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WineInk: An 800-bottle wine cellar

What would you collect?

Kelly J. Hayes
WineInk
Randy Ullom on slopes Randy Ullom, head winemaker at Jackson Family Wines has been a regular in WineInk over the years and is a seen here in his favorite spot, Aspen Mountain. This November he was named an "American Wine Legend" by Wine Enthusiast.
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This is the 800th iteration of this column, and I thank both you — and especially The Aspen Times — for your indulgence. Over the last 15-plus years, I have written about hundreds of wines, almost as many winemakers, and have been fortunate enough to taste, oh, I don’t know, maybe 10,000 wines.

That final number is a conservative estimate, but it comes out to about 12 wines a week, which seems reasonable. Especially when you consider that Robert Parker, perhaps the most accomplished wine writer/critic of modern times, claimed to taste 10,000 wines in a year.

While there have been weeks in various wine regions where I have had the chance to sample well over 100 wines, I have always found the intensity of those experiences to be overwhelming and a bit palate numbing. But, in each wine you taste, there is a new chance to learn something. Whether it’s about a grape, a region, or a winemaker, to paraphrase Rod Stewart, “Every taste tells a story.” Actually, many stories.



While my computer holds the 800 digital WineInks dating back to the summer of ’07, if I had it to do all over again, I wish I had begun by saving something solid. That is to say, I wish I would have selected a single bottle of wine each and every week and put it aside or in a cellar for saving. A bottle a week and I’d have a cellar with 800 different bottles. That would be cool.

But, alas, I was never very forward in my thinking. For example, I never thought  that I would still be penning this column here in the fall of ‘22. The first wine that was mentioned in WineInk was a wine with an Aspen connection. The Benziger family had long been visitors to the valley, and Kathy and Mike Benziger (brother and sister) were here for the Food & Wine Classic that year. The Benziger Family Winery had recently been profiled in Wine Spectator, with a focus on the biodynamic principles they employed at their amazing vineyards near Glen Ellen in Sonoma County.




I had tasted a bottle of their flagship Bordeaux blend titled “Tribute” from the 2004 vintage and was inspired by all the elements of the experience. The manner in which the wine was grown in the biodynamic vineyards, the selection of the grapes Mike Benziger used in the blend, the family backstory. It had all the attributes that make for both a good story and a collectable wine. I wish I had a saved a bottle.

The 800-pound elephant in the room is that I do not have a cellar that would fit 800 bottles of wine. I have a few hundred bottles stored in various nooks and crannies around my modest casa but have never nailed down the cellar option.

A Collection of Wine An 800-bottle cellar of fine wines will require at least 50 square feet of humidity- and temperature-controlled space.
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To collect and store 800 bottles of wines, the first thing you should have is a temperature- and humidity-controlled space that allows you to stack, on their sides, the bottles with enough room to maneuver around those stacks. An 800-bottle cellar would require a minimum of 50 square feet of designated space for what is around 66 cases of wine. Then you should be sure to have a system to organize those wines, be it by grape, by region, by maker, or by vintage — 800 wines can get out of control pretty fast.

If you have room and/or already have a well–organized cellar, the next question is: What should be in it? What wines should you collect?

Wine consultants and experts will tell you that you should base your collection around wines that will either maintain or increase in value as they age. Most will suggest that wines carefully selected from Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne should form the basis of a solid cellar. Well, duh! Throw in some Barolo and a few Napa cult-Cabernet, and you can begin to feel a little flush about your collection.

Keep in mind that age–worthy vintages should last a long time for most of these wines, so you’ll want to get the right wines from the right years. Oh, and unless you are buying from the wineries themselves, be sure to check the provenance of those expensive wines. It is estimated that as much as 20% of the collectable wines for sale are counterfeits, representing as much as $3.5 billion in the market. So, don’t forget to insure those age–worthy wines from the world’s premier regions.

In this zip code alone, there are dozens of world-class cellars that meet these criteria. And, all were the products of a significant investment. Yes, it is expensive to build a cellar and maintain it if the intent is to enhance value.

But, my idea of a wine a week is based not just on the potential upside of the wines that are procured, but rather on the psychic and emotional satisfaction of having a bottle that means something to you. And, you can do that one bottle at a time.

If I had started collecting wines based on WineInk stories, I would today have that  biodynamic “Tribute” from the Benzigers. I’d have a Mencia from Bierzo produced by Spanish superstar Alvaro Palacios. I may have invested the outrageous sum of $450 to buy a 2005 Harlan Estate proprietary red wine, which would now be worth well over $1,000 today. Oh, and I would have purchased a bottle of Charles Shaw, the famed “Two-Buck Chuck” made by Fred Franzia, the Bronco Wine Company owner who passed away this September. And, that’s just from the first 15 stories in the first year of this column.

The point is, collecting wines based on things that mean something to you as an individual may prove to be more valuable to you than the financial rewards that accrue from collecting wines for their name and history. It’s kind of like having photographs of the things you love rather than photos of famed places.

I have, over the past 15 years, been to some extraordinary wine regions and have skied here in Aspen with some great winemakers. I cherish the wines made in those places by those people.

I just wish I had bought all the bottles.

Under The Influence

1999 PlumpJack Cabernet Sauvignon

This wine, from the final vintage of the 1990s, remains in my modest collection. It was a gift from John Conover, general manager of PlumpJack, early in the 2000s, and it came with a second bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet that was sealed, not by cork, as this one is, but rather under a Stelvin closure, more commonly referred to as a screw cap. PlumpJack had decided to do an experiment, if you will, to see if fine wines would age the same under either a screw cap or a cork. The goal was to find a way to stop the influence of TCA, or cork taint, that inflicts damage on a significant percentage of wines.

The concept opened up many avenues of exploration that would appear in later versions of WineInk that dealt with how wines are bottled and delivered, the effects of wine on the environment, and how consumers’ perceptions of wines are based on how they are packaged. I opened the screw cap version of the PlumpJack years back and found the wine to be a perfect version of a fine Napa Cabernet. It was dark violet in color, filled with flavors of dark plums and blackberries, and still fresh and vibrant – even a decade after its release.

I may well open this bottle soon — after all, it has been nearly a quarter century since it was harvested, but, for sentimental reason, I may not. Such is the conundrum that a wine can pose.

PlumpJack Cab.
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