Wine Storage Tips

(Originally published July 2000)

The summer finds Hanes somewhat sluggish and surly and not too prone to ranting. However, given the season's heat and the adverse effect this may have on wine, Hanes feels compelled to say something on wine storage.

Virtually every wine expert agrees on a few basics regarding the storage of wine. The key conditions to control are temperature, humidity, light and vibration. These hold for both red and white wines and for those wines which are being aged for years or those bought for more or less immediate consumption.

Temperature: The ideal temperature generally agreed upon is 55 degrees Fahrenheit with a plus or minus of five degrees. This temperature allows the wine to evolve in bottle slowly and keep the fruit flavors fresh as unwanted tannins or acidity gradually relax and subside. At a temperature of over 70 degrees Fahrenheit the wine will mature at about twice the rate of 55 degrees although this will be more like a "forced" maturation process resulting in unevenness among the wine's qualities. Temperatures above 70 degrees or hanging around that temperature for a long time may result in what is called "cooked" wine, or wine that has lost its freshness, vibrancy, bouquet and takes on a stewed flavor. Note also that white wines will age faster than reds at a higher temperature because they lack the tannins which bind the oxygen molecules. This also goes for more "delicate" reds like Pinot Noir.

An important factor is temperature fluctuation. This is because dramatic fluctuation of more than 10 degrees or so may cause the cork to move, allowing oxygen into the bottle thus beginning the oxidation process prematurely (oxidation is what occurs when a bottle is opened and the wine interacts with the air, releasing certain chemical substances and changing others -- if done at the right stage of the wine's maturation process it is the final element in balancing the wine's color, bouquet and flavors). As a result, it is better to keep a wine consistently at 65 degrees than fluctuating between 60 and 70 degrees. Average degree doesn't count!

On the other side of the scale, too cold a temperature will slow down the chemical processes of aging and more or less keep the wine in stasis. Freezing is very naughty because the change from liquid to solid will absolutely push the cork out, permanently screwing the bottle. Freezing occurs at around 27 degrees. Note that keeping a wine chilled at a very low temperature may increase the presence of tartrate crystals on the inside of the cork -- these are harmless and should be of no concern. But if you're also smoking some chronic along with your wine, they may look very cool up close...

Humidity: A source of some debate, most wine professionals will go along with a relative humidity of around 70 percent. This keeps the cork moist and fresh, and thus tight in the neck of the bottle. If the cork dries out -- you guessed it -- oxygen can get in zee bottle. Bad, bad oxygen! The downside to such high humidity is that the bottle labels can get damp and ruined which makes for a less than perfect aesthetic experience when opening that well-aged Cabernet at some swank dinner to celebrate your brother-in-law's 15th anniversary (that schmuck). Worse, if you want to resell your wine, disfigured labels have a severely negative impact on the value of the bottle.

Many folks believe that keeping wine bottles stored on their side or slightly tilted down towards the bottle neck and cork keeps the wine inside the bottle pressed against the cork which provides sufficient moisture. This is definitely a wise move but it seems to Hanes that having adequate moisture on both sides of the cork makes most sense as this increases the overall surface area exposed to the proper level of humidity.

Light: People, in case you didn't notice, light creates heat. See "Temperature" above. Storing bottles in direct light (ultraviolet light) can lead to cooked wine, especially wine in clear bottles. If a salesperson in a wine store tries to sell you a display bottle that has been sitting in a well-lit window, thank him, take it in your hand and then smash it over his head. He will know why you did this and quietly slink away.

Vibration: First, vibration causes the sediment in a wine bottle to slosh around rather than remain peacefully on the bottle's bottom. This may disturb the aging process of many fine, nuanced wines. Second, severe vibration may cause cork movement which, repeat after me, is bad. But, again, there are those who feel this is pure mythos and Hanes has not tried to personally vibrate too many of his bottles (so no public decency charges possible).

Now, given these factors, a wine drinker has to assess his/her situation and decide how to store the wine. If one is aging the wine one has probably spent too much money on it and should thus protect said investment. The alternatives are many. One may have a wine cellar in one's house or château that meets the stringent requirements outlined above. One may keep the wine in a professional storage facility which controls all the stated factors. This can cost up to $2 per case per month which may not make financial sense for many individuals and/or wines. One can buy a specialized wine storage refrigerator that holds many bottles and, again, controls all the factors. These are not cheap. One can even attempt to convert a normal fridge into a wine storage unit by adding a thermostat control and such. The thing Hanes wonders about with this last option is whether or not such a device maintains proper humidity and minimizes vibration adequately. Admittedly, Hanes has no first or second-hand anecdotal experience with this.

This is the standard advice which any wine book, magazine or website will dispense. What is less often discussed is how to properly store wine purchased for short-term consumption, say within a couple of months or so, especially if one lives in an urban setting without a basement twenty feet below ground level or enough room for wine refrigerators. After much thought, Hanes has come to the conclusion that basically you are spanked.

Given the fluctuations in temperature in a city apartment on both daily and seasonal scales one plays with fire. If you buy a case of $12 Merlot to drink over a few months, this wine will most likely endure more than its fair share of 10 degree plus temperature swings. This will effect the nuances of how the wine tastes. You leave the air conditioning off when you go to work and come home to a hot apartment, turn the A/C on and then wake up shivering cold in the morning. Then repeat this everyday during July and August. Uhhh, this don't work. Frankly, this is one of the best arguments for not becoming a wine connoisseur -- you'll never notice these changes in the wine's color, aroma and flavor!

But lest one and all think Hanes too much the pessimist, let's devise some defensive strategies to thwart the evils factors listed above. Here are some things one can do to elongate the life of the wine in one's home...

Please don't keep it in the kitchen! There's a thing in there called the oven... Heat rises so keep youse wine low to the ground. If someone bought you a fancy wine rack for a present don't focus a halogen track light bulb on it. Keep wine away from windows and natural light too. Bathrooms are bad because while there may be more humidity in them, hot showers cause temperature fluctuation. Garages, they no good. Don't move the wine around too much (as room temperatures may vary) and keep it in a closed box if possible to create a "microclimate" of sorts with a more stable temperature and a haven from light.

Pragmatically, the best natural places to store wine are the bottom of your closet or under your bed. Yes, these are out of the way and may make for an interesting tale as you dig in your closet past shoes and fallen skirts for an extra bottle during a fancy dinner party but better to serve uncooked wine than cooked wine. And, hey, you can always ask that babe/stud to come with you into the bedroom to help select another bottle from under the bed. And once he or she's there...

For what it is worth, Hanes keeps virtually all the wine he has at home in his refrigerator until he opens it. This means he has to sometimes "defrost" it in advance but that's life. Of course, with the usual 36 or so bottles in the refrigerator the eggs and butter do at times get crowded... No leftovers!

Other advice worth dispensing on this topic... If you are out shopping don't leave the wine in the car while you check out the sale at Nordstroms... You are cooking your wine. Or alternately freezing it. Also, if possible during warmer times keep the wine inside the car and not in the trunk so that the A/C will keep it chilly-chill. During outdoor events keep the wine out of the sunlight if possible. If you walk into a wine store and start sweating from the heat, walk right out again. If you need to warm a wine up quickly that has been stored in the refrigerator, microwaving it for a few minutes is legit. Don't display wine on top of stereo speakers.