IF YOU enjoy fine, mature wines, economics dictates buying young wines when I they first appear on the market and cellaring them to maturity. Most of the world's finest red wines are entirely too young to drink when they are first bottled and offered for sale. Yet, as these wines get older they become increasingly scarce and their prices escalate enormously, the cardinal rule in the wine trade being to mark up older wines to reflect their rarity and maturity.
A good example of what can happen to wine prices and the advantages of purchasing wines in their infancy for future consumption is poignantly illustrated by the 1975 bordeaux vintage. This vintage, a great year for bordeaux, was first offered for sale to consumers as wine "futures" in 1976. I purchased some of my favorite wines, such as Le'oville Las Cases and Branaire-Ducru, for $65 to $75 a case. These wines, after only five years, are now very scarce and selling for $200 to $320 per case; and given the collectors' interest in this vintage, they will be priced in the stratosphere by the time they are mature.
Beyond the pecuniary advantages in buying young wines for future drinking is the convenience factor of having a supply of your favorite wines readily available.
Most wine consumers labor under the misconception that wine must be stored in a dark, damp, subterranean cave or compartment. Ideally, an underground cellar where the temperature is a constant 55 degrees is a perfect place for squirreling away wines. Such cellars are rare for other than a few well-heeled collectors; wine enthusiasts can, however, safely settle for a lot less.
Any place that is vibration and odor free, dark and fairly constant in temperature, is sufficient for the most beloved wine collection. If you don't have a basement, then a simple closet will do. The two greatest dangers to wine in storage are severe daily temperature fluctuations and temperatures above 75 degrees. Closets can be tightly insulated to maintain a stable temperature and, except in the hottest apartments or houses, do not have to be air-conditioned in the summer. If the daily temperatures are in the 70 to 75 degree range in your wine closet, your wines will simply mature at a faster pace than if they were stored at the "ideal" 55-degree temperature.
If your drinking habits are limited to jug wines, or if you are strictly a white wine drinker, you are hardly in need of a wine cellar unless you stock significant quantities of such wines. Virtually all jug wines are meant to be consumed within a year of their bottling, while they are young and fresh, and rarely improve in the bottle. The same rule applies for most of the world's white wines.
Assuming you are committed to building a wine collection, some guidelines can help you to maximize your wine dollars. The following is a suggested buying strategy for stocking a wine cellar of 250 bottles of fine wine, for approximately $2,500. This cellar strategy focuses on red wines which need cellaring to develop to their full potential; therefore, I would recommend that at least 80 percent of the cellar (or 200 bottles) be red wines of these types.
My red wine buying strategy would be to emphasize California cabernet sauvignons and red bordeaux, as these wines are versatile and age beautifully. For cabernet sauvignon, I would splurge with one case of a special-occasion wine, such as the 1976 Beaulieu Private Reserve, and follow that with two cases of cabernets from such high-quality vineyards as Conn Creek, Joseph Phelps, Montelena, Ridge, Caymus, Robert Mondavi and Carneros Creek. My "everyday" cabernets would include a case of such bargain-priced wines as Beaulieu's 1978 Beautour and Fetzer's 1979 Mendocino and Lake County Cabernets.
For bordeaux, I would ignore the high-priced famous first growths in favor of three mixed cases of high quality bordeaux from meticulously run properties such as Pichon-Lalande, Le'oville Las Cases, Ducru Beaucaillou, Palmer and Gloria. My everyday bordeaux would include a mixed case of the reasonably priced wines of Greysac, Larose-Trintaudon and Lamarque.
After these purchases I would have about 100 bottles of marvelous dry red wine. I would then round out my red wine selections with a case of good, hearty California zinfandel, preferably from wineries such as Burgess and Ridge, although there are a lot of really good zinfandels on the market.
As much as I love a good French burgundy, far too many of these wines are sloppily made and absurdly priced. I would hope, however, that I could find several cases of one of the lesser-known red burgundies such as a Fixin, Santenay or Mercurey from a good shipper like Lupe'-Cholet, Remoissenet or Faively. If not, I would substitute my burgundy selections with some good rhone wines, maybe a chateauneuf du pape from the Beaucastel estate or some gigondas from Paul Jaboulet or Cha teau Raspail.
My Italian wine selections would include a case of robust, intensely flavored barolos and a case of a good chianti. If I were under budget on my French and California selections, I could easily add more Italian wines to my cellar, as they are generally good values.
I have three cases left to buy to reach my 16-case limit of red wines for my cellar. I would buy a case of good vintage port, perhaps a Graham or a Taylor, for cold winter nights. This port would also make a splendid inheritance for my heirs, should I fail to consume all of this long-lived fortified wine.
My last two cases of red wine would include my daily jug wines. I would probably experiment to find a "better" wine, but generally fall back on some of my favorites, such as Fetzer's Premium Red, Inglenook's 1978 Burgundy and Souverain's 1977 Burgundy.
All told, I have purchased 192 bottles or 16 cases of red wine. I would have spent approximately $1,900 on these wines, with $600 remaining for my 50 bottles of white wines.
Since white wines rarely need any bottle age, one might decide to invest in more red wine, preferring to purchase white wines on a day-to-day basis. However, it is nice to have available a supply of favorite white wines. I would purchase a case of assorted California chardonnays from wineries such as Mondavi, Raymond, Montelena and Sterling, with my splurge bottles being the 1980 Chalone Chardonnay, a magnificent but hard-to-find masterpiece of winemaking. I would ignore the famous French white burgundies, not because they are not excellent, but because the best Corton Charlemagnes and Puligny-Montrachets are simply not worth the $25 and up per bottle. Instead, I would invest in a case of 1979 macons from France, which are made from chardonnay grapes and quite attractive.
No cellar is complete without champagne, and I would not settle for anything but the real thing. However, I would buy a case of good nonvintage champagne, probably from Louis Roederer or Deutz.
This would give me three cases of dry white table wine. I would round out this selection with a half-case of off-dry 1979 German kabinetts from the Mosel, perhaps a Wehlener Sonnenuhr from J.J. Prum, or a Wiltinger Scharzhofberg from Egon Muller.
My last half-case would be sweet dessert wines, which have become very expensive. However, within the budget I have set forth, I would buy a few half-bottles of late harvest rieslings from Cha teau St. Jean, and fill in the remainder with some sweet white bordeaux from cha teaux such as Coutet, Climens and D'Arche.
A cellar of this size could be established for $2,500, primarily by ignoring high-priced luxury labels in favor of excellent wines that are comparable in quality. The red wines, with the exception of the red bordeaux (which need 10 to 12 years to mature in a good vintage), could be consumed over the next 10 years. The white wines should all be consumed within 3 to 4 years of their purchase.