As long as I can remember, my father’s home wine cellar – or as we call it in my family, “the wine room” – has been an integral part of my understanding of wine collecting and aging. Although I have been in the wine room hundreds of times, it wasn’t until this week that I was able to get the full “tour” of the wine room, by my father himself.
When my parents moved to the suburbs of New York from Southern California in 1989, my father transferred about 1,100 bottles of wine, which he was previously storing in commercial lockers around San Diego. Although there were many reasons my parents ultimately chose to settle in their current house, they were particularly attracted to the basement – a feature that didn’t really exist in California. Included in the partially finished basement, which is an entire footprint of the home, is a 8′ x 30′ passive cellar that is perfect for wine storage.
A “passive cellar” means that you do not need a temperature and humidity control system, because you rely on mostly on natural underground surroundings. Although my father has equipped the cellar with an air conditioning unit, he only turns it on if it’s really hot for a few days. In 1996 my parents renovated the back of the house (kitchen, family room, living room, and deck), adding central air conditioning to the main floor, with the central duct running through the ceiling of the cellar out of necessity. This placement provides another level of coolness to the wine room.
With the optimal temperature setting achieved, there was one other major component that my father sought to perfect: the organization. Let me just say, my father is quite obsessive; in this case, it works to his advantage. When you walk into the cellar, there are three sets of short, long racks on the left side, labeled A, B and C. My father purchased these racks from a liquor store that went out of business. Within each rack are 12 columns, so each is labeled A1, A2, and so forth up to A12 – likewise with the B and C racks. He keeps the most expensive wines closest to the floor, where it’s the coolest. On the right side of the cellar are four sets of tall wooden racks (hand-built by my father using a kit) labeled D, E, F and G. These wines are organized by Low, Middle and High – so DL would signify wines in the lower part of the rack, while DM is the middle and DH is the top, as is the same with the E, F and G racks. In addition to these racks are about 30-40 wine crates that are labeled alphabetically with single and double letters (A, AA, B, BB, etc). When he runs through the double letters and reaches ZZ, he will start again with AAA.
To keep track of all the wines in these racks and boxes, my father uses a database that my mother designed for him in 1993, using Filemaker Pro. The database includes the following columns, which he edits every couple of months based on the hand-written notes he takes several times a week.
- Winery (i.e. Chappellet)
- Vintage (i.e. 2005)
- Type (i.e. Cabernet)
- Location (i.e. B3)
- Quantity (i.e. 5 bts)
- Aging (i.e. 10-15 yrs)
- Purchase Price (i.e. $45)
- Current Value (i.e. $75)
- Compare to (i.e. 2007 Chappellet Cab)
- Comments (any notes and observations of the wine with the date that he tastes it)
The whole database adds a level of organization to his collection that is a “reflection of my brain”, as my father puts it, which is exactly something that a neuroscientist would say. Besides acting as an inventory of all the wines he owns (past and present), the database helps to locate a particular wine that he is looking for, in a room that can appear to be a mess from an outside perspective. In the case of my brother and me, we know that we are allowed to pull any wine from the top of the A section for every day drinking; whereas we would be in serious trouble with my father if we just grabbed a bottle from the bottom of C.
This brings me to the collection itself. Before getting into the actual wines that exist in the wine room, I must start with a brief history of how my father started purchasing wine. His interest began when he was in grad school, and evolved because of his collector’s mentality. When he would go to the store, he would buy two bottles of a single wine; one to drink and one to save. As he began to earn more money, he started buying by the half or full case. He bought several cases of Bordeaux and Napa Cab from 1985 and 1988 (my and my brother’s birth years, respectively), anticipating that his children would eventually appreciate wine in the way he did (good prediction, dad). His taste started with European wines, then shifted to a California palate while he was living in San Diego, and now he’s gone back to Old World style (France, Italy, Spain) but still maintains a love for Napa Cab and Oregon Pinot.
He currently has about 1100 bottles (he dropped down to 750 when my brother and I were in college), about half of which are Napa Cabs. Second are Chateauneuf du Pape, then Brunello (he only started collecting these about 3-4 years ago, and has a love for their earthy minerality and ability to pair well with food), with the rest of his collection making up a variety of Bordeaux, Pinot Noir, California Rhones, Zinfandel, and Spanish wines that are all in the $50 range. He has about 40-50 whites at any given time, as well as a few Ports.
As I mentioned earlier, Rack A is made up of reasonable priced wines that are for every day drinking. Rack B and C are a selection of his Rhone varietal wines (both domestic and French), with some Napa Cabs and Bordeaux closer to the floor. Rack D holds magnums of domestic Pinot and Cabernet, and Rack E is filled with domestic Pinot, Cab and Merlot, as well as some Old World Northrern Rhones on the bottom, including a 1990 Hermitage that’s worth $500. He keeps sparkling wines and Brunello in Rack F, and whites and Spanish reds and whites in Rack G.
A large portion of his Napa wines are made up of Ridge, Chappellet, Chateau Montelena, Joseph Phelps, Forman and Robert Craig. His Chateauneuf du Pape collection includes wines from Le Vieux Donjon, Domain Saint Prefert, Pierre Usseglio, and Beaucastel. His most prized wine is a 1971 Barolo given to him and signed by Francis Crick, whom he knew when he was working at Salk Institute in the 80’s. Some other high-value wines include a 1985 First Growth Chateau Margeaux Bordeaux, a 1985 Forman Magnum (which we plan to drink some time in 2015 for my 30th birthday), and a 1988 Double Magnum Chateauneuf du Pape, which my father says “probably should have been drunk 10 years ago.”
During my tour of the wine room he was quick to show me all the wines that we would be drinking over our holiday meals: 2011 Caymus Special Select, 2007 St. Prefert-Favier Chateauneuf du Pape, 2004 Hewitt Cabernet Sauvignon, and 2010 Robert Craig Affinity to name a few). But it’s not just the holiday dinners that he puts this kind of thought into; nearly every night of the year my father will ask my mother, “What’s for dinner?” and then he will go downstairs and pick out the best wine to pair with the meal. This is his favorite part of having such a vast collection, and one can see where I got my love of wine and food pairing.
Needless to say, the collection is quite astonishing – both in its coded organization as well as its volume and eclectic variety. There will come a day when he will stop replenishing the collection, and eventually my brother and I will inherit some of his most prized wines. But I don’t see that day coming any time soon. And in the meantime I’m happy to admire, learn, and partake in the “research.”