Vintage Fun

Two local experts offer tips on building your own wine cellar.

According to local aficionados Robert Peters and Richard Unti, high-end wine collecting is “a rich man’s game right now.” But that doesn’t mean anyone can’t have a go at crafting an in-home wine cellar. After all, what could be better than saving the party with a couple prized bottles? And wine cellars have become a significant selling point for homebuyers.

You don’t have to be a diehard oenophile to start collecting; enjoying a glass of wine is one of life’s simplest pleasures. A simple—and sincere—appreciation is all it takes. In the end, it all comes down to personal preference.

“For centuries, wine was always an everyday experience,” says Unti, who teaches wine appreciation courses at Temple University and other locales. “Not this pretentious, stuffy thing. Experiencing wine shouldn’t be something that makes people uncomfortable. As trendy as the wine movement is, there are plenty of people who are still intimidated when they go out to a restaurant or even a liquor store.”

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“We don’t consider ourselves experts,” adds Peters, a specialty consultant at Ardmore’s Wine & Spirits Store. “We’re just low-level collectors in pursuit of that next great wine just waiting around the corner.”

Of course, the major reason to establish a wine cellar is to ensure proper storage of immature bottles until they’re ready to drink. As a general rule of thumb, California wines tend to mature quickly due to a higher alcohol content that keeps the wine “living” longer. European wines are typically more balanced and have less alcohol, leaving most with an aging window of seven to 10 years. Unti points out that, while there is more emphasis on drinkability today, wines that require aging are still a major part of a serious collection.

There’s no mandate on how many bottles justify the expense and upkeep of a wine cellar, but it’s not a project to be taken lightly. Regardless of size, all cellars need certain specifications, and with any home addition/renovation, budget dictates design. If your collection hovers around 36 bottles, you may want to consider a freestanding, climate-controlled wine cabinet, which is good for smaller collections and will store your wine under better conditions than that over-the-wet-bar rack you spent a fortune on when you updated your kitchen.

Once you’ve assessed your storage needs, the next consideration is acquisition and consumption habits. You’ll need to decide if you want a collector’s cellar or an investor’s cellar.

“A collector is someone who buys wines because they like to drink them or share them with friends,” says Unti. “An investor buys for financial gain and typically fills the cellar with trophy wines such as Bordeaux, a few prestigious Burgundies and a handful of small California producers. A collector’s—or working—cellar is more fun because you can share it with others and your purchases are based on what you like, not what Parker’s [Wine Advocate] says.”

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Both Peters and Unti warn not to go overboard on high-end wines to age “unless it’s the deal of a lifetime,” adding that anticipated maturity predictions are based on one person’s opinion—and that there is no substitute for your own palate. Peters also urges people to think about how they consume wine. Are they sippers or do they host a lot of dinner parties? “European wines also often show better with food than they do alone, versus California and New World wines that are fruitier and can be sipped on easier than the Old Worlds,” he says.

The first questions to ask yourself: How much do you drink? What types of wines do you enjoy? And how much do you want to spend building your collection? Once you’ve answered those, you can map out your design and draw up a short list of initial purchases. Unti and Peters suggest starting with 50 to 100 bottles, including two cases of “agers” and one case of “drinkers,” along with some aperitifs, dessert wines, dry sherries, Sauternes and vintage ports. And don’t buy more than a case of any wine that doesn’t have a track record. Two-thirds of your regular purchases should be wines that age within one to three years, the remaining bottles three to 10 years.

With so many bottles under your care, Unti recommends creating a system to “manage” your wine cellar once it’s reached what he refers to as a “working state.”

“Keep records of your inventory—name; producer; vintage; number of bottles; date and price of acquisition; rating score; and personal comments on what you opened, what it tasted like and if you opened it before the recommended time,” he says.

Track your wines as they age by buying multiple bottles of a particular vintage and trying it before the suggested aging time to make sure you’ve not passed peak. Ideally, a properly aged wine will reward you with more pleasurable nuances, a softer texture, lower tannins, a more compelling, aromatic flavor, and greater complexity and intensity than a younger one.

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Of course, the first order of business is mapping out the physical aspects of your cellar. How wine is stored will directly affect how quickly and how well it ages. Constant temperature, humidity, dark-ness, stillness and a well-ventilated and clean environment are essential for opti-mum maturation and enjoyment. One of the best tools you can buy is a hygro thermometer, which provides accurate temperature readings and humidity ranges (50-59 F or 10-15 C is ideal).

A dry atmosphere can wreak havoc on a natural cork, which is compressed and forced into the bottle for a 100-percent natural seal. A defective cork, combined with low humidity, results in wine moving out of the bottle and air moving in, increasing ullage (a bottle’s unfilled space). Moderate humidity is crucial in keeping the cork in good condition and preventing it from shrinking. It’s best to store bottles horizontally with labels facing up so the wine keeps the cork wet and the bottle can be easily identified. This also allows sediment to form opposite the label—a plus for investors, as a damaged label will
reduce a bottle’s value.

Another enemy of wine is light. Wine in clear bottles is at the greatest risk, but even dark-colored glass can allow enough ultraviolet light to filter in. This can lead to a breakdown of tannins and other stable organic compounds that contribute to the aroma, flavor and structure, leaving the wine flat and thin. Sparkling wines have even greater light sensitivity. “Wine is a moving target,” says Unti. “Keep checking your bottles as they age. And unless you are filthy rich, don’t buy more than you can drink.”

The best way to ensure proper storage is to consult a specialist like Scott Zifkind. Since 1982, his ZipCo Environmental Services ( in Pennsauken, N.J., has compiled a local and national client list that includes the wine room in Wine Spectator’s Napa, Calif., offices and the cellar of former PLCB chairman Jonathan Newman. The average ZipCo cellar is 10 feet by 10 feet and holds 1,500 bottles, but Zifkind will design systems to fit any size room or closet.

“[ZipCo] is the gold standard in wine storage systems,” says Peters. “Anyone you hear about who has an amazing cellar and is a serious collector wrote a check to ZipCo.”

There are plenty of other variables that affect how a wine ages. Ultimately, some will improve and others won’t.

“If you think an aged wine is good now, you shouldn’t think you’re making a mistake by not waiting for the anticipated date of maturity,” says Unti, offering a few last tips. “Some white Burgundies and Chablis can be cellared, but don’t bother to cellar California and Australian Chardonnays and sauvignon blancs. No one makes American pinots—California and Oregon—to improve at 10 to 12 years. California and Washington cabs also do not improve. Some can age up to 30 years, but only a few deliver a miracle in a bottle. Even in Burgundy, there are only a few dozen producers who make wine that will age longer than a decade.”

Sip and Slice
Perfect wine and cheese pairings.

Lincel Brillat Savarin (France)
This soft, white-crusted cow’s milk cheese from Normandy has a fat content, creaminess and aroma similar to Brie—one that deepens as it ages. Rich, buttery and mild, it’s also been described as slightly sharp or salty and sour. Pairs nicely with champagne or a bolder, chewier 1995 Chateau Simard Saint-Emilion Bordeaux.

Gran Pecorino-Lazio (Italy)
This Tuscan-made cheese balances a sweet, delicate bouquet of sheep’s milk, fresh meadow herbs and wild Sardinian flowers with an intense, sharp, nutty flavor. The perfect mate to a classic, robust
2003 Monsanto Chianti Classico.


Tomme Crayeuse Schmidhauser Savoie (France)
With its nutty flavor and pronounced, yet pleasing, acidity, this cheese pairs well with something juicy like a
2005 Beux Frères Pinot Noir.


Pico Cabrales (Spain)
Spicy and lush with hints of blackberry, cloves, black pepper and dark chocolate, this powerful Spanish blue has an intense flavor that lingers—piquant and aromatic but with a hint of mellowness. It’s texture is thick and creamy, making it a worthy companion to MacRostie “Wildcat” Syrah.


Mimolette (France)
Similar to Edam, with a mellow, almost sweet, fruit flavor that matures into a bolder, hazelnut-like nuttiness with caramelized, smoky overtones. Pairs well with a 2002 Pierre Sparr Pinot Gris Mambourg, a sweet, rich wine with a slight tang to the finish.

Stelvio Stilfser (Italy)
This cheese from the Alto Adige province boasts an intensely aromatic and fruity flavor that shines in the company of Tocai Friulano Plozner, which is lively with its own ripe fruit flavors.


Sardinian Gold (Italy)
This firm, Parmesan-like cheese is aged three to nine months and has a supple texture and complex, nutty-sweet taste and perfume. Serve with a bottle of Umberto Cesari Sangiovese Cabernet Sauvignon, reminiscent of red plums, mocha and tobacco, with balanced acidity and oakiness.


Ubriaco (Italy)
A hard cheese made in Lombardy from cow’s milk, soaked in wine and covered with crushed grape skins for a period of time. Its flavor is often described as “pineappley,” which makes it a good companion to Bellavista’s Franciacorta Cuvée Brut, a sparkling blend of more than 30 different white wines—some of which are aged in wood for added complexity.


Sommelier Speak
When it comes to wine trends, deals and more, these local sommeliers know their stuff.



Anthony Mastroianni
Cosimo Restaurant & Wine Bar (209 Lancaster Ave., Malvern; 610-647-1233,


Favorite wine list on the Main Line: It would have to be Dilworthtown Inn. With about 900 selections and close to 20,000 bottles, their depth rivals anything in the city.

Favorite wine list in Philadelphia: Panorama. In addition to having a preservation system three times the size of ours, they have a captain’s list most people don’t even know about. It features some rare and hard-to-find ’80s and ’90s wines from California and Europe that are reasonably priced ($150 and up).

Most coveted bottle of wine: Probably a 2004 Astralis, a shiraz from South Australia that competes with the famous Penfolds Grange. I’m also looking forward to opening a bottle of 1998 Gaja Speress. I have a tough time holding on to good bottles of wine. They are meant to be enjoyed, right? I also have a magnum of 1995 Mastroianni Brunello that was a gift from my parents from their trip to Tuscany last summer, which I’m going to enjoy [soon]. I’ve had it once before, and it’s one of the best Italian wines I’ve ever had. I can’t wait!

Thoughts on local wines: The 2007 growing season was considered quite good—maybe the best ever. That’s been said a lot, but the warm and dry October was perfect for harvest. It’s now in the hands of the winemakers and oenologists.


Melissa Monasoff
Maia (789 E. Lancaster Ave., Villanova; 866-907-6242)

Favorite wine list on the Main Line: It’s not yet discovered; I’m just starting to get to know the area, so I haven’t gotten the chance to get to know the restaurants/lists.

Favorite wine list in Philadelphia: Tria, Osteria, Tinto and Panorama. And, of course, I like the BYOBs because the wine comes from my favorite wine list—at home!

The perfect bottle: For my birthday, I’d love to have a magnum of champagne from my birth year. But something more available would be my favorite champagne, which is Salon from the 1995 vintage.

Understanding vintages: Is tough; there are no hard-and-fast rules. There are some years one can generalize as being good or bad. Across Europe, however, each region has its own microclimate and variations in weather patterns, so you can’t take a broad view. It honestly takes just good, old-fashioned memorizing and tasting to know what’s going on. But that’s why I have a job—I’ll do that for you.

Most coveted bottle of wine: A 1975 Lafite. I’m hesitating on opening it, but I should do that soon. I also have a 1989 Leoville Las Cases. Yummy.


Robert Amar
Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar (555 Lancaster Ave., Radnor; 610-688-9463,

Favorite wine list on the Main Line: Cosimo, which has an interesting, global mix that can be selected as tastings or flights. It’s a great venue in which to explore something different, with a good selection of cheeses and charcuterie. If BYOB is the intent, the PLCB store on Gulph Road in King of Prussia has an excellent selection of wines from all over—probably the best selection of champagnes, ports and sherries in the Philadelphia area.

Favorite wine list in Philadelphia: Amada and Tinto; I love the homage to Spain and South America. Having the largest area of vineyards in the world, Spain has been grossly underappreciated and under-represented. Both restaurants have a terrific mix of the usual suspects, along with innovative wines from the next generation of winemakers experimenting with syrahs, cabernets and Gewürztraminers.

For anniversaries: Rosé champagne is the way to go—nothing says elegance like a little bubbly. Rosé also has a fuller body and more festive fruit; it’s very sexy stuff. One of my favorite wine traditions comes from the English: Parents purchase a vintage port bottled in a year as close to the child’s birth year as possible. The bottle is saved until the child reaches drinking age—and on that birthday, it’s opened and enjoyed as a sort of coming of age.

Trends to look for this year: High-end South American wines gain favor; Italy is no longer of interest (the labels are too complicated); boxed wines (there are some good ones out there) become the rage; and, finally, merlot is going to make a huge comeback. Bold statements, I know.

Most coveted bottle of wine: E. Guigal Cote Rotie La Landonne. This Northern Rhone, 100-percent syrah single-vineyard was the first wine I ever tasted that made me stop in my tracks and say, “Oh, my God!” When I was first getting into wine, I had the opportunity to taste this—and it changed me forever. It’s become a crusade for me to try to match that Holy Grail. I have come close—but just like your first love, it can never be duplicated. It’s worth chasing after, though. Wine and love aren’t that different, after all. Not for me, anyway.

Cellar Necessities
According to seasoned collectors Robert Peters and Richard Unti, a base wine collection should include the following:

• two cases of red Bordeaux
• one case of red Burgundy
• half-case of champagne
• half-case of white Burgundy
• several bottles of Rhone and Alsatian
• two cases of California cabernet
• one case of Barolo
• one case of super-Tuscans and chiantis
• half-case of California Chardonnay
• half-case of Spanish reds
• half-case of California and Oregon
pinot noirs
• half-case of Australian cabs, shiraz and blends; California and Washington merlots; and New Zealand petit sirahs


Amp Up Your Wine Knowledge
Fortunately for non-sommelier types, wine education is big business on the Main Line, with a growing number of restaurants offering wine tastings and visits by local and national vintners. Oenology often comes with a hefty price tag. So before you blow too much on that wine cellar, save a little something for your education. Here are a few great places to start—just try not to become too much of a cork dork along the way.

Main Line School Night
260 Gulph Creek Road, Radnor; (610) 687-0460,

Tria Fermentation School
1601 Walnut St., Suite 620, Philadelphia; (215) 972-7076,,

The Wine School
2006 Fairmount Ave., Philadelphia; The Wine School of Old City, Pinot Boutique, 227 Market St., Philadelphia; (800) 817-7351,,


For more extensive information on area wine programs and more, visit

Our Best of the Main Line Elimination Ballot is open through February 22!