Duck and Cellar

[ Apropos the dawn of a new decade in a couple days, a wine column I wrote about the anxiety surrounding the dawning of the last one — the infamous Y2K — and how savvy wine hoarders (er, collectors) might make the most of it. ]

It’s the beginning of a new year, but instead of optimism, there’s an undercurrent of unease about what life will be like 345 days from now. Forgetting the religious nuts and their threats of apocalypse, it’s geeks and the specter of core, computer-based systems taking a dive that really has people freaked out. Will there be water, gas, phone service? Authorities assure us there will, but the eerie thing is that no one really knows for sure. We certainly don’t. We’ve already heard reports of people starting to hoard food, so we say play it safe: start hoarding wine. In other words, start a cellar.

Indeed, when the infrastructure of American civilization grinds to a halt, it’s critical we remember that it won’t just be difficult to get food, it will be impossible to get wine. If you’ve thought ahead, you’ll be sitting pretty, with ample stores to wash down the leaves, berries, or grubs you’ve collected for a meal. In fact, your cellar will be a gold mine to barter for all manner of goods and services as unprepared wine lovers scrabble about, fermenting their socks and bits of string. Think of what could be yours for a simple bottle of French Côtes-du-Rhône: a mere $9 while money still works, it may be worth a chauffeur-driven, Flintstone-like car in the new millennium.

But as before the revelation of the Y2K bug, it will be important to follow a few simple rules to safeguard your investment. We’re not talking about arming against predatory packs of Australian-accented wine buffs sure to be roving the landscape in makeshift vehicles, searching hoarsely for “shah-din-nay.” We’re talking about something even worse: the ravages of heat. In a refrigerator, foods and liquids last longer because chemical reactions — mostly in combination with oxygen — occur more slowly at lower temperatures. This is why the best technique for storing an opened bottle of wine is to stick it in the fridge. But it’s also the core principle of a wine cellar, which is warm enough for wines to age, but cool enough that they do so slowly.

However true this may be, we should note that populists and purists have clashed about whether the idea of cellaring is necessary at all. Since, the argument goes, half of all wine is consumed within 24 hours of purchase, and most wine is made to be consumed within one year, why make wine more complicated than it already is? Any old place will do, from a hall closet to the kiddie pool. The point is well taken, but we’re talking the long haul this time. Chemistry is chemistry, even after there are no computers to analyze it: since you’ve got to begin stocking up, you’ll want to buy and store some wines which will remain sound — if not improve — over time. Even if nothing happens, they’ll be little time capsules to yourself which have gracefully, almost magically evolved. Gee, this would be great advice even if civilization weren’t ending!

So most experts agree that keeping your wine at a relatively constant temperature between 50-60° is key. That doesn’t mean that periodic spikes or even sustained temperatures above that range will automatically cook your wine, but to play it safe, keep it cool. A basement is ideal: it’s no coincidence that storing wines is called cellaring them, since the ambient temperature of the earth surrounding most cellars is about 55°. But even if you live in an apartment, the coolest, darkest spot you can find will be better than none, even if that does turn out to be a hall closet.

Once you’ve found a niche, try to keep bottles on their side, since keeping the cork in contact with wine is thought to expand it against the sides of the glass and ensure a better seal. The advent of plastic corks may change all this–and allow long-term storage standing up — but they haven’t been used for long enough to have a track record.

Now comes the part which can be as fun as it is a roll of the dice: what do you buy to sweat it out until the charge card works again? Remember that there isn’t necessarily a correlation between cost and ageability, however much the French would have us believe to the contrary. The important factor is balance between fruit and acidity or tannin. Over the long run, you want these components to evolve neck in neck into a wine you actually want to drink.

Remember also that intensity and ageability don’t always go hand in hand. The best ‘93 Oregon Pinot Noirs, much lighter than the trumpeted vintage which followed it, are becoming increasingly elegant, soul-satisfying wines even as some ‘94s are falling apart. Look to your wine merchant, wine publications, and as a last resort, even The Crush for tips on what to buy and how long to let it sit.

Though your new cellar may be only a case deep, you’ll be amply prepared for the next century, even if — as it probably will, at least in this country — the scare turns out to be just a smattering of minor inconveniences. Since you’ll enjoy wines for years to come in any event, this is one hysteria where you can’t lose.

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[ This passel o’ pronouns n’ such originally appeared in January, 1999 as The Crush, a bi-weekly wine column published with great indulgence and little business acumen by Willamette Week, Portland, Oregon. ]

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