Design and Wine

Subtle signs of affluence are just that – subtle. Can anyone really tell that you’re wearing Dior lipstick purchased at Saks instead of Revlon from CVS? It’s the wearer who knows.

Subtle signs of affluence are just that — subtle. Can anyone really tell that you’re wearing Dior lipstick purchased at Saks instead of Revlon from CVS? It’s the wearer who knows.

Other signs of affluence, particularly those that resonate with Los Angeles culture, are more overt: does anything scream wealth more ostentatiously than a black AMEX card or a fire engine red Ferrari?

Wine is itself aspirational for a lot of consumers who are too often willing to pay top-dollar for products that someone else has tasted, rated and priced. Years of working as a sommelier have reinforced this one fact for me: if a bottle is expensive, hard to acquire and reviewed by Robert Parker or Wine Spectator (the Tolkein twin towers of all-powerful wine press), the recommended wine must be great.
But the pièce de resistance of arriving in the wine world remains the home cellar. Collecting wines that are worth saving, cellaring and savoring — and having the space to store them correctly — implies discretionary if discreet income like nothing else.  

I work in wine, so it’s just grape juice to me, even if it’s legendary, once-in-a-lifetime grape juice worthy of waxing rhapsodic. Personal and professional wine have always been distinct categories for me, though if I ever wanted to splurge on an extraordinary bottle or two, I could purchase it from myself via my work cellar. (Thank you, self, for that bottle of 1973 Dom Oenothèque and for the yummy Raveneau Chablis. Very kind of you.)

The space constraints of apartment living have also made collecting wine untenable for me over the years, so I admit that I am a late-bloomer when it comes to cellaring wines for home consumption. It wasn’t until Mr. Sexton and I moved up to Topanga that we finally had the room to build a wine cellar under our house. Our space is subterranean but hardly huge; the great secret about wine is that you don’t need tons of space but rather the right storage conditions and the right products to get started on a successful collection.
We were very fortunate to stumble across Closet Wine Cellars, whose amazing team transformed a small, excavated space with dirt floors into my very first personal wine cellar. Think you don’t have room at your place? Even the most modest closet can house a surprising amount of wine if one uses the innovative racking and cooling systems that Closet Wine Cellars, as their name implies, does. They’re also one of the most professional vendors I have worked with in recent years and can work miracles at your pad too.  
What to buy for your home wine cellar is enough material for a book — just check Amazon and you’ll find plenty of expert advice on how to spend your hard-earned cash on pricey juice. Let me distill some of that advice for you into three categories of wine with which to stock your space: “everyday wines” purchased by the case, “niche bottles” purchased individually that will mature with time in interesting ways, and “investment wines” purchased by the case.

“Everyday wines” are typically discounted by 10% if you purchase by the case. These are the cheerful, youthful wines you open on weeknights that for most readers will cost less than $25 a bottle. They’re the wines you keep on hand for parties, so you have extra bottles of the same wine ready to pop for guests. They’re inexpensive New Zealand sauvignon blancs, Sonoma County blended chardonnays, aromatic German rieslings with screw-tops, dry Provençal rosés, California old-vine zinfandels, Washington State merlots, entry-level Napa cabs, Spanish tintos from Ribera del Duero and Toro, French Côtes-du-Rhônes, sunny Southern Italian indigenous grapes like nero d’Avola and primitivo, and better Aussie shirazes and G-S-M blends.

“Niche bottles” are wines that cost more, that intrigue you, and that are likely to do something meaningful as they age. These are wines that you open once in a while, because you’ve cooked something worthy and you’re curious. Pretty much all pinot noir outside of DRC falls into this category, because cheaper pinot noir is just that. Better white Burgundy is definitely worth collecting bottle-by-bottle so you can see how great chardonnay ages over time and figure out which appellations you like best. Great Italian reds fit here as well, so experiment with better producers of both sangiovese (Tuscany) and nebbiolo (Piedmont) in good vintages, and give them a few years to mature.

The final category is for serious collectors of First-Growth Bordeaux, cult cabs, Grand Cru Burgundy, Hermitage by Chave and Guigal’s single vineyards, Gaja and other legendary Italian titles, and for related products that one hopes to resell down the road for a profit, not drink. Buy carefully, store these wines correctly, and keep them in the original wooden cases — there’s a recession on, and this market has eroded significantly. Provenance matters, in wine as in all things.

Not ready to spend a pile of cash without some professional advice? Befriend your favorite restaurant sommelier or find a consultant who knows wine inside and out and ask them: if you had “x” amount of cash to spend, what would you personally buy? Wine geeks lack cash, not knowledge, so consult an expert whose palate you trust before you invest. Los Angeles has some great ones! Don’t hesitate to ask. You should also check prices online. The Wine House on Cotner remains my favorite local retail location in Los Angeles, and the Wine Library with my pal Gary Vaynerchuk is difficult to beat for internet sales.  

Once you’ve built your space and stocked it wisely, don’t forget to protect your investment. The great enemies of wine are light, heat and air. Dark, cool spaces with adequate humidity will protect your investment from premature aging and oxidation. Wine bottles store best on their sides, slightly tilted downward in racks or stacked flat in their original boxes. Temperatures should be kept at an optimal 50–55° or slightly colder; invest in a fridge or a temperature-controlled space, as a single searing day can cook your entire investment. All wine starts to oxidize at about 75°, which isn’t all that hot.

Humidity is also a problem — too much and you risk mold. Too little and your corks will dry out. Shoot for about 70% humidity and use a humidifier in dry climates like SoCal to be safe.

Lastly, don’t wait forever! Open that special bottle, as all wine eventually deteriorates over time. Uncork the magic while it still is magical. I still keenly remember assessing the cellar of a certain wealthy LA guy who had died with sad amounts of equally dead wines that he didn’t want his ex-wife to “get.” He owned enough wine to drink a case a day for 50 years, literally. Don’t you think he was somehow missing the point?  

Recommended Resources

Construction: Closet Wine Cellars,  Ask for Carlos. He is hands-down the best and can accommodate any space; also an expert in temperature control for SoCal climates.

Consulting: Peter Birmingham (Hatfield’s), [email protected]; Mark Mendoza of Sona Restaurant, [email protected]; Tim Smith,  [email protected]; Dan Fredman, [email protected].              

Retail: The Wine House,; and Wine Library,

Auction: Check out Spectrum Wine Auctions for serious juice. A relative newcomer to the scene previously dominated by Christie’s and Sotheby’s, Spectrum offers superlative products and great customer service for investment-level wine purchases.