← Back to All Columns


Wine Cellar Reorganization

Wine cellars, like wine drinkers, come in all shapes and sizes. There’s the “Top Ramen” (five cardboard cases of mixed varietals in the hall closet), the “Graduate” (a stand-alone, refrigerator-style cellar), the “Bogeyman” (a mildewy basement cellar that you can’t fully stand upright in), the “Vegas” (a showplace temperature-controlled cellar complete with water feature and chandelier), and so on.

A wine collection usually represents serious money and, whether you have ten cases or 10,000 bottles, keeping it organized with an up to date inventory protects your investment. It can also significantly boost your enjoyment of your collection.

If you haven’t kept up with your cellar organization and for years have simply stuck bottles in here and there wherever they would fit, you probably have a weekend’s worth of work ahead of you. There are rewards: My most recent client found three magnums of Screaming Eagle 1992 in the depths of his cellar that he’d completely forgotten about.

A large cellar will require two or more helpers to get it organized. What works well is to have two or three strong helpers moving the wine out of the cellar (and later, back in) and one person recording the wine in an inventory, preferably on a computer.

The best-case scenario is to pull every bottle out of the shelves and organize it in a cool, nearby room. Start sorting by appellation. Put all the California Wines together, all the Oregon wines, all the Burgundies, and so on.

Within appellation, sort all the wines from the same producer, and within that by varietal and vintage. If you collect more by the bottle than by the case, and so don’t have a lot of multiples of one particular thing, then break it down into larger categories, like California cabernets, 1970-1980, and so on.

When I started in the wine business in the late 1980s, the ideal was to buy a good red wine by the case, even putting money down on “futures” for yet-to-be-bottled Bordeaux.

Buying habits among wine connoisseurs have really changed. “A lot of the people who bought all those cases in the 1980s have stopped buying current wines,” said Judy Beringer-Jiminez, proprietress of St. Helena Wine Center on Main Street in St. Helena. “It’s a shame because many collectors miss out on great new wines and new vintages, but they just don’t have room.”

Variety, it turns out, is a lot more fun and a lot less expensive. Beringer-Jiminez reports, “We try to educate our customers on varietals beyond cabernet sauvignon. You can get a great merlot, like the Paradigm, for $45, while a comparable cabernet is $70.” A mix of varietals and vintages lets the collector create a balanced cellar for drinking and aging.

Once you see all your wines out of the cellar and grouped by appellation or varietal, you can easily identify the holes in the collection. You may not be able to afford to buy more red wine, whether it’s a matter of space or funds, but you might have fun searching out some white, sweet or sparkling wines to round out the cellar.

Many collectors are still waiting for that perfect occasion to open something like a magnum of Mouton-Rothschild or a case of Heitz 1987 Martha’s Vineyard Cab. The big, multi-case imbibing occasions of the boom years are now often smaller, less formal or non-existent. I haven’t seen a magnum of Champagne sabered since the early 1990s.

“Baby Boomers are having trouble drinking what they bought in the 1980s and 1990s,” BevMo! Cellarmaster Wilfred Wong said. The good news for younger collectors is that they can add some older wines to their cellars. Wong said, “One can always buy old wines at auction; there are plenty of fine wines available lately.”

If you find your cellar is overstuffed with pricey wood boxes of Bordeaux and top-tier California cabernets and your children show no signs of getting married soon or possibly don’t exhibit any interest in wine, you could consider auctioning them (the wine, not the children) through a service such as WineBid (winebid.com).

Now is the time to identify any wines you’d be willing to sell. Unless it is highly collectible, in which case a little scuff on the label or a tiny bit of leakage won’t ruin your chances, wine bottles for auction must be in excellent condition. You won’t have much luck with wines that are relatively young or are produced in great volume, but older wines (1985 classified growth Bordeaux) and limited production wines (Williams Selyem Pinot Noirs) do really well and the process is simple.

It’s also time to identify any wines not worthy of going back into the cellar. Low ullage (the air space between the cork and the liquid) is usually the sign that the wine is a goner, but not always. I’d say “bye-bye” to serious leakers, browning white wines or anything that you know in your heart-of-hearts is past its prime.

Make sure the keepers make it into a computer inventory before you restock the cellar. The spreadsheet should include columns for the number of bottles of each wine, the size of the bottle, the producer, vintage, varietal, appellation and a column for any special designations, such as “Reserve” or “Single Vineyard,” if you want to get that specific.

There are two good reasons to get super-specific with your wine inventory: one, for home insurance purposes, to better estimate the value of the collection, and two, for potential auction of some or all of the collection. A column in your spreadsheet for value, either what you paid for the bottle or what it is currently worth at auction, could be useful.

A great application to download, and an alternative to the computer spreadsheet, is Cellar Tracker, which is free through iTunes. You can input your wines into Cellar Tracker, which will tell you what they’re worth and give you the average of the critics’ scores for each bottle. You can print your “cellar,” download it to other programs like Excel and — the best for when you’re out wine shopping — keep your inventory on your mobile phone.

When you reload your cellar, keep your wine categories together and, if it makes sense with your cellar design, label the bins or areas to give yourself a quick overview of what’s where. Print out your inventory and keep it and a pen on a clipboard near the door of your cellar. Check off wines as you pull them out to drink and be sure to update your digital inventory at some point. If down the road you open a bottle and it’s clearly over-the-hill, pull all of its brothers out and dispose of them as well.

Don’t leave bad wine in the cellar. Pour it out, recycle the bottle, and move on to the next wine. Life is too short to drink bad wine — or, as with any clutter, to hold on to it.