglie once won a high-stakes match of hide-and-seek by resorting to an especially cool cranny in a friend’s cellar. He’s also senior editor for www.travelzoo.com. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.