There’s never been a better time to break out that bottle you’ve been saving.

By Joel Stein
Updated May 26, 2020
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Of the many home-renovation extravagances I now regret in this time of economic contraction and mass unemployment (A six-range stove? A shower in the garage? A counter-depth refrigerator? A roof that doesn’t leak?), I am not at all sorry about the expenditure I had been certain was the dumbest: my wine cellar.

Each time I excitedly went down to pick out a wine over the last six years, a part of my brain said, “You could have bought this wine at auction cheaper than the storage costs.” The only way to stop that part of my brain was to drink. It was a vicious cycle.

Since lockdown, however, I have gone downstairs into my store-with-no-other-shoppers guilt-free to pick out the perfect wine for the dinner I spent 23 hours cooking. I have opened wines that I had been saving for some unknown event. It turned out that event was realizing that life is short and ends randomly.  I also realize that I'm fortunate that I can work from home and actually have wine to drink, and these “problems” aren’t real problems. Other people have real problems and thinking about those problems makes me want to drink wine.

To see if I’m wine-panicking, I asked people with cellars if they had also lost their cool. “We’re opening better bottles,” admitted David Gibbs, the owner of Augustine Wine Bar in Los Angeles, one of Food & Wine’s 10 Best Wine Bars in America.  “A ’79 Hanzell Pinot on a Tuesday with grilled pork tenderloin? Sure, why not. An ’81 Hanzell chard while watching Tiger King? No problem.”

His friend Walker Strangis, who sources and sells older wines, says that his clients and wine buddies aren’t merely drinking because they think they’re in an episode of Last Man on Earth. It’s that there’s no school tomorrow. Every day is a weekend. “There’s no rush. You don’t have to go pick up the kids or run out to a dinner or drive anywhere,” Strangis says. “They’re cooking great dinners and taking the time to experience the quiet joy of a great bottle and enjoying it over the course of an evening.” He’s part of a few wine groups and instead of meeting for dinner, people in the groups are opening their own bottles over Zoom and talking about them. Strangis hasn’t joined in yet, giving some excuse besides being busy, which doesn’t really fly now. “I didn’t want to sit and watch these guys eat,” he admits.

Harmon Skurnik, who runs the 33-year-old New York City-based importer Skurnik Wines, has been posting the bottles he’s opened from his own cellar on Facebook, hashtagging them #WTF. A 1985 Groffier Sentiers Burgundy with chicken. A 1970 Lopez de Heredia Tondonia with grilled steak. A 1990 Domaine Armand Rousseau burgundy with squab. On Instagram, Skurnik started the #socialdistancingwineclub, which has 55 posts, including a particularly dark one from David “thebonviviant13” Lancaster in Bethel, Connecticut, that depicts him cooking shrimp scampi and is captioned, “There are no more rules with this #quarantinelife. Use Premier Cru Burgundy to deglaze if you must!”

Skurnik isn’t surprised that people are breaking out that bottle. “We’re all looking for ways to mitigate all the restrictions on our lives. We’re looking for little pleasures,” he says. He’s selling a lot more high-end wine than usual because he has bottles available that are usually allocated to restaurants. “That may be short lived. As the reality of this crisis hits and unemployment spikes, behavior will start to change.”

Not yet. Nielsen reports that wine sales, which had been flat for the 13 weeks leading up to the end of January, were up 27.6 percent over last year for the week ending March 14; spirits were up 26.4 percent (tequila, prepared cocktails, and gin had the most growth). While I gaze at my magnums sadly, imagining the parties they were meant to go to, I am apparently looking at them incorrectly. Magnum sales are up nearly 20 percent, and three-liter boxes are up 53 percent. Big bottles are now merely ways to avoid all that cork-opening effort.

Despite that data point about the three-liter boxes, people are indeed looking for higher-end wine. The biggest growth for the week ending March 14 was in “luxury” wine, retailing at $20 to $25 a bottle. “Value” bottles (under $4) only grew 11.3 percent and “popular” bottles ($4 to $8) were up 13.7 percent. The most expensive category Nielsen measures—wines more than $25 a bottle—was up 29.3 percent.

David Duncan, who runs Silver Oak, Twomey and Ovid wineries in Napa and Sonoma, says that the bulk wine market, where he sells juice he decides not to use for his blends, has suddenly gotten hot. “It went from $5 to $25 a gallon. The wineries that make those kinds of manufactured wines are seeing a huge demand. They’re trying to make wine and get it into bottles quickly so they can get them in Costco.”

Over the last couple of weeks, he’s been getting texts, emails, and social media tags from people all over the U.S. and Canada drinking their old Silver Oaks. “A lot of people are like, ‘Now is the time. I might as well enjoy what I have.’ There is an apocalyptic stress about the whole thing.”

Duncan seems pretty calm, but even he is dipping into his stash more than he usually would. Twice last week, he opened a bottle of Spottswoode’s “Mary’s Block” Sauvignon Blanc from Napa. It was named after his godmother, who is no longer around. “I usually only have that if I have a party or special people over,” he says. But like a lot of people, Duncan is reunited with his family, having dinner every night with them. Two of his three kids are in college, and they’re all home again. “I’m not going to screw around with funky stuff,” he says. Though he confesses he doesn’t have much funky stuff.

I’m not planning on emptying out my cellar, but then again, I don’t know how long isolating at home will last. I do know that I’ve got seven more bottles of 1964 Rioja, 12 more Riojas from the 1980s, and a whole lot of 1990s Chateauneuf-du-Pape. I’m not going to be the first one out of the bunker.