So when do you drink your best wines? Do you have a plan when it comes to drinking your prized possessions? In case you forgot, you cannot take them with you when you go, so unless you plan to pass them down to your children or have them auctioned off in an estate sale, you need a plan.
I know at least 3 friends of mine who have more wine than they can ever drink, and no plans to drink most of it. As I have said before in earlier blogs about the need to drink the wines from your cellar, if for no other reason than to keep an eye on how well they are aging, many people are collectors without any proper plan to drink it. Are they collectors or hoarders?
There is no benefit to holding onto a wine in decline until it becomes vinegar, so drink it. There is no glory in hosting a dinner party and serving up that special wine you have been saving and cellaring for the last 30 years, only to find it has lost all the fruit, and it is now thin, dull and very astringent.
Here are some suggestions for managing your cellar, and developing a disciplined approach to your wine acquisitions, sales, and consumption:
- Based on your age, your wine tasting and cellaring experience, and your cellar capacity, you need to make some basic decisions as to where you are in your own life cycle, and your own collecting objectives. At 30 years of age you are a young collector, so your cellar is growing. At 80 years of age you should no longer be buying young first growth Bordeaux that will take 20 years to reach full maturity, and your cellar should be shrinking in total number of wines.
- Be very careful to maintain a balance of different wines in your cellar all through your life span. You need both red and white, you need wine for everyday consumption, you also need special wines for special occasions. You need some specialty wines like vintage port or vintage madeira, along with some dessert wines like Sauternes, German, or Alsace late harvest. Even if these are not wines you like or enjoy, there will be times when they are the right wines to serve.
- You should consider having different sized bottles, in particular the ½ bottle and magnum sizes. Half bottle size is often appropriate for dessert wines, or if a couple want their own wine (for example the husband drinks a red while the wife drinks a white). Magnums are clearly for dinner parties, and wine will age more slowly in larger bottles. Try to stay away from much larger sizes such as double magnums, because they are really only practical for larger dinners. Also, for most collectors a double magnum of Chateau Lafite 2010 at $6,000 is very difficult to justify opening at your average dinner party. You do not want to be agonizing over the decision of whether the upcoming dinner party is worthy enough to warrant you opening so expensive a bottle. However, having a double magnum of Chateau Pontet Canet 2010 worth $1,300 or Chateau Beaucastel 2010 worth $540 will certainly generate the “wow” factor and impress your guests without breaking the bank.
- As a general rule do not buy wine as an investment with the intention of selling it later for profit. This was much easier to do 30 years ago when you could buy 1982 Chateau Lafite for $40 US per bottle and sell it today for $4,800 and make over 80 times your purchase price in profit (don’t forget the auction house takes 30%). But the easy money has been made, if you bought the 2010 Chateau Lafite when it was sold as a future in 2012 at $2,100 per bottle, you are down about 35% today, since it can be bought today at auction now for about $1,400 per bottle. Fine wine prices have increased so much in the last 10 years (the Chinese effect?) that you should abandon any thoughts of buying wine as an investment to resell at auction.
- Know your own cellar’s aging capacity. Every cellar is different, and even with temperature and humidity controls, you need to know how well wine ages in your cellar, and once you know how well your cellar is performing, you need to constantly be testing the wines in your own cellar. Do not assume just because your temperature and humidity gauges register a constant level that your wines are fine. You need to check your wines for fill levels, for dried out corks and seepage in drier cellars, and for soiled labels from excess humidity. Do not just assume everything is fine. If you have a compressor powering your cellar cooling system, make sure you top up the compressor with freon every few years. You do not want to go away on vacation for 2-3 weeks and return to a cellar at room temperature because your compressor ran out of freon.
- Taste your wines regularly. If you have a case of fine Bordeaux bought as futures, that is forecast to take 15 years to mature, and last another 15 years after that, do not wait 20 years to open a bottle. Instead, taste one bottle after 7 years (it will now be 10 years old), taste another bottle 5 years later. It should now be fully mature, but if your cellar is state of the art, your wine may still not be fully mature, and you need to know this before serving it prematurely to guests.
- Read the latest reviews and tasting notes from wine critics on wines that you own and continue to cellar. If that 1986 Mouton Rothschild is still hard and tannic and needs more aging time according to recent tasting notes, then let your bottle keep aging. Conversely, if a critic says a certain vintage is aging faster than expected and beginning to fade, then take notice and try a bottle of your own. This is especially important if you only have two or three bottles of that special wine, you do not want to open your last bottle and find that it had not yet peaked.
- Have a consumption plan and stick to it, especially for your special occasion wines. If you bought a double magnum of 2010 Dom Perignon Champagne planning to celebrate your daughter’s wedding engagement at some unknown future date, then tell her and use it for leverage to get them to commit before the bubbly gets too old.
- Be prepared to make adjustments to your consumption plan should health issues arise. As we age, declining health, medication, changing tastes and lifestyles may seriously alter your ability to drink the wines you had been saving for your retirement. If that happens, then you will have to revisit your consumption plan. If you do not revise your plan, then your wines may kick the bucket before you do.
- You need a succession plan for your cellar. Leaving your wine for someone else to settle as part of the estate without specifying who gets which bottles is going to be a mistake. If you have three kids and only one enjoys wine, the other two will not appreciate their share of the wines at all. So is a 3 way split the right way to go? Is this what you want to have happen? Then you should decide who gets the wine. In fact, why not progressively gift your excess wines to your children while you are still alive, and enjoy the odd bottle with them, and give them your assessment of when they should be drinking those wines. That can actually be quite a lot of fun, an unregistered transfer of your wine assets to your children, along with your advice, pearls of wisdom, fanciful wine stories, and done slowly and progressively over time, making a special and memorable occasion out of every such event.
There is a lot more care involved in managing your cellar assets as you get older. There are several ways that your consumption habits can be forced to change over time, and you need to assess the impact that changing consumption habits has on your cellar contents. So you need to take charge of the situation, and constantly be prepared to change your wine collecting habits. Above all else, manage your liquid assets carefully.
Know how well your cellar ages wines, taste your wines regularly. You have to know when to hold them, and when to drink them.
If this article gets you thinking about your own cellar, why not open a nice bottle now and give it more thought, cheers!