The fluctuating temperatures of late spring and early summer may damage as many bottles of wine as the intense heat of July and August. Even if your wine "collection" consists of only a few prized (or perhaps not so prized) bottles, a few simple measures taken now can help assure that your wines are in top condition when you decide to uncork them.
Enologists generally agree that while a constant 55 to 60 degrees is the "ideal" cellar temperature, it is not essential.
"At a constant 60 degrees, a wine like a St. Estephe from a good vintage will hold for perhaps 30 to 35 years," stated French trained enologist Jacques Recht, who now serves as consulting enolgist at Virginia's Ingleside Plantation winery. "At a steady 70 to 75 it will hold for perhaps 20 to 25. To me that does not seem so bad."
Repeated changes in temperature, however, can damage the seal between the cork and the wine. Beside creating the potential for leaks, a poor seal will permit the entry of small amounts of air, which ultimately can oxidize the wine, turning it into flat brown liquid.
"Enough air is bottled with the wine for it to mature properly," stated Recht. "It doesn't need any more."
Such temperature swings can also hinder the delicate aging process that most good wines require, according to Napa winemaker Gary Andrus, whose Pine Ridge cabernets are among a relative handful of California wines noted for their aging potential.
"It's a little like running a car in constant stop-and-go traffic," he explained. "The wine just wears out more quickly." Andrus also noted that the effect is cumulative. "A few hot days won't irretrievably damage the wine. But if your storage is relatively warm, you should keep this in mind when deciding when to start drinking your wines."
Following are a range of storage options to help your wines weather the months ahead. The order relects what should be the cardinal rule of wine storage: it's better to spend money on wine than on wine cellars. Relatively simple, inexpensive "passive" methods are listed first. If your cellar temperature regularly goes much above 75-80 degrees, however, you may wish to explore other listed options. Passive Methods
Binning: The basic principle of binning is that the best insulation for one bottle of wine is another bottle of wine. Binning consists of little more than stacking the wines on top of one another in parallel rows between two solid walls, with the bottles resting in the "grooves" between the bottles on the row below.
Temperature swings are minimized by the gradual exchange of heat among the glass bottles and the wine inside.
A bin can be a simple wooden crate turned on its side or the walls of a small closet. Binning is thus cheaper and more effective than most commercially available racks. By placing the wines in convenient individual compartments, such racks allow any and all changes in ambient temperature to be transmitted directly to the wine by the surrounding air.
Ambitious collectors may wish to consider the more elaborate binning methods employed by many leading chateaux and wineries. Additional rows can be built out from the original stack, with the bottle necks inserted between the necks of the first stack to save space and further insulate the corks. Another method allows the seemingly impossible feat of removing an individual bottle from the middle of a row without affecting the stability of the stack. Some methods require special shelving, however, and all work best when bottles are grouped by size and shape.
Stacking Arrangements: For wines that are still in their original wood or cardboard shipping crates, the principle of the best stacking method is similar to that of binning: Use the insulating properties of the crate material, the bottles and wine inside to minimize temperature variations. Square (or cube-like) stacks that limit the surface area exposed to outside air are usually best. Placing the stack near a cool interior wall or walls of a cellar, away from heat pipes, water heaters, or furnaces, is also recommended. Mechanical Methods
Window Air Conditioners: Consider a "high efficiency unit." Besides lower cost operation, such units also tend to maintain a higher humidity level than conventional ones. Humidity helps keep wine corks springy.
Don't try to use an air conditioner to achieve "ideal" cellar temperature (55 to 60), however. Below about 70, the closely spaced coils on most room air conditioners tend to ice up, impairing cooling efficiency and potentially damaging the unit as well. The icing problem can sometimes be solved through use of a timer that periodically shuts off the machine, permitting the ice to melt. Since 70 degrees or so is acceptable, however, you might be best advised to skip the timer, set the thermostat high enough to avoid icing, and buy a few more bottles of wine.
Wine Refrigeration Units: These units, which resemble oversized refrigerators, do a good job of maintaining a near ideal 55 with good humidity. Leading brands include Eurocave, Vinotheque, Le Cellier, Bacchus and others. Capacities range from 65 to 300 or more bottles.
Contrary to the claims of their often pretentious advertising, however, these units are not the household equivalents of the limestone caves of Chateau Ausone. Some vibration is inevitably transmitted to the wine by their freon compressers. (An exception is the French-built Estate Wine Cellars -- telephone 800-348-WINE -- unit that can be special ordered with an ammonia and water cooling system for an additional $200 or so.)
But the principal drawback to wine refrigeration units may be cost. At $800 to $2,000 or more, depending on finish and options, the per bottle price is high. And how many collectors willing to spend that much to protect their wines are really going to stop with the 5 to 20 or so cases these units hold? A better course might be to consider either of the next two options.
Commercial Storage: The dry heat of Southern California long ago spawned a number of commercial facilities devoted to the storage of wine in that region. Now The Wine Rack (363-5409), on Wisconsin Avenue near Calvert Street, offers Washingtonians secure, temperature-controlled storage in 14-, 26- and 56-case (and larger) "lockers," starting at $156 a year.
Built-in Wine Cellar: Several firms can help you custom design a wine cellar. Many supply refrigeration equipment, parts, materials and advice for do-it-yourselfers. A good local source is Le Courtier (984-3111) in the White Flint Mall, which carries a wide range of wine-related products. A highly experienced out-of-town company is KEDCO, in Syosset, N.Y. (telephone: 516-921-3600).
Before investing in a built-in cellar, it is also recommended that the options presented in "How and Why to Build a Wine Cellar" by Richard Gold (Sandhill Publishing, North Amherst, Mass.) be considered.
Ultimate Methods Brooklyn Bridge: John Roebling designed his bridge approaches with solid masonry chambers that he hoped would find commercial uses. According to Robert J. Gough, chief engineer of bridge operations for New York City, among the first uses was wine storage.
The temperature in these chambers even today is an almost prefectly steady 60-65 degrees year-round, according to Gough. Because of persistent water leakage, however, the chambers have not been used for wine storage since the late '30s or so.
Given the technical virtuosity involved in the building of the bridge, however, it would seem that solving this little problem would be a minor matter for any devoted wine enthusiast willing to make an offer to buy the bridge outright.
Several area shops have released opening prices for 1985 bordeaux "futures" (for delivery in 1988). The comparison with the opening prices for the 1982 bordeaux (offered at this time in 1983) is quite revealing. Typical '85 offerings include Ducru Beaucaillou and Pichon Lalande at $329 (vs. $150 and $144 respectively for the '82), La Lagune at $159 ($93 in '82), Bon Pasteur at $172 ($85 in '82) and Cos d'Estournal, widely praised for its pricing "restraint, " at $249 ($130 in '82). Blame the falling dollar, a short crop in 1984, vastly increased worldwide demand, and apparently, more than a bit of profit-taking by the Bordelaise for most of the rise.
Partial relief may come in the form of futures offerings of California cabernets from the excellent 1984 vintage at what appear to be very attractive prices. Part of the reason for the lower prices is that pre-payment allows the vineries to save the costs of financing their inventory while the wine ages in barrel. The other may be an aggressive move to recapture market share from the French, who had snatched away much of the premium (and low price) end of the market on the strength of the dollar relative to the franc.
MacArthur Liquors has announced plans for a futures offering that will include wines from Stag's Leap, Ridge, Dunn Pine Ridge, Caymus and several other top California producers. According to wine consultant Jim Arsenault of MacArthur's, a "barrel sample" tasting is planned on June 7 where prospective buyers can taste the wines before they buy. Reservations can be made through the shop at 338-1433.