Keeping It Cool

Keeping It Cool

The difference between a novice wine collector and a seasoned pro is not necessarily the bottles that they buy. Anyone with deep pockets can waltz into Sotheby’s and pick up a case of Château Latour 1961; the greatest all-time vintages and producers are generally agreed upon, and are easy to discover with a Google search or a call to a wine department specialist.

The real test comes when the buyers arrive home, excellent vintages in hand. Where do those bottles go? Into a nice cool basement cellar or in the back of a sock drawer? A temperature-controlled unit or a makeshift rack in an overheated kitchen?

Good storage is an essential part of wine connoisseurship, but it’s not the first thing that leaps to mind when a paddle is raised at a wine auction. Most people imagine opening the bottle, sharing it with friends, and savoring the flavor. “The one thing people rarely think about when buying fine wine is the cost of storing it,” says Chris Adams, executive vice president of New York’s Sherry-Lehmann Wine & Spirits, one of the country’s premier wine shops. “It’s off people’s radar for some reason.”

If you’re drinking the fine wine you’ve just purchased for tomorrow’s dinner, storage doesn’t really matter; it would be hard to harm the wine unless conditions were truly horrible. But most vintages purchased at auction are wines meant to age for years, or they are wines that are older and therefore more delicate. Both require advance planning, especially if the wine is treated as an investment comparable to an artwork, with the potential for resale down the road.

One look at the stratospheric rise in wine prices at auction over the past 15 years — even allowing for a recent dip — makes clear that storage is part of the equation. “It eats into your margin, particularly if you’re buying futures,” says Adams, using the term for purchasing wine (usually Bordeaux) before it’s even bottled. “If you’re buying wine as an investment, you have to be prepared to store it for 10 years.”

It’s typical for high-end retail outlets to offer some kind of storage. Sherry-Lehmann offers free storage for a year at their temperature-controlled facility in Queens, New York, for wines purchased at the store; after 12 months they charge $20 per case per year. At Wally’s, one of the premier L.A. wine shops, yearly leases for wine lockers run just under $600 for 24 cases. And there are companies that offer storage only: Kent Certified Wine Cellar and Trust, in the tony Chicago suburb of Kenilworth, Ill., charges $220 per year for a 16-case bin.

Whether it’s at home or in a professional facility, a few basic rules apply when it comes to proper wine storage:

  • Cool > Warm
  • Humid > Dry
  • Dark > Light
  • Stable > Unstable
  • Constancy > Flux

Temperature is important because heat can age a wine prematurely and result in odd flavors; 55 degrees is the level that most wine experts think is ideal for long-term storage of both whites and reds. Humidity matters because corks can dry out, thereby contracting and letting in air, which can age a wine prematurely. (Too much humidity, however, promotes mold: 60–70 percent is about right). Light and vibrations, from a nearby washing machine, for example, can wreak their own havoc, while constancy in overall conditions (no big temperature or humidity swings) helps a wine age gracefully.

A collector who’s just starting out with a case or two of wine can invest in a small cooling unit — essentially a wine refrigerator that has temperature control. Wine Enthusiast offers these for as little as $200, but some experts think that well-regarded appliance brands like Sub-Zero are better since they offer long-term service guarantees.

For serious buyers, only a proper cellar will do. Unless you live in a Scottish castle complete with an underground cavern that is always cool and damp, you’ll need a professional to fashion one. David Spon, of the McLean, Virginia–based Wine Cellar Concepts, is one of the top names in the game. He recently completed a 2,500-bottle cellar for a home in Bridgehampton, New York. Spon also created the wine room of Robert A.M. Sterns Manhattan luxury condo project, 15 Central Park West.

Spon’s custom cellars generally cost $100,000 to $300,000, and he only does a few designs each year. “In October, with the economic crisis, things shifted a little,” he says. “We’re doing more super-high-end 2,000-bottle cellars rather than 10,000-bottle ones.” Temperature and humidity control are a given, as is a “vapor barrier” of foam insulation. Generally he uses wood — American black walnut, American cherry, and oak — for his racking, often in diamond-shaped bins. “I’m a big fan of six-bottle bins,” he says, as opposed to those that hold whole 12-bottle cases. “They allow you to see what you have quickly.”

It’s probably the artistic details that keep high-end clients coming back to Spon: soaring arches, elaborate mosaics, floors of rare stone. The designer himself is not alone in proudly calling these flourishes “over the top,” but just as a serious connoisseur wouldn’t put her Frans Hals in a cheap metal frame, a true wine lover does not mess around with second-rate options.

According to Spon, the biggest mistake made by his clients — even ones willing and able to drop a quarter-million dollars on a cellar — is failing to look into the future a bit. As he puts it, “As the collection grows, how are you to store it all?” Just as art buyers are not known to stop at one work by their favorite painter, fine wine continues to be endlessly fascinating to a small group of true believers. Those bottles stack up surprisingly fast.

"Keeping It Cool" appears in the April 2009 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's April 2009 Table of Contents.