Is this the year you finally start your wine cellar? Why not? Collecting wines is so easy that anyone can do it. You'll save time (fewer trips to the wine shop), save money (by buying on sale), drink better wines and have some fun to boot. I suggest that you start slowly and see where it leads. Looking back, that's how I began.
My first "wine cellar" was an accordion-type folding rack that had a distressing tendency to collapse if two or more of its 12 slots were empty. That spurred me to keep it stocked through regular visits to wine shops. I made a point never to restock with the same wine, which forced me to experiment and to explore. I proudly mounted my tremulous little rack atop the tall wood bookcase that held my first Sony Trinitron, always slightly fearful that when Mary Tyler Moore threw up her hat, it might snag on my rack and bring down the entire collection. (It later suffered a worse, almost equally implausible fate, as I'll explain.)
I soon discovered that 12 bottles were simply not enough. After delicate negotiations with my spouse, I managed to secure a shallow closet in the same room, with a capacity of six cases. I considered outfitting it with a modular wood rack, but decided instead to use cardboard wine boxes laid on their sides and put the money I saved into wine instead. Since only the tops of the bottles were visible in the cardboard boxes, I patiently hand-lettered little sticky tags to put on the capsules to identify the wines as they lay sleeping in my closet.
Since the ideal cellar temperature is a steady 59 degrees, I began to scour wine hobbyist catalogues for temperature-control equipment. Of particular interest was a do-it-yourself kit that promised to "turn an ordinary closet into a temperature-controlled wine cellar." To my dismay, I discovered that this required more than plugging in a little closet-size air conditioner. You needed to install a specially designed refrigeration unit, insulation materials, vapor barriers and a condensate drain "if needed." Such feats of carpentry were clearly beyond the abilities of one like me, whose best grade in shop class was "go to law school." I decided to bag the temperature-control idea and get by with regular room temperature, which is okay, though the wine ages faster.
This tidy arrangement came to an abrupt end one fall day when the building's management made the yearly switch from central cooling to central heating without the usual advance notice. When I returned home from work, I discovered that my wine cellar had been turned into a wine sauna. To my amazed gratification, the wines in the closet, insulated by layers of cardboard box and winter coats, were still cool to the touch and unharmed, despite the mid-90s room temperature. Not so my poor little wine rack, still atop the bookcase, in the direct blast of the newly activated radiator. Six of its 12 bottles had popped their corks, spilling their contents on the books, the wall and the rug. The loss of that wine, combined with my wife's scream when she saw the rug, immediately convinced me that there had to be a better way.
And there was. I later bought, and outgrew, a French-built cooler called the "La Cave"; a wheezing air conditioner installed in our basement when we bought a house; and finally, several lockers in commercial wine storage facilities, where I now store most of my wines. For many years I was at the Wine Rack (2121 Wisconsin Ave. NW; call 202-337-7270), which rents lockers in sizes up to 52 cases. Storage there is cool, secure and cost-effective, but visiting hours are rather limited. I am now happily ensconced at Wide World of Wines (2201 Wisconsin Ave. NW; call 202-333-7500), whose storage facility is open during regular retail hours.
I suppose that when I win the lottery and build my manor house, I'll dig a deep subterranean cellar below the frost line, where the cooling is natural--and free. That would be the ideal, and by then my wife will have forgotten completely about the rug. In the meantime, I hope she doesn't read this article.
Penfolds 1996 Bin 389 Cabernet/Shiraz ($25; Australia): Although the legendary Penfolds Grange ($140) is almost 100 percent Shiraz, the Penfolds wine that comes closest to it in style is not the fine Bin 28 Shiraz or Bin 128 Shiraz, but this 51 percent Cabernet/49 percent Shiraz blend. It matured in the American oak barrels that held the previous year's Grange, and some of its Shiraz is declassified Grange. With big fruit and sweet, luscious tannins, this glowing black/purple wine is too tempting to pass up. (Southcorp USA/Forman)
Questions or comments can be addressed to wine columnist Ben Giliberti at email@example.com.