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Do you need a wine cooler?

By By Stan Torgerson / wine columnist
Sept. 10, 2003
The other night someone said they had seen a picture of a refrigerated wine cooler and asked me if it would be a good investment.
And, I'm not talking about the little four-packs of fruit-flavored, semi-carbonated drinks you can buy at the grocery store. I'm talking about a refrigeration unit in which to store your wines.
The answer depends on how serious you are about collecting wine on a long-term basis.
In 1970, when I started collecting, we had dinner at the house of a friend who was a major collector. We enjoyed the wine served so much I asked him to sell me a mixed case out of his cellar. He did and it ended up on the floor of our pantry, and it was consumed in a relatively short period of time.
So back I went and asked to buy another case. He advised that he really didn't have anything he wanted to sell and suggested I start a collection of my own. I did, but soon discovered putting cases of wine in my wife's pantry was not one of my better ideas.
So I bought wine racks, enough to hold several hundred bottles and put them up in the dining room of our house, floor to ceiling. It looked like a restaurant in there. That also wasn't much of an idea.
We had a small unused storage space, about 8-by-10. I called in a contractor, had the walls, floor and ceiling insulated, installed a good air conditioner that kept the temperature about 59 degrees, put a steel door behind the normal wooden door with a giant lock on it, moved my racks there and had what passed nicely as a wine cellar.
Storing wine
If you're going to be a serious collector, you need a wine cellar or one of these self-contained refrigerated units that will guard your wines in the 55-60 temperature range.
Heat and light are the enemy of wine and, if you plan to buy wines for long-range holding, you can't keep them in a 72-degree house. If you try, many of the wines you wait five years to serve will not be drinkable when that time comes.
When you're ready to agree that a cellar is a necessity, not an option, your first decision will have to be: Do you want a cooler for a cooler's sake or do you want a piece of furniture?
Remember years ago when you bought a big television set because it was an attractive piece of furniture for your den or living room as well as entertainment? The wooden console model was the standard of the day.
But as time went on it became apparent TV sets were designed to entertain, not just be admired. As a result, today's TVs are put in metal boxes and sit on tables or stands. The picture is more important than the case it's in.
Same thing with wine coolers.
I receive a catalog every month from The Wine Enthusiast, a dealer of wine supplies from openers to pictures to funnels to cellar tags to racks and yes, coolers.
The Wine Enthusiast's offices are in Elmsford, N.Y. If you want to get on their free mailing list, the number is (800) 356-8466.
This month they offer 50 or more different models. A 24-bottle cooler is as little as $299. The size graduates up to the 120-bottle version at $995.
They come as a stand-alone or you can buy one that is front-vented so you can install it in a kitchen cabinet. It's built with a precision computer control that allows you to set the desired temperature and displays the actual temperature in which the bottles are being held.
More elaborate options
From there it is up. The furniture type coolers come in mahogany, oak, cherry or other woods finished light, medium or dark, your choice.
Prices range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand to many thousands. The largest in the catalog is a giant triple unit that looks like a beautiful breakfront, holds close to a thousand bottles of varying size, and even has a storage area for cigars.
The middle portion is built like a bar with hanging glasses and shelves to hold liquors. It can be yours for only $17,827, plus shipping, of course.
My advice is stay with the lesser ones. A 50-bottle unit, which holds more than four cases, does everything you want. All you need do when it arrives is figure out where to put it and plug it in. Wood exteriors cost a bit more, but there is a size and price range for everyone in that catalog.
The best and most economical way to buy good wines is to purchase them when they are young. Wait a year or two and their prices rise dramatically. But it is also true the most enjoyment from wine comes when the liquid in the bottle matures. If you wait for someone else to age it for you, chances are you won't be able to afford it when the time comes.
You can always buy wines for immediate consumption and you'll enjoy them. But if you want to make collecting wine a serious hobby, be prepared to give them the tender loving care only proper cellaring can provide.