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A wine cellar without cobwebs


When I think of a wine cellar, I think of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman rummaging around the basement collection of her husband, Claude Rains, in the Alfred Hitchcock classic, Notorious. (You may remember that when Cary carelessly knocks over a bottle of 1934 Pommard--a superior red Burgundy--he discovers it contains not liquid gold, but uranium ore to help the Nazi cause.) And what a fine, organized wine cellar it is, with racks and racks of venerable vintages, and cellar notes attached to each cubicle.

In today's world, with fewer homes sporting underground cellars, the reality of storing wines for future consumption takes on a fresh challenge. Years ago, a grizzled, yet still cherubic looking Orson Welles appeared on television to hawk Paul Masson wines. In his halting, well-paced voice he wheezed, "At Paul Masson, we will sell no wine--before its time." Today's wineries, desperate for the cash flow that keeps them afloat, very often do release wines before their time; before they are optimally ready to drink. Skillfully crafted wines are most often drunk upon release, at a time when their exceptional qualities are not fully ready to be appreciated. These better wines need time for their myriad components to come together. They are like jigsaw puzzles; all the right pieces are there, but they are disjointed, scattered, and far from being a satisfying whole. Lest you think I am talking about wines at the $50 range and up, think again. There are many single-digit priced wines that will double their pleasure if given another year to 18 months resting quietly in their glass houses.

Here's a perfect example of the cost-to-quality dilemma. 2001 Sebastiani, Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($25), in relation to the just released 2001 Sebastiani, Cherryblock Cabernet at $75. The less expensive bottling is round, delectable and succulent with a long finish that epitomizes textbook Sonoma cab in a great vintage. It is delicious now. Compare this to the Cherryblock at three times the price. A customer might deduce that the $75 wine will taste so much better than the "regular" release; and that would be a serious mistake. The Cherryblock is a titan of a wine. It has saturated blackberry, warm spice, olive, and dark chocolate on the bouquet. The flavors are tightly wound up, like a clock spring, waiting to release their concentrated cherry, licorice accented, earthy flavors. It will eventually unfold its layers of tannin, revealing profound texture, intensity and dazzling complexity; but not until 2007 at the earliest. Today, the Alexander Valley bottling is the one to buy for current drinking, not the ne plus ultra Cherryblock.

Now, back to the inexpensive category. These are not all "drink me now" wines with little or no future; not by a long shot. Here's a list of recently tasted wines that will reward you if aged one to three years.

2001 Shiraz, Warburn $9
2002 Malbec, Bodega Norton $9
2002 Cotes du Rhone, Cros de la Mure $11
2001 Cotes de Ventoux, Domaine Font Sane $10
2002 Monastrell, Bodegas Olivares $10
2001 Zinfandel, California,Cline Cellars $10
2001 Cabernet Sauvignon, Kimball $10

Each of these offers good drinking now, but all will continue to improve through the end of 2005. The difference with 18 extra months in the bottle can be striking. Time softens the edginess, melds components and provides the complete, harmonious package that these wines can achieve. Time and patience are needed in order to create your continuous cellar of choices. One could begin by buying four bottles of each of these selections. As new arrivals appear on the market, add another four to the growing body of stock. Soon the collection will resemble an amazing spice rack, with each wine adding a distinct personality among the choices. For a wine that you really love, buy a full case and drink the wine over the next two to three years. Taste the unfolding development and relish the moment when the wine seems to come completely together and shows its all.

Lacking a basement, what's an average person of average means to do in order to furnish a wine collection? Countless, disturbing articles have been written over the years concerning the ruination of wine stashes by the likes of heat, cold, faulty corks or vague, quirky factors, out to thwart your best laid plans. Here then is the simple, Alfred E. Newman, worry-free plan of wine conservation:

1. Buy a wine to taste. If you like it, and can feel its energy still pounding, buy more bottles and plan to salt them away.

2. Remember that wine, especially red, is very resilient and needs only a little help in order to age gracefully.

3. Find a place in your home that is:
a. dark and far away from foot traffic.
b. free from large temperature fluctuations.

A basement is great if it stays at 65 degrees year-round. However, if it is 55 degrees in winter and 75 degrees in summer then it is a poor choice. Consistency is the key. Seventy degrees is fine, so long as it stays that way regularly.

--free from vibrations. Wine in the kitchen has both foot traffic and a barrage of appliance vibes. Keep wine away from refrigerators, heating and cooling units, fans, water heaters or computers.

--not against an outside wall. The temperature on outer walls is inconsistent, no matter how good the insulation.

If you have a true spare room that adheres to the above rules, you'll get the kick of visiting with your babies and admiring them from time to time. Direct sunlight should always be avoided on the cases. If such a room is non-existent, then a spare closet will do very well. Using standard wine boxes with dividers that accommodate 12 bottles is an excellent, inexpensive storage measure. Sealing up an entire box in cardboard or wood in an excellent idea to improve storage conditions. Large, industrial metal racks, holding 100 bottles or so, can also store efficiently. For storage lasting over three years, I prefer wood or cardboard over metal racks, as metal conducts cold and heat a bit. Yet, upon reflection, I've had plenty of success using them. So, remember? No worries.

Simplicity is the rule. Collecting wines should be a joy--whimsical, fun, educational and pleasure providing. If you get caught up in too many rules or too many gadgets, connoisseurship may instead become a chore. For those who invest in refrigerated units that keep wine at a constant 55 degrees I say, fine. These are sophisticated, expensive toys. Yet, if the power should go out for one week in summer, oh, what dismay and discomfort may come over you. Wines that are simply resting, unrefrigerated, in the closet may age more precipitously, but in our "I'm dancing as fast as I can" society, that's probably a good thing!

In conclusion, choose your best spot from the above tips. In 18 months you'll be reaping the pleasure of mature wines to complement and excite your mealtime. Remember that most whites will also benefit from a short repose in your cellar. Even as little as three months can bring that sauvignon blanc or riesling to a more integrated level. Picking out a wine from your personal collection sure beats a hurried trip to the wine shop. Get one started today!

A bevy of beauties
2001 Bougogne Pinot Noir, Antonin Rodet $12
You can't teach a young dog old tricks. What this old fashioned French village red does for $12 probably can't be matched anywhere else. It has the true, ephemeral pinot bouquet--all mystery and invitation. A simple, light body, but with flavors so true to type, they're a great way for novices to fall in love, and to encourage older hearts to cuddle pinot on a regular basis. Grade: B-

1999 Sangiovese, Pepi $13
Fresh, "high gloss" nose with tea leaves, autumn woods and tobacco scents., Nice and flavorful with a "chippy", cutting flavor and brisk acidity. One of the best California "chiantis" I've tasted. B-

2000 Impression, Barefoot Cellars $18
This Alexander Valley, Meritage blend is round and "leafy" with a "pretty," inviting bouquet. A soft, medium bodied drink with supple texture, slight dilution and mild tannins. The inimitable, graceful qualities of cabernet franc make this a joy for casual sipping or with simple poultry. B-

2000 Cougar Pass, Chateau Potelle $25
Just released, this Napa valley four-grape blend has a brooding, direct plum and berry bouquet. A delicious amalgam that doesn't overpower, yet delivers a generous, nuanced drink. Best in 2006. B+

2001 Madiran, Bonny Doon $18
A black wine from the Tannat grape. Nose is reigned in; dense, powerful, the purest fruit on a pinpoint nose. A lip-smacking, full-throttle, grapey red of substance and drive. Best with spicy, grilled foods. Better in 18 months. Cellar!

2002 Juveniles, Torbreck (Australia) $29
Very earthy nose with exceptional "terroir." A block of dark, black fruit, truffles and spice. A bracing drink with power and zest. Has hair on its chest. B+

2001 The Steading, Torbreck $35
Penetrating, pungent bouquet. Steady (no pun), spicy fruit with a big boned satisfying girth. A delicious, "grainy," powerhouse that lassos your taste buds with its plump texture. Marvelous. A-

Champagne Blanc de Blancs, Besserat de Bellefon $60
For Easter, Mother's Day, or a special moment, this "Cuvee des Moines" is all satin, silk and savoir faire. A delicate, graceful bouquet with balance and a feathery effortlessness on the palate. Like treading with cat's paws. Magical. A

Wine-tasting event
Great Grapes! Wine & Music Festival will take place April 17 and 18 at the Amphitheater at Regency Park in Cary. Ten North Carolina wineries will be sampling in your complementary Great Grapes glass. Bands and jazz programs will entertain, while a myriad of food exhibitors, offering gourmet demos and lectures, will take place. The festival runs from 12-9 p.m. on Saturday, and 12-6 p.m. on Sunday. Admission for all events is $20. Tickets can be purchased at the gate, or call 1-800-830-3976. EndBlock

Arturo Ciompi can be reached at

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