“…let us proceed to the Amontillado.”…”We passed through a range of low arches, descended, passed on, and descending again, arrived at a deep crypt, in which the foulness of the air caused our flambeaux rather to glow than flame.” - The Cask ofAmontillado, by Edgar Allen Poe.
The history of wine is the history of the world. Down through the years, man has been lured by that precious beverage, and strived to accommodate its care and preservation. In Poe’s story, Fortunato joined his “friend” Monsieur de Montresor as they, “passed through walls of piled bones, with casks and puncheons intermingling, into the inmost recesses of the catacombs.” Now that is a wine cellar!
Today, fortunately, we have developed a more esthetic, stylistic and functional approach to storing our wines. We closely consider and evaluate the four “enemies” of wine that conspire to thwart its preservation and graceful maturation: Temperature; Vibration; Light; and Humidity.
The most obvious issue when considering the care of any wine is temperature control. However, the relative high or low measure of its temperature is not as much of an issue as is its large temperature fluctuations over short periods of time (although sustained temperatures above 70 degrees may prove problematic). Assume summertime… What a tragedy – in wine terms – to take that ’86 Chateau Margaux, so lovingly transported and cellared by your wine provider, and leave it in your car while you run some other errands. Having committed that act, seriously consider consigning yourself to wine purgatory!
You can now imagine the extra attention that you should give to proper temperature control in your wine cellar or room. Perhaps the most conspicuously attended-to detail when planning a wine cellar is the refrigeration unit, which is available in multiple sizes and functionalities. The most important aspect of the unit’s selection is its ability to comfortably (in terms of the unit’s mechanical size and capability) condition the air in your cellar to maintain that ever so important 55 – 57 degrees. If you prefer a higher storage temperature, that is O.K. too. You may just find your wines maturing a little more rapidly.
Think carefully where to locate your cellar or wine room. Its adjacency to a garage, workshop, or other sources of vibration, can cause problems in the aging process. It can interrupt the chemical reactions necessary to that process. Consider your cellar area as a “No Rock Band Zone!”
That same location consideration precludes a window in your wine room as, aside from the ambient heat and cold problem, the light from that window will degrade the structure of your wine affecting its character. Also, constant high intensity lighting, though beautifully accenting your collection, is equally damaging if left on over long periods of time.
Finally, humidity: Long a problem back east and in Europe, and certainly in Poe’s story, humidity – basically too much – manifests itself in a resulting mildew, mold, and in the extreme, a rotting of wine labels and corking of wine. Not so much a problem in Arizona, especially in light of modern foil techniques and screw-caps, the ideal humidity in which to cellar wines runs between 40% to 70%. For you purists, this can be controlled as an additive function to your room air conditioning. This brings to mind the important consideration of the insulation and sealing of the wine storage area. I like to think of it as building a submarine around your room. Remember how badly “screen doors” work on a submarine, so don’t forget to apply that consideration when crafting the entrance to your cellar.
We have built the skeleton, so now let’s flesh it out. If cost looms heavy in your consideration of “to build, or not to build”, consult the Internet for attractive racking options. You may consider racking kits, custom racking, or a combination of the two. The selection of woods is virtually limitless with redwood and mahogany leading the list. What kind of bottles are you going to store: Champagne; magnums; cases; freely stacked bottles? All manner of shapes, sizes and functionalities await your viewing.
If, perhaps after having impossibly confused yourself with the myriad of options, you decide you need assistance, there are a number of qualified wine cellar distribution/installation experts in the Valley, some with showrooms and the ability to assist you in the design and selection. Some may even have a qualified sommelier to assist in the selection and stocking of your cellar. In all cases, make sure they are responsive, listen to you, and are attentive to your needs.
Do give consideration to the growing popularity of the wine room or cellar. Today’s sophisticated consumer is increasingly forgoing the ubiquitous audio/video room in favor of the panache of the attractively lit, warmly inviting and, to some, compelling fashion statement that is today’s wine “entertainment” room.
We have come a long way in wine cellar design since Poe’s example, where, “The nitre..see, it increases. It hangs like moss upon the vaults. We are below the riverbed. The drops of moisture trickle among the bones. Come, we will go back ere it is too late. Your cough ----------------“ H-m-m,I wonder if some decent lighting would have helped!
Mr. Von Senden is President of Castle Mark Cellars, a certified sommelier, and co-host of the wine radio program “Good Libations – The Wine Show” which is broadcast Fridays at 1:00 p.m. on the Voice America Network (www.voiceamerica.com). He can be reached at 480 678 8112 or at www.castlemarkcellars.com.