A Guide to Wine Storage

Wine collecting is a demanding and rewarding hobby, and for serious collectors, it can be a valuable business. Unfortunately, wine is perishable, like any consumable substance, and it can easily go bad if it's not properly stored. Small collections can sometimes be kept at home or in a personal wine cellar, but once your collection has grown beyond a certain size or dollar value, there's really no substitute for professional wine storage.

Key Point Module

  • 1 Not all wines benefit from aging, though many vintages can be stored for years.
  • 2 Fine wine cannot be stored long-term at home but must be stored under optimum conditions in a professionally maintained cellar.
  • 3 Professional wine storage requires strict temperature and humidity control.
  • 4 Choosing a wine storage company takes patience and investigation to ensure you’ve picked a good one.

Properly storing wine demands close attention to detail and an eye for best practices. Wine that’s worth storing typically has a high cash value, so think of storage as part of your investment. Finding a good wine storage company that can keep your most irreplaceable vintages in drinkable shape for upwards of a decade or more takes time and research.

How Long Should You Store Your Wine?

Before you start looking for a place to store your wines for the long term, it’s important to know whether it’s worth the trouble. Not all wines can stand up to aging, and some are far better if they’re consumed before their sell-by date. Most wines sold today are considered ready to drink, and letting them age in storage does no good. One study of “ready-to-drink” wines found that the average time between purchase and consumption of a bottle was just 14 hours, which obviously negates the need for storage. If your wine is in a ready-to-drink state, you may be best off simply storing it in the refrigerator for a few weeks or months before serving it.

Some wines are sold in an immature state and have to age before they’re ready for the table. These “age-worthy” wines vary in color and quality, with some being good to go after just a year or two, while others only become really fine after more than 20 years in storage. As a rule, red wines age far better than whites, since the product has been fermented “on the peel” of the grapes and has soaked up more tannin and acid, giving the wine a stronger body. These solids slowly bake out of the wine while it’s in storage, while the sugars in the wine react in complex ways to keep a fine balance. Higher-than-optimal temperatures cause the solids to drop out too quickly, while too-low temperatures slow down the aging and cause an imbalance in the opposite direction. For a serious collector who may have hundreds of bottles worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to protect, conditions must be nearly perfect over a length of time measured in decades.

One thing to remember about age-worthy wines is that, no matter how fine a vintage you’ve invested in, it can be utterly ruined if it’s stored improperly. That makes picking the right wine storage company crucial to saving and properly aging your finest vintages. Professional wine storage companies are not all equal, and you should take care to pick a good one for your wine.

What is Professional Wine Storage?

The most economical way to store wine is at home, in a refrigerator or closet. This works well enough for most wines, especially the lower-cost vintages available at the grocery store. For wines being stored more than a few months, some collectors with small to medium-sized collections invest in a home wine cellar, where heat and humidity can be controlled in a way that preserves the better wines past their sell-by dates. For serious collectors, however, and for those who own wine of very high quality, there’s no viable alternative to professional storage on a commercial scale.

Professional wine storage companies maintain large warehouses where the environment is carefully modulated to preserve the best qualities of wine. Collectors deposit their wine, which is almost always bottled and packed in a case, in the warehouse and pay a monthly fee for storage. Cellar employees, some of whom are highly skilled wine smiths, continuously monitor the heat, humidity and other environmental factors to ensure the tens of thousands of bottles in their care stay fresh and age well.

Things to Look for in Wine Storage

Wine storage companies offer slightly different services to different types of customers, and not every cellar is a good fit for every collector. The first thing most collectors need from a storage company is a comprehensive knowledge of wine. During your initial contact with the company representative, it’s a good idea to let them talk for a bit about the types of wine they store. A knowledgeable rep indicates a general level of familiarity with what are sometimes unique vintages that call for special storage conditions. A company that recognizes those differences off the bat is likely to have the specialized storage areas your particular wine requires.

Wine in a bottle that’s sealed with a cork should generally be stored at between 55 and 57 degrees Fahrenheit and greater than 50% relative humidity. The humidity keeps the cork from drying out and shrinking, which can admit more oxygen than the wine can handle and spoil the chemistry in the bottle. Temperatures more than a degree or two above the recommended maximum can accelerate the aging of the wine, while temperatures too low cause differential aging of the amino acids in the wine, giving it a lopsided taste and feel.

Conditions in storage areas should not be allowed to fluctuate more than 5 degrees more than once a year, since repeated disruptions can modify the rate at which the wine ages. Your wine storage company should meet this standard easily, and it will ideally be able to show this level of consistency going back at least a decade.

Ask around among other wine enthusiasts for their experiences storing wine professionally. Wine storage businesses rise and fall on their reputations, and there’s no substitute for the story a trusted source shares about the quality and preservation of their own wine. Positive personal accounts should also include a description of good customer service and the ease with which customers can recover their wine on short notice, which indicates good staffing levels and proper storage organization in the warehouse.

Many cellars also offer insurance as an add-on service, in case anything happens to depositors’ wine while it’s stored. While this may not be worth the extra few dollars a month for wines worth less than a few hundred dollars, really valuable wines and large collections should be protected in case of a mishap that causes damage to your wine or an environmental issue that causes temperature or humidity fluctuations. Wine storage companies that deal in very high-value wines often require the purchase of insurance for collections valued above $1,000 dollars, though policies vary between cellars.

Danger Signs to Look Out For

Just as there are positive signs to look for when you are choosing a wine storage company, there are also some warning signs to look out for. If the wine storage company you’re dealing with demonstrates any of these, you might have to take your irreplaceable collection elsewhere.

Ignorance about wine. Wine storage calls for a great deal of specialized knowledge, and a company that doesn’t demonstrate their skill in handling wine as a selling tool for customers might not have the necessary experience to handle your own collection. Ask the rep you’re talking to about storing robust reds versus pale whites, and listen for a confident answer that makes sense to you. If the response to a technical query is either confusion or incorrect information, this might not be the place for you.

A too-casual attitude toward storage conditions. Storing wine for the long term is an exact science, and the details matter far more for perishable wine than for most other high-value items. Even minor fluctuations in conditions, repeated over five or 10 years of storage, can spoil the best wine in the world. A company rep who seems not to know, or to not take very seriously, the difference between 55 degrees and 60 might indicate a general unreliability among the technicians and management for getting it right.

Slow or impolite customer service. Storing wine is a customer-centered business, since most serious collectors know their field very well and may have special needs that have to be catered to. Moreover, many wine enthusiasts can turn up on a moment’s notice to get their favorite bottle out of storage, and having to wait for slow or discourteous staff can not only ruin an evening but can indicate bigger issues behind the scenes for how your wine is being handled. Another warning sign is if you are allowed to enter the storage area unescorted. If the company lets you walk past other customers’ collections without at least one employee in attendance, it probably lets other strangers walk past your collection by themselves. For obvious reasons, this raises concerns among collectors with five- or six-figure collections of rare wines.

Harsh solvents. Wine must be stored in odor-free environments. Over time, even a thin trickle of volatile chemicals seeping through the cork can ruin the flavor of your wine. Take a peek at the cleaning supplies when you tour a warehouse. If you see or smell ammonia or bleach, it might be a good idea to look elsewhere.

Shopping for a Wine Storage Company

Apart from the details of how the wine storage company treats you and your wine, there are a few things collectors should take under consideration before choosing a site for long-term storage. Location of the warehouse is perhaps the first consideration. Wine storage facilities are not evenly scattered around the map, and most cluster near big cities like New York, London, Chicago and San Francisco. If you have a mind to purchase and store your collection out of sight and out of mind for many years, you can probably get away with storing the wine in a different city from where you live. If, on the other hand, you would like to drop by on the spur of the moment and pick up a bottle to celebrate a friend’s unexpected visit, or if you think you might be adding to the collection over time, you might want to stay within driving distance of your primary residence.

Cost is another factor when you’re choosing a wine storage company. Choose carefully here, since up to a point most customers get what they pay for in wine storage. Some of the most basic storage services will rent a shelf with enough space for 18 to 20 cases for between $30 and $40 a month. Flat-rate pricing like this is common among the cellars that cater to a large general public, or which impose caps on how much or how expensive a collection can be in their warehouse. As a rule, collectors should be wary of any warehouse that offers prices significantly below this mark, since it’s hard to keep prices low with the cost of adequate staff, security, environmental controls and other overhead.

Some cellars skip the flat-rate pricing and charge instead based on the cash value of your collection. These tend to be higher-end cellars that offer many more services, such as up-to-date information about your collection’s current market value and whether any vintages similar to yours have recently come up at auction. For these storage companies, you can expect to pay between 1% and 2% of the value of your entire collection. For a collection worth $30,000, this works out to between $300 and $600. This might sound like a lot to pay for storage of goods, but the alternative, spoiled wine, is likely to be far more costly than professional storage.