Cellaring without a cellar

“This wine will improve with five to 10 years under proper cellar conditions.” Okay, fine. But what if you don’t have a proper wine cellar?

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To tell you the truth, I don’t have a wine cellar, either. I may be one of the few wine writers who can say this, or will admit it, but my wine budget goes to buying wine to taste and tell you about. If I start buying wine by the case and putting it away to enjoy years later, I’ll never get to it. My heirs can buy their own wine, thank you!

Yes, a lot of wine lovers – including many of you, I’m sure – decide at some point to purchase a wine cellaring system that can maintain their collection under ideal cellar conditions. This means holding a constant 55ºF (13ºC) and around 70% humidity while the precious bottles of ageworthy wines inside gain delicious nuance and complexity with years of careful aging.

Such a cellar can range in size (and expense) from a unit the size of a bar refrigerator for a few hundred dollars – but which may not hold enough bottles to be worth the effort for aging wine – to a stand-up case that costs a few thousand, or even a walk-in system large enough to fill a room, assuming that expense is no object.

This is a classic old wine cellar, but don't worry: You don't need all this!

This is a classic old wine cellar, but don’t worry: You don’t need all this!

Indeed, most wine lovers who get into serious cellaring want facilities large enough to accommodate many 12-bottle cases and hold them for years, keeping careful track of their progress.

I know, a lot of you are shaking your head and thinking, “It sounds great, but not for me.” That raises the obvious follow-up question: Can we cellar wines and enjoy their aging without having any of that fancy and expensive stuff?

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Cellaring without a cellar


Well, sort of. To be honest, we should put away hopes of cellaring for many years those expensive, ageworthy wines from Bordeaux or Burgundy, Barolos or Brunellos or sought-after bottles from Napa, Sonoma, Barossa and beyond. Without those necessary cellar conditions you run the risk of having your fancy bottles turn into dank, rank Sherry-like brown stuff rather than ethereal nectar after five or 10 years.

When we’re looking at wines that aren’t cheap in the first place, that’s not an investment that I’m ready to make. Your mileage may vary, and that’s all right. If you try it, let me know how it goes.

But here’s the good news: This doesn’t mean that we can’t buy good wine and watch it grow. We just have to know our limits. Start with wines made to go the distance, those tannic, sturdy Cabernets and Pinots, Syrahs and Nebbiolos, and the few whites like certain Rieslings and Chenin Blancs that benefit from age. Remember that the vast majority of all the wines made aren’t intended for aging anyway, so enjoy them fresh as nature intended.

Find a cool, relatively undisturbed place for your wine racks, away from bright daylight or heavy household traffic. Don’t keep your wine in the kitchen, and don’t store it long-term in the refrigerator. (It’s too cold, and the constantly cycling refrigerator motor doesn’t help). Keep your bottles on their sides. It’s still a good idea even in the age of synthetic corks and metal screw caps. And keep some kind of simple record in a notebook or spreadsheet to track the time, because you’re probably going to want to pull out even the sturdiest red within five years or so.

But even a year or two can be enough to take the rough edges off a wine that’s meant for aging. I tried it this week with the last bottle of a group of three from J. Wilkes winery in the Santa Maria Valley that I got last spring. I tasted two at the time, but had hung onto the J. Wilkes Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir because I thought a little time might be good for it, and my patience was rewarded. It’s really an excellent wine, and at the $30 price tag for the current 2020 vintage, a really good buy. You’ll find my tasting report below.


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Today’s Tasting Report

J. Wilkes 2018 Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir ($30)

J. Wilkes Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir

J. Wilkes 2018 Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir is a very pretty ruby color, clear and typically varietally light. Attractive Pinot scents, red cherry and a whiff of tomato skin. Delicious flavor, bright cherry fruit framed by fresh, tart acidity. Fresh, clean fruit and a touch of stony minerality linger in a very long finish, with modest 13.5% alcohol that doesn’t intrude. (April 17, 2022)

FOOD MATCH: The winery suggests portobello penne pasta, veal chop with portabello mushrooms, and beef Bourgignon. The combination of dark chocolate and red-berry fruit makes chocolate-covered strawberries an unexpected match. We enjoyed it with a hearty spinach lasagna.

WHEN TO DRINK: This bottle, two years behind the current vintage, was just delicious right now, but there’s certainly no hurry to drink it.

The $30 winery price for the more recent 2020 vintage matches Wine-Searcher.com’s estimated $29 average U.S. retail. At this price and quality, it’s a strong value for Santa Maria Valley Pinot.

Producer Miller Family Wines offers this short fact sheet.

Check prices and find vendors for J. Wilkes Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir on Wine-Searcher.com.

You can also order this wine from the winery for $30, with shipping where the law allows. Go to this link and click “Add to Cart” on the landing page.

Browse Wine-Searcher’s listings for vendors and prices for all J. Wilkes wines.

Learn more about California’s Santa Maria Valley and browse listings for wines of the region at this Wine-Searcher link.


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