Philadelphia Inquirer: The newlywed cellar

Posted by Keith Wallace

The story was originally published by the Philadelphia Inquirer on October 28, 2010.  The article is reprinted solely for educational purposes.  It is intended to offer insight into the history of wine education in Philadelphia, and our place within that context.  Links to the original article and author are given below.

The newlywed cellar

New wife, new wines: A groom gets $500 to lay in some liquid assets. Not an enterprise to be entered into lightly – so we call the experts.

Author: Craig LaBan

On the afternoon of his wedding day, Mike Hartman was getting dressed in the groom’s suite when the gifts arrived from Jamie, his wife-to-be. There was a rented live monkey with a trainer to keep him entertained (a treat for the chimp-loving Hartman). There was a scrapbook of a cross-country road trip they’d taken earlier in their romance. And then there was a note with the kind of poetry that would warm the heart of any young wine lover.

“I thought you would want to pick out some wines that will age just the right way. . . . And then we can enjoy them in the future and reminisce about this very special day!”

Best yet: It came with a to their favorite South Jersey wine store (near her family’s Shore house) for $500.

“It was an amazing gift,” says Hartman, 29, a Center City attorney who, with his wife-to-be, a nonprofit administrator, became enamored of Philly’s BYOB scene during his student-budget law school days.

But how to spend that gift? Hartman’s mind raced from Châteauneuf-du-Pape to vintage port, Oregon pinot noir, and perhaps Alsatian riesling. But the thought of actually buying them was almost paralyzing. Before he knew it, their first anniversary had clicked by.

“It was a daunting task, you know?” he said. “First, that’s a lot of money to spend on wine. Second, the added pressure of making the choices count – I still feel green about what I’m doing. I needed some assistance.”

Making those choices would be a challenge for even a well-seasoned wine drinker. So I turned to several Philadelphia wine experts for advice – plus specifics on how they would spend that $500 – and discovered a wide range of strategies, styles, and considerations for tackling such a happy conundrum.
The first question each one asked, though, was probably the least sexy: What is the storage situation?

“If wines are not stored in a reasonably cool, dark environment, they’re not going to hold very well,” says Keith Wallace, founder of the Wine School of Philadelphia. “Even two years out, bottles can be compromised.” 

Dealing with wine fridges or a genuine basement wine cellar is a project of its own that can easily devour hundreds of dollars. But it’s a necessary evil if you plan to lay an expensive bottle down for a decade or two.

Even if proper storage isn’t an issue, though, the very notion of aging wines for so long at home raised red flags for many of those I spoke to.
“I just don’t really believe that wine’s for collecting – it needs to be drunk,” said Vincent Sacco, the wine manager at Joe Canal’s in Egg Harbor Township, where the Hartmans went shopping.

In addition, though $500 is a lot of money, it can go quickly when collectible bottles start filling the cart, as most of the premier wines typically best suited for long aging – big, tannic reds from Bordeaux and California – can be astronomically priced. At Joe Canal’s, one could spend most of that gift certificate on a single bottle of Château Mouton-Rothschild ($429) or a Dalla Valle Maya ($399).

In this regard, part of the trick in making that $500 stretch becomes looking for wines that deliver complexity over time with a bit more value now. That requires spotting wines from emerging regions, like the 2005 DeLille Cellars “Doyenne Aix” syrah ($31.99) from Washington state suggested by Savona sommelier Melissa Monosoff; or catching new wines from proven vintners, like the 2006 “1.5” cab from Shafer (renowned for its merlot), which at $74.99 is serious juice, but in only its fourth vintage and still ascending the price charts. Most experts chose a Châteauneuf-du-Pape, one of the greatest French reds that can still be had for around $100 a bottle or less.

For a purely romantic approach, Monosoff suggests targeting a vintage year that holds personal nostalgia (first kiss? first child?) or even a significant region (remember that road trip to Oregon?), and then building an age-worthy case from there.

Stylistically, though, some caution against going overboard on the typical heavy-duty reds: “Everyone’s tastes change remarkably over 10 years,” Wallace said. “You’re probably not going to like those big fruit bombs 20 years from now. . . .And most wines die within five years, largely because of how [they are made] today for roundness and easy drinking.” In fact, the average age of a bottle in the United States is 45 minutes between its purchase and the moment it’s drunk, says Robert Peters, a wine consultant at the Ardmore wine and spirits shop.

“People get seduced by the idea of all these collector-item wines,” says MO. “They’ll buy cases of the fullest-bodied, most tooth-staining reds money can buy, only to find down the road they don’t cook that way at home.” That is, big steaks, braised meats. “So they end up bringing them out with cheese.”

Consequently, Wallace and Old both suggest that young couples launch their cellars with a variety case of exploratory wines – a “tutorial box” – that have some aging potential (five to 10 years), but also exposes them to overlooked regions and styles that are worthy of further research. That could be a crisp Loire white (Pouilly-Fumé), a stellar German riesling from one of the Mosel’s great producers (J.J. Prüm), or a Bordeaux from a lesser-known vintner (Château Sociando Mallet, an Haut-Médoc Cru Bourgeois considered by some to be superior to many higher-ranked crus). In that spirit, vintage Champagnes and sweet wines, durable in the cellar and ideal for celebrations, had a presence on most experts’ lists.

Wallace, ever resistant to long-term wine aging at home, focused on keeping a cellar stocked with relatively affordable wines that will mature at three paces – bottles for today, for three to five years from now, and for 10 years at the most.

“The majority of people I come across at the school, when I show them 20-year-old wines,” he says, “they typically don’t like it. They’re delicate, and often more reminiscent of vinegars than fresh fruit. It puts people off.”

To get a good sense of what a decade-plus wine might taste like, though, Old suggests going for a “gran reserva” Rioja from Spain, where winemakers traditionally age the wines until they’re ready to be consumed – like the 1996 CVNE Viña Real, $34.99, available now in Pennsylvania.

Wallace is all for letting the professionals do the cellar work, with the assurance that most collectible bottles can also be bought at auction down the road. “Assuming you’ll have more money 20 years from now, you can just buy a bottle from your anniversary year – and pretend you held it!”

A wine sentimentalist Wallace is not. And neither is “drink it now” Sacco at Joe Canal’s. But that didn’t deter him from doing his best to help the Hartmans get started on their wine cellar, pulling out some prestige bottles when they finally arrived – with their second anniversary looming: “All right, babe,” Jamie said, “it’s time to spend the gift.”

Sacco helped them to well-regarded renditions of Châteauneuf-du-Pape (2006 Clos des Papes; 2006 Domaine Giraud Les Grenaches de Pierre); a highly rated sister label of a California cult cab (2005 Jonata El Desafio de Jonata, by the producer of Screaming Eagle); and a lustrous Sauternes (2005 Chateau Guiraud), among others.

Lest anyone worry the Hartmans should sit too long on their newly stashed liquid riches, they uncorked Bottle 1, a Perrier-Jouet Grand Brut, within just a couple of months to celebrate their successful bid on a first house.

“We sat at the table in our apartment and toasted our future and good fortune and all the memories that would come,” Jamie said. “It was fantastic.”

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