Wine Service & Storage

I have been giving this advice a lot lately and thought I should just document it once and for all in one place. 

Wine is a living thing. The cork that seals the bottle is a natural product. Given those two facts, wine storage is a bit fussy. You don't want your nice bottle of wine "cooking" or "oxidizing" before you get a chance to drink it. This article is meant to give you some general tips for storing (and serving) your wine along with some exceptions. 

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Why Care About Storage?

Before we start, consider that most wine is meant to be consumed pretty quickly after purchasing, especially if we're talking about wine you picked up in the grocery store for $10. Despite that, you probably don't want your $10 to be a bottle of vinegar by the time you drink it. If we're talking about a $100 bottle of 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon however you might want to "put that down" or store it for a couple of years before you drink it. The same general rules for storage apply to both bottles but the stakes are higher if you get that $100 bottle wrong. 

Storage Position: If you've ever wondered why wine is sometimes stored vertical vs horizontal that has to do with the cork. If the wine has a screw cap, it can be stored standing up. But if there is a natural cork in the bottle, it's best to store it horizontally if you're going to keep it for any length of time. The reason for that is the wine in the bottle will keep the cork moist and moist cork is in the proper state for preserving the bottle. When cork starts to dry out, it shrinks and allows oxygen to seep into the bottle at a faster rate than the maker intended. When wine comes in contact with oxygen it starts to change and loose it's fruity characteristics. This might be desirable when it happens slowly over 10 years ("micro-oxidation") by natural means in a sealed bottle. But when you accelerate that process by leaving a bottle open on the counter overnight or letting a cork dry out, you're aging the wine in undesirable ways quickly. So if you hope to store your cork-sealed wine for more than a couple weeks or months or you live in a desert, lie it horizontal please. 

Storage Temperature & Moisture: The ideal storage temperature for wine (not the same as "service temperature") is 55F. This temperature keeps the wine in the bottle from changing and evolving too quickly. Both red and white are best stored at this temperature. Here are some options in order of preference

  • Freezer: I do not recommend freezing your wine, it does something chemically to the suspended particles that kills the flavors. Not even worth discussing this. Don't do it.

  • Counter: If you live in a cellar that is kept at constant temperatures that don't fluctuate beyond 55F and 60F, storing wine on your counter (away from direct sunlight!) or in a dark pantry or closet could work. Though I recommend keeping it out of light and away from heat sources (oven) and away from lots of motion (washing machine). In other words, the counter is not ideal but for your $10 for a few days it'll be fine. The factors of heat and time will work against any bottle at different rates. Hence there is no specific temperature and duration that every bottle is guaranteed to fail (OK a month at 100F and you've likely lost any wine to spoilage!). If you leave it in a car for 3 hours that heats up to 90F you've likely lost that bottle. On the counter at 70F for a few months it might (I stress "might") be ok but I don't recommend. The temperature and the duration are both factors in spoiling any wine so do take them both into consideration when storing and consider how sad you'd be if the wine were to spoil.

  • Refrigerator: Short term storage in your refrigerator is OK but long term storage is not ideal as your regular fridge temps (36F) and moisture levels are calibrated for food preservation and to reduce microbial growth. The moisture in the fridge is so low it will start to dry out your corks from the outside and you risk cork failure. I recommend the fridge for 1) preservation for a few days after opening, and 2) to quickly get wine to service temperature on the same day of serving. Please don't store for months though.

  • Basement: Now we're starting to get someplace. I store my less expensive wines under my house in a crawl space. I have a remote temp sensor that tells me the temperature fluctuates very little and is generally 55F in the winter and 65F in the summer. I think that is just fine for my $40 bottles of wine that I hope to drink within the year. If your basement has the same qualities (generally dark, cool, still) it should be fine. But be careful if you live in an area where winter temps drop below 35F. You don't want your wine freezing.

  • Wine Storage Facility: If you have some wines that you think you'd like to save for a couple years and you would be heartbroken to loose your investment, consider a storage location. I live in the California Bay Area and use a facility that keeps moisture in check and temps at 55F. The cost for my small unit is $18/mo and I can fit up to 10 cases of wine in there. It seems like a decent investment for me as we've got a lot of $100-200 bottles in there.

  • Wine Fridge: Wine fridges are great. For a couple hundred $$ you can plug a small unit into any household outlet and store a few special bottles in there. Many small inexpensive units hold 24-36 bottles depending on shape. Costco is known for having great deals. Wine Enthusiast also has a number of units and offer great service. I don't see the point in a dual-zone wine fridge unless you use it for service... I'll get to service in a moment. For storage one temp zone is great.

Service Temperature: Service temperature for wines is a whole other topic. Everyone has their own personal preferences and every wine style has a slightly nuanced "ideal service temperature". So I'm going to make some gross generalizations here. But the idea is that the temperature should enhance the flavors in the wine and balance is important.

  • Sparkling wines best served at 40-50F

  • Whites in general are best served at 50-55F

  • Reds in general are best served at 60-65F

If you don't have a cellar or wine fridge how do you get your wine to that ideal service temperature? It all sort of depends on the starting temperature! I'm coming from a place of Northern California in the summer so assuming your house is 70F. If you start from 70F:

  • Put sparkling wine in fridge for 2 hours, then serve from an ice bath (ice+water) to keep chilled

  • Put white wine in fridge for 60-90 mins before serving, use an ice bath if you like it chilly thereafter

  • Put red wine in fridge in for 30 mins before serving

If your wine was already in the fridge (most are kept at 36F) chilling:

  • Sparkling wine is lovely right out of the fridge, it will get to 40F in your glass in no time!

  • White wine could come out 30 mins prior to serving, no need to decant or "breath"

  • Red wine could come out 45-60 mins prior to serving. Consider decanting or opening when you take it out to let it "breath" particularly big Cabernet Sauvignons.

NOTE: Don't open a bottle to breath and put it back in the fridge uncorked to stay cool unless you want your wine to taste like onions, milk and cheese.

For tips what to do with your wine after opening, check out this blog post on wine preservation systems.

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