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The Cellar Confessional

Wine editor Lettie Teague's messy cellar is no cause for alarm, says critic Robert M. Parker, Jr. But all that nonvintage Champagne? Time for an intervention.

I've been in many great wine cellars over the years, and I know what goes into the making of one (money). But because I tend to spend most of my income on much duller things—a mortgage and groceries—my and my husband's cellar falls a little short of ideal. Exactly how far short? Well, according to my friend Robert M. Parker, Jr., the famous wine critic, nearly to the point of "derangement." I'd called Bob—who's been in just about every top wine cellar in the world—for a frank assessment of our less-than-perfect collection. Naturally, he had plenty of interesting things to say...about our inventory of California Cabernet, white Burgundy and nonvintage Champagne—not to mention what he meant by derangement. Had bad storage made my wines insane? Here are a few highlights from our conversation.

LT: Our cellar conditions aren't picture-perfect. Although the temperature in our basement hovers between 60 and 65 degrees, the bottles are mostly in, well, a pile on top of a rock...It's a big boulder that's part of the foundation of our house. The total number of wines runs somewhere around 800 or 900 bottles—it's hard to tell exactly how much since bottles are on top of bottles. Some bottles are in cases and in racks, but most are scattered around. (It can make for pretty treacherous footing.) Do you hate messy cellars?

RP: I think a messy cellar makes you cool. I think designer cellars are pretentious. Sometimes I see a designer cellar and wish a dog would come in and pee on the wall or something. I like messy cellars because they look like they've been used. My cellar would appear messy to most people, but I know where everything is. Your cellar temperature is fine: 60 to 65 is great. The fuzzy area is when it gets above 70 degrees. For big reds like Cabernet Sauvignon, this kind of temperature variation may not be a problem, but for delicate red wines such as Pinot Noir, it can have a damaging effect. And as far as the rock goes, at least it's stable.

LT: We have a lot of nonvintage and vintage Champagne. My husband, Alan, insists on saving it for special occasions and/or worthy people. The trouble is, not enough worthy people seem to be visiting us. How long would you hold onto nonvintage Champagne?

RP: The two of you must get a lot of presents. Either that or you're necrophiliacs. Or maybe you're trying for honorary British citizenship. [The Brits love old Champagne.] I don't see why you would have nonvintage Champagne in your cellar at all; if there's one thing that's easy to buy, it's nonvintage Champagne. In fact, I think if its producers were honest they would admit that most nonvintage wines are meant to be consumed within 30 minutes of leaving the Champagne house. As far as vintage Champagne goes, I loved 1990; it's a great, great vintage. I bought a lot of 1990 Blanc de Blancs Champagne—my favorite kind—and I plan on drinking it all by 2005. I'm already well on my way.

LT: I think we also have a disproportionate amount of tawny port, including quite a few 20-year-olds (said by its true fans to be the ideal age of a tawny). However, only a few people we know drink port in the first place and they only drink ruby port. What should we do with our excess tawny port? Give it to our garbagemen for Christmas? Or St. Patrick's Day?

RP: I'm starting to see how weird you two are. Maybe you should consider seeing a wine psychiatrist. I mean, I get some really weird questions, but this is one of the weirdest. Tawny ports have already spent 20 or 30 years in wood—it's not likely they're going to improve. On the other hand, they're not going to get any worse. As far as the garbagemen, I think you're better off giving them your nonvintage Champagne.

LT: What about vintage port? Do you collect much vintage port?

RP: I stopped buying vintage port years ago. It's like Sauternes—you realize you don't need 150 bottles of it. On the other hand, even in lighter years, it's pretty much immortal. I don't think I've ever tasted a vintage port that was over the hill.

LT: I have to admit that we have a lot of California Cabernet, mostly from 1990 to 1999 (including yes, quite a few wines from that less-than-stellar 1998 vintage). How much is too much?

RP: At least you've got California Cabernet from the right decade. And 1998 wasn't such a bad year. It got a lot of bad press, but the truth is that it was more of a European-style vintage—the wines were more about elegance than power. What's important in a cellar is having wines that have a broad range of drinkability, which California Cabernet does. Wines with a broad range of drinkability give you a lot of flexibility; they are the sort of wines that make me feel secure. I think of my wine cellar as security—if the apocalypse comes, I can just go down to the cellar. As far as too much California Cab, I'd say if you have more than 200,000 bottles you might have too much; otherwise, it's fine.

LT: There are also some wines that we have shamefully too little of—fewer than 100 bottles—Chianti, Oregon Pinot Noir, white Burgundy and Italian white wine. Which category would you increase?

RP: For three out of four of these categories you're better off just going to a wine merchant and buying bottles as you need them. With the exception of white Burgundy, none of these wines age very well. Most Chiantis don't improve with age, nor do most Oregon Pinot Noirs or Italian white wines. White Burgundy, on the other hand, matures even more gracefully than red Burgundy. I wish I'd bought more. I'd increase your white Burgundy holdings.

LT: What do you think is the right ratio of red to white wine? I think ours is about 7 to 1, though if you count Champagne, it's probably more like 4 to 1.

RP: This is a good question. Or at least it's not a question I'm embarrassed for you to have asked. I'd say the right ratio is 10 to 1 or 9 to 1. I have 90 to 95 percent red wine in my cellar. There's a little bit of Alsace wine that I haven't gotten around to drinking, and a little bit of California Chardonnay. I like white wine when it's young and vigorous. I don't think you should cellar white wine at all, unless it's white Burgundy, and definitely not nonvintage Champagne.

LT: Alan has a predilection for old California Chardonnays—I'm talking magnums of 1992 and 1994 Chateau St. Jean Robert Young Vineyard Reserve and Beringer Private Reserves through the '90s, ditto Matanzas Creek. How long would you hold onto these wines—or has it been, as I think, far too long already?

RP: Don't tell me there isn't some sort of history of necrophilia in your family. Since the Robert Young Chardonnay is in magnums and it's a wine that didn't undergo malolactic fermentation (the acid levels are consequently pretty high), it might still be okay. Beringer Private Reserve, on the other hand, is sumptuous for about four years and then it's over the hill. The Matanzas is just a candidate for the morgue.

LT: One of Alan's few purchases of 1982 Bordeaux (I was too poor to buy '82s back when they were affordable, and I'm still too poor now that they're pricey) was a case of Ducru-Beaucaillou, a wine you called "flawless from the cask." Would you drink it, save it or give it as presents?

RP: Finally, some good news. The Ducru-Beaucaillou is gorgeous, classic, classic Bordeaux. Given your cellar conditions, it's probably at its peak. The sad news is that you only have one case.

LT: In your opinion, does our lack of cellar coherence indicate: (a) insouciance; (b) derangement; or (c) lively unconventionality?

RP: I think I'd probably have to say "all of the above." You have some good things here—vintage port, California Cabernet and 1982 Bordeaux. But I have to say, there's still some derangement as well, especially with regard to all that nonvintage Champagne. I'm afraid, Lettie, that going public with a cellar like this might cost you your job. On the other hand, you are providing a valuable public service—by proving something that I think a lot of people forget—that 95 to 96 percent of the wine in the world isn't made to be cellared at all, but to be consumed immediately. Overall, I'd say your cellar says to me that you and Alan need to do less writing and more drinking.

Published February 2003
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