Wine to me is passion. It's family and friends. It's warmth of heart and generosity of spirit.
Robert Mondavi

Monday, July 20, 2009

A cautionary tale

When people decide to get into wine and start acquiring a few bottles to age for special occasion or simply collect, there are a few things that need to be kept in mind. Consistent temperature exposure (I keep mine in the range of 52-55 degrees), very little exposure to light, proper humidity levels (to prevent the cork from drying out), and exposure to very little vibration are the major things to keep under consideration when selecting a place to store your wine.

My cousin, who shall remain nameless, learned this lesson about proper wine storage the hard way. When Bob was a little younger and was new to wine collecting, he was actually quite astute with the wines he selected (I think my uncle may have had a positive influence on him in regards to this). He looked for the French Classics, some off-vintage First Growths from Bordeaux (a great way to experience the best of Bordeaux without breaking the bank) and some very interesting/well-respected California Cabs & Bordeaux Blends. The roster of his cellar is a beautiful thing. It is stocked with older vintages of Château Mouton-Rothschild, Château Latour, Château Haut-Brion, Château Margaux, Pichon-Longueville (both Lalande and Baron), Stag's Leap, and Chateau Montelena, just to name a few.

He amassed a very respectable collection and enjoyed some of these wines early on. However, quite a few of his bottles didn't fare as well over time. You see, they were stored in his apartment that typically got quite hot in the summer months (70+ degrees) that had a few windows that allowed direct sunlight to enter. That is two big mistakes that unless you are told, you won't really think about. Considering that this was in NE Ohio there was no shortage of humidity, so that was not an issue.

Why do I tell you all this?

For one, if you are beginning a collection or buying a few nice bottles for special occasions PLEASE do one of two things. Either keep them in your basement OR if you don't have a basement, consider purchasing a wine cooler (typically range from $100-500 depending on how many bottles it holds). There is no sense buying collectible or older bottles if you aren't going to store them correctly and let them go bad.

Second, I got to try one of these fallen classics. Let me tell you, it was interesting to say the least. When I was in Ohio in the Spring my cousin decided to let me try a bottle of 1986 Château Haut-Brion from Pessac-Léognan, Bordeaux. This was one of my first experiences with a Bordeaux First-Growth and I am quite possibly scarred for life! I am just kidding, but I will surely never forget this.

The 1986 Château Haut-Brion had a very distinct aroma that was vaguely familiar. Due to the improper storage the aroma had altered somewhat and now smelled like cat urine! It was actually quite funny in a way (and completely sad in another). The very interesting thing was that this wine was NOT spoiled. My cousin and I were shocked. Once we got past the smell, we found that the palate still retained some faded dark cherry, earthy and leathery notes and was even a little pleasant. Albeit the smell was ghastly, the wine overall was not a complete loss! I am not sure I will experience anything quite like this again.

Now, my cousin learned from this experience and now has a nice set-up in his basement which has very good conditions for storing wine. Both he and his father are extremely gracious with thier wine and wine knowledge and have been a huge inspiration for me during my evolution in wine. My uncle has been somewhat of a mentor/counsel for the endeavor that I have undertaken as well.

Thanks you two!

I hope that you all can learn something from this cautionary tale, I know I did. Wine that smells like cat urine stinks!


  1. Last weekend, we had a 1995 Stag's Leap Cask 23.

    Absolutely perfect on opening, but died quickly (15-30 minutes or so and it turned from wonderful to slightly sour.)

    What's the difference? I think it's light. I've had three bottles from the same rack (in my living room)that turned out pretty darned good (as opposed to complete crud.) All had the fancy tissue on them: Rubicon, FC's Tresor and now the big bad 23.

    So, methinks tissue (lack of light) helped them.

  2. There's the legend!

    I certainly agree with you regarding the exposure to light. Besides the experiment that you conducted (it was an experiment, correct?), a number of sources that I have been checking out say it is pretty much unanimous that light and heat are the two most significant killers of wine (both cause oxidation and premature aging). Temperature seems to have a greater impact on the aroma and light seems to have a greater impact on taste. By keeping the bottles that came in tissue wrapped, it seems they avoided the double-whammy. Phew!

    That's awesome that the Cask 23 was able to show-off a some before it passed. Remember the 1992 SLV we had when we came out? That was one of the best I have had. I wish you were out here for the 1983 Heitz Martha's Vineyard we had for Christine's birthday. You would have loved it!