Thursday Rant–55 Degrees

The other day, one of my vinophiles was asking me about her wine storage. She was worried that she would not be able to keep a wine for more than a day or two. After a few questions, I learned that the basis of her concern was the fact that she did not have a “real” wine refrigerator. As a result, she “only” could keep her wine in the basement, under the stairs. This was the reason that she was not able to keep any wine in the house—she would drink it as soon as she got it for fear that it would go bad without proper storage.

At that point, right then and there, I decided to go on a little “mini-rant”. Throughout my decade or more of serious (my wife says obsessive) wine buying, I read and hear often that wine needs to be stored on its side, free from light and vibration and at a constant 55-59 degrees. I can certainly agree with the bulk of that statement. If you are going to keep your wine for more than a few months, keeping the wine on its side will keep the cork moist and therefore retain the seal, keeping air out of the wine. Air is generally good when drinking wine, not good when storing wine.

Extended exposure to light is also not a particularly good thing when you are trying to keep the bottle around for more than the average amount of time a bottle is aged in this country (that would be roughly three hours for those of you wondering–the vast majority of wine is purchased for immediate consumption). This does not mean that if the bottle is purchased during daylight hours that you have to stuff it under your shirt to get it from the car to the house. It does mean, however, that you should likely avoid wine shops that like to display bottles in their store front window despite the six hours of afternoon sun (yet another reason you should not buy wine from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board–the state owned wine monopoly).

In most contexts in life, extended vibration is not a good thing either. This means that the ever so popular storage space of right on top of the refrigerator is not such a great idea. Those energy sucking behemoths vibrate constantly (and generate quite a bit of heat while trying to keep your veggies cold) which unsettles the wine, placing it in a permanent state of bottle shock.

It is the last part of that directive (at a constant 55-59 degrees) with which I take umbrage. Certainly, given the choice of storing wine at a constant 55 degrees or not, all other things being equal, I would store the wine at the constant temperature. The key here is not “55 degrees” but rather “constant”. The real enemy of wine storage is rapid fluctuations in temperature, not any cellar that happens to creep up over 60. I am not suggesting that wine can be stored at high temps as long as they remain constant–but as long as the temperature is kept around 70ish, there really is very little to worry about here.

I have what is known as a “passive” cellar. I tell people that and it sounds rather impressive and well thought out. All it means is that I do not have the wine in a temperature and humidity controlled environment. Basically, it means I am a cheap bastard. For a while I thought about building a legitimate cellar in my basement, but it was going to set me back several thousand bucks, which could (and did) buy a lot of wine instead.

So I read a bunch and talked to a few people that I respect and the there was a rather strong consensus that a passive cellar that avoids dramatic heats spikes is more than sufficient. Then why all of this insistence on 55 degrees?

Good question.

The cynic in me is convinced that it is yet another money grab–there is a rather huge industry in wine storage and they all want you to think that keeping the wine at 55 degrees is the single most important factor after you purchase a bottle.

This is not my cellar. (From Wine Enthusiast)

This is not my cellar. (From Wine Enthusiast)

Of course they want you to believe that–it will make you run out and buy a wine fridge or build a controlled cellar. That means money for them.

Nothing says "waste" like a wine fridge for eight bottles.

Nothing says “waste” like a wine fridge for eight bottles.

Certainly, if you are buying wine as an investment (which is not really a good idea, but hey, it’s your cash), you will need to keep it in a controlled environment since the stooge that eventually buys it (hopefully) from you will want to know about the storage conditions. Also, if you are planning to store the wine for a couple of decades, it probably is a good idea to get some sort of “legitimate” cellar. But really, I am just hedging my bets on that last statement since I don’t necessarily believe it. Winos in Europe laugh at all the money we Americans spend on keeping wine at 55 degrees. They have been storing wine in their cellars for centuries without any fancy refrigeration and those wines continue to hold up very well in passive cellars.

There are no doubt many out there that will think what I am saying is blasphemous or downright moronic. That I am somehow going against the predominant paradigm.

That’s OK, I can handle the heat.

(Yes, that was a bad pun.)

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About the drunken cyclist

I have been an occasional cycling tour guide in Europe for the past 20 years, visiting most of the wine regions of France. Through this "job" I developed a love for wine and the stories that often accompany the pulling of a cork. I live in Houston with my lovely wife and two wonderful sons.
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24 Responses to Thursday Rant–55 Degrees

  1. AWESOME rant. I totally agree with you, and the cynic in me sees this obsession with temperatures as yet again a sign of an industry trying to rip off people where they can by selling them cellars or wine coolers. I’m 100% with you on the passive cellaring and how Europeans have done that for centuries…

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  2. lolabees says:

    I always think that not only the cost of the wine fridge itself is a waste, but how much electricity is wasted running a second fridge 24/7.

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  3. Great rant. I learned a lot.

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  4. Heidi Siegel says:

    funny that my European is the one more concerned with wine temp than me; oh well.

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  5. Stefano says:

    Amen. I do the same as you, Jeff.
    I think you should not be surprised by all the 55 degree hype, on the other hand: we live in a society where smart people make a product and then make us believe that we cannot possibly live any longer if we do not buy it. And then, once you do, you are in for upgrades, servicing, replacements, and on and on… It’s trade on steroids. 😉

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  6. talkavino says:

    I would actually wonder in your reference to Europeans, are they laughing at us because they are simply not storing wines all so much, as the wines they want to drink are readily available everywhere? Do you actually have the numbers which show that wine cellars are not popular in Europe, both custom built and wine fridges?

    You are absolutely correct that constant temperature is the key. But it is also good to have that constant temperature as low as you can reasonably get it – so your basement is most likely perfectly okay, and someone’s small kitchen in the apartment, with the temperatures fluctuating from 65 to 85, is probably not so much okay for any wine which should be stored for any extended duration of time. If you got couple of prized bottles, which you want to drink in 5 years, and you don’t have any good place for it in the apartment, then even a small wine fridge can make sense.

    I didn’t see that wine storage in any shape and form is actively pushed here – at least none of the wine stores I visited would push it to anyone, so I think that you need to consider that wine is a pretty new culture in US, and as such, it comes with all the twists, belts and whistles the new culture customary brings in…

    Last note – I believe 55 is historically being established as the temperature for *optimal wine aging* – may be 65 is equally fine for it, but then you need to setup a controlled environment to prove it…

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    • While I do not disagree with anything you said, Anatoli, I think we may be talking about two different consumers here. The serious wine collector should consider storage for anything that he/she wants to hold onto for about ten years. For some reason, however, the more casual drinker also has it in his/her head that they should worry about the case or two that they have in the closet in their apartment. This is where I disagree. As long as the apartment is kept comfortable for human occupation, it should be fine for wine storage. Sure, you want to avoid 85 degree temps, but these days many people do. It would also take a while of ambient air temperature of 85 to raise the wine to that level. I just think that some people are turned off of wine because they are worried that special storage is required. For the vast majority of drinkers, this is simply not true.

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      • talkavino says:

        Jeff, it is okay to disagree, It is hard for me to imagine that people decide not to drink wine only because they are worrying about storing it properly. Besides, while that 6 bottle wine fridge makes limited sense for a serious wine drinker, at the cost of about $150 (one time), I don’t see it as a huge investment – and you can use it to keep your whites always ready to drink, and may be store reds elsewhere…

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  7. Great article/rant, Jeff. I have to say, I agree with your statements as a whole – particularly, that the most important part of the wine storage equation is a constant temperature. The less fluctuation, the better; or, if there is fluctuation, it’s critical that those changes be gradual (e.g., the seasonal warming of the soil around your basement walls that brings the ambient temperature from 55 to 65, say).

    As you pointed out, the whole “55 degree” phenomenon is, in my opinion, a inept interpretation of the way wine has been stored for centuries in Europe – in underground caves. Regardless of exact temperature, the ideal wine storage situation will mimic these subterranean storage conditions.

    One last thing – I have read (and do believe) that storing wine at a constant temperature above 70 degrees Fahrenheit (or so) will cause it to age quicker, just as storing wine below 50 degrees Fahrenheit will tend to arrest the aging process. Warmer conditions can also invite any remaining yeast in the bottle start a second fermentation process that will result in “cooked” wine.

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    • Thanks so much for the comment! I, too, agree with all you said. I guess the problem that I have is that even neophyte wine drinkers–let’s say those with less than a couple of cases in the house–have it in their head that wine needs to be “stored properly”. The woman I referenced in my post was really concerned about it, yet she said in the same sentence that she rarely holds on to wine for more than a month! Even if she kept her wine in terrible conditions I doubt she would see much impact on the wine in that short of a time. She got it in her head somewhere that she needed to worry about 55 degrees and this has actually hindered her wine purchasing, which would seem to be counter-productive to the wine industry as a whole….

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      • I often need to be reminded that “aging” a wine can mean different things to different folks. It would, indeed, be tragic if someone were to forgo a wine purchase simply because they were concerned about improper storage. ‘Tis better to have the opportunity to drink a wine than to never have purchased it at all!

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  8. Thanks for offering your view that a relatively cool, dark, quiet area of the basement is just fine for wine storage. I’m certainly acquiring bottles faster than we’re drinking them, intentionally. I’d love to see a photo of your cellar! Cardboard boxes? Shelves? Racking? Inquiring minds want to know.

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  9. asueba says:

    Let me share with you about storage from where I live. I live in Singapore, which is just not too far North from the Equator. Good temp wine storage is absolutely important here. In fact, I will sometime chill my reds (not just Pinot Noir/Burgundy) before I open the bottle and let it slowly warm up in the glass. I have 2 wine lockers (each will hold 20 cases and above), 2 wine fridges (one in office and one at home), and uses temperature-controlled warehouses storage for the wine business. My delivery van has air-conditioning not just for passenger and driver, but it has been specially retrofit to have air-condition in the back of the van. Most collectors I know who have extensive collection of wine will either build a walk-in storage (cost depends on size), rent wine lockers (avg USD90 to USD120 per month) with 24 hours access or utilize temperature-controlled warehouses (avg USD5/ctn/month)for long term storage.
    Just a little insight in collecting and drinking wines in Singapore. *v*

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  10. Pingback: Sunday Read: Thursday Rant – 55 degrees | the winegetter

  11. I didn’t know it had a specific name, but I guess I have a passive cellar as well. I use the closet in the spare bedroom. It is always dark unless I am digging for a bottle of wine. The temperature is fairly constant, obviously cooler in the winter and warmer in the summer, but still regulated and always in the 60’s. Once we get moved to SC, I guess I will have to store the wine in the wine bar we are opening and clearly mark it as “Not for Sale,” I think there are laws that would prevent me from selling my personal wines.

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