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
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
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
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
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.