Design around common pitfalls with the expertise of a sommelier and wine educator
Optimally housing and caring for a wine collection requires more than just a pretty room. Whether a household drinks 300 bottles a year or 30, an uninformed design layout can end up having a permanent effect on a home’s overall performance. Often, designers are not aware of the needs of wine collecting, resulting in storage and display that may be aesthetically pleasing, but does not preserve the bottles as they should or address a particular client’s drinking or entertaining style. But while most firms wouldn’t dream of installing a complex AV system on their own, and art consultancy is commonplace, approaching the niche knowledge behind wine collecting without direction often puts designers at a disadvantage.
Especially, says Cameron Mahlstede, lead wine educator and consultant of Mahlstede Wines and former sommelier for Nancy Silverton’s Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles, when there is still a good deal of bravado circulating around the grape-consuming community. He has an important word of advice for designers working with serious oenophiles: Get past the ego. “I don’t walk into my accountant’s office and tell him how to do my taxes,” he says, laughing, “but with people that love and purchase a great deal of wine, they often have a hard time stepping back, especially for established clients proud to be drinking wine longer than I’ve been alive. But that prevents a home from being truly elevated.”
“I can only purchase for someone what they have the space for,” he explains, noting that “it’s much harder for a client to bolster a collection or fortify their long-term goals without the designer/consultant team.” A solid relationship between designer and consultant is an excellent way to finesse the needs of a collector now and into the future. Indeed, after a career working with chefs like Kevin Fink at Michelin-starred and James Beard Award–recognized restaurants, it is that one-on-one conversation that steered Mahlstede to private consultation.
So what, exactly, does that discussion with a designer sound like? “I cede to the designer 100% stylistically, but a consultant will know what makes it functional,” he explains. “I’ve seen absolutely beautiful spaces that don’t line up with the client’s needs, especially those of considerable means that own multiple homes. The designer may have installed them all the same way, but the main house might have different needs than a secondary home.”
Chad McPhail, of Los Angeles–based firm Jamie Bush + Co, consulted Mahlstede on one such house near Lake Tahoe, for a couple who does not consider themselves avid collectors. “It wasn’t that they love wine so much,” McPhail explained. “For them, it was about investment, both in accruing bottles and increasing the resale value of the house. They had no existing collection and we turned the conversation completely over to Cameron.”
In turn, the wine consultant “looked at our rudimentary design for the space and did the math. He advised how many linear feet of shelving and coordinated the cooling system. It came out really slick,” McPhail confirms. “It’s definitely a serious showpiece of the house.” When the same clients began working with McPhail and Jamie Bush for their main residence in the Bay Area, they tapped into Mahlstede’s expertise once again. “I don’t tell a designer, ‘This should be stone or wood or glass,’” Mahlstede says. “My role is to explain what’s best for the wine and the client’s goals and execute that vision together. Spatially, I would advise the craftsperson building it out, ‘I need 1,500 spots for storage and 50 on a showcase.’”
Everything, he explains, comes down to understanding the client’s style. “Say they open four bottles a week for themselves. That’s 200 bottles a year. They throw a dinner party of four to eight people once a month, that’s another 100 bottles. They give wine regularly as gifts—another 50 bottles. That’s 300 to 350 bottles annually, and not at all unusual. But it’s common to have space for less than 1,000 bottles, which makes their ability to turn over very tricky.” This leaves room to buy only mature wines, from auction or consignment, that someone else has collected and cared for. That method is extremely expensive, and leaves no control over how the wine is being treated between different vendors. “You want to be able to buy bottles you plan to drink three to five years from now, or run down to grab something for dinner tonight.”
One of Mahlstede’s calling cards is a proprietary system of managing the space, involving an inventory and a map with coordinates, so a homeowner or their staff never finds themselves searching at a loss, or accidentally opening a bottle they’re intending to save for a few more years. “Of course, it’s also fun to just go rummage around, but it helps to understand what you pull.”
It’s important to understand the process because, as Mahlstede puts it, too small of a space puts a collector into a constant hole where the input can’t match the output, and visually speaking, you want your cellar to look like it’s constantly full of wine. This doesn’t necessarily require more square footage, just planning. “It’s always going to look sad if you pluck a few bottles for dinner and it leaves a gaping hole. But with the proper design, a cellar could be half-empty without looking half-empty.”
For example, if you have a showcase display with all labels in the cellar facing forward, you’d notice every bottle removed. To create the illusion of depth and content, build out those prized spots for viewing, but for bulk storage, focus on horizontal bins with only the capsules (top view of the foil-covered head) showing. You could remove 20 bottles from those bottom bins without showing much. “There’s less space on the eye as you displace bottles.”
Storage requirements for clients can vary greatly. Mahlstede points out, “A client concerned with long-term investment could say, ‘I want to drink this Barolo or Bordeaux when my toddler finishes college.’ They have the time and patience to display the wooden box for 20 years without ever opening it, to save [it] for graduation. You could end up with a $5,000 bottle without having to pay for it.”
As for the showcase spots, even if the turnover is quicker, it’s important to think about aging. As Mahlstede points out, “I’ve never said to a designer, ‘Put that there.’ But I will advise, ‘These are at a 70-degree angle and need to be at 45 degrees to prevent the corks drying out.’ Or, if there’s space, I’ll make suggestions on features for a better drinking experience, such as a tasting counter and glassware, or space for spirits or a sink.”
Glassware, he says, is a key point. “I would rather drink out of a cheap glass that’s the right shape than something luxurious but wrong for the wine. It’s about the exposure of surface area to the air. But it’s easy to get it right.” When it comes down to stocking a client’s cabinet, he breaks down three basic shapes. Big glass bowls are for pinot noir, burgundy, or chardonnay. The elongated, taller red wine glass is for Bordeaux, and for most white wines, rosé, spritzes, and most sparklings. “I love this all-purpose white from Made In,” Mahlstede emphasizes. “They’ve been making cookware for a while and just got into glassware.” And a fancy champagne, he clarifies, should be out of a glass, not a flute.
Finally, climate control is a must, but not complicated. “It’s a quick conversation with the contractor,” Mahlstede says. “Rigid rules turn people off,” he says, “but there’s a comfortable range of guidelines. Humidity somewhere between 50 to 70%, temperature should be 55 to 65 degrees.” (Direct sunlight, as expected, is bad.)
The real pitfall for designers, he shares, is to not ask for expert help. “There’s so much designers can’t even know they don’t know. Avoid the risk of the wrong permanent space and don’t go it alone.”
Source: How to Design a Wine Cellar
Not every Cabernet is meant for the cellar, but experts weigh in on how to tell if you should wait to open a bottle.
One of the coolest—and most confounding—things about wine is that it’s alive. It was captured at a moment in time when it went into the bottle, but it continues to change. It might evolve into something a few years down the road that offers beautiful aromas of fruit compote and a bouquet of dried flowers, complex and intriguing layers of flavor and smooth, integrated tannins that say more about the vineyard and vintage than obvious flavor descriptors. Or it might have gone belly-up and just be limp and tired, with little left to say at all.
That’s true even for Cabernet Sauvignon, generally known for its longevity. We asked a couple of winemakers whose bottles famously blossom over time what they’re stuffed with in the first place, how they set up a wine to age and what makes a bottle of Cab at its peak a wonderful thing.
Just because you can age a wine, should you?
It’s a running joke that the average bottle of wine is aged just as long as it takes to get it home from the supermarket. Every good joke contains a kernel of truth. The average consumer is broadly familiar with lively fresh fruit flavors in young reds, but not so much with the dried fruit and earthier notes of slate, loam and tobacco that tend to emerge over time. The short of it is, many wine drinkers just like young wine better.
Matt Crafton, winemaker at Chateau Montelena, whose reds famously unwind and evolve in beautiful ways, makes a good case for changing that: “It’s sort of like the first time I tasted fresh, homemade mozzarella,” he says. “I had no idea such a simple cheese could be so good. After that, the grocery store string cheese didn’t quite work.” Crafton admits he’s a little biased about Montelena’s older bottles, but his description is compelling. “There’s a period,” he says, “when the character of the vineyard, the vintage and the winemaking harmoniously meld. And it’s unique to that specific wine and, in some cases, that bottle. And in some wines, it’s a single spot.” Clearly, collectors see that spot as worth pursuing; Chateau Montelena’s older vintages have many fans. And the winery now gives all consumers the chance to taste the moments of earlier years captured in the bottle: With every new release, they re-release a vintage from 10 years prior and library tastings are part of a new program onsite.
Maya Dalla Valle, winemaker now for the namesake Napa Valley winery her mother, Naoko Dalla Valle, shepherded so well for so long, won’t say that a 20-year-old wine is inherently better than a two-year old one, but she champions the journey. “Some of the best things in life come with patience,” she says. “To me, aging beautifully is about achieving an elegance and alignment within the wine, where all the elements harmonize in the glass and create an experience that is transportive. I love the ethereal, fleeting nature of wines that are perfectly matured. Enjoying a perfectly aged bottle really makes you slow down and appreciate each nuance of flavor and texture, as well as the level of work and care that went into making it.”
How do you know if a specific wine is ageworthy?
The old saying “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” might have been coined with wine in mind. You can’t expect a wine to have more to say over time unless it came from a good place, a vineyard with a track record for long-lived wines (and, it should be added, a life well-lived; as Crafton says, “The goal isn’t just for the wine to endure, it actually needs to get better.”). The next layer of markers involves a sensory trial—you do have to taste the wine! The traits generally considered the tripod of longevity are complex flavors, a firm tannin structure and lively acidity. Dalla Valle describes it this way: “When evaluating whether a wine will age well, I consider the structure of the wine as well as the depth, complexity and concentration of flavors and overall liveliness. A good hallmark of an age-worthy wine is being able to open a bottle and drink it with family and friends over an evening, and discovering something new with each smell or taste.”
Do cooler vintages produce wines that will age better?
The “lively” part of the aging equation suggests wines from cooler years that allowed the fruit to retain good levels of acidity will fare better over time. But that, argues Crafton, is too simple. “I’ve tasted plenty of cool-vintage, under-ripe wines with terrific aging potential that I’ve had absolutely no interest in saving.” While the two main drivers of ageability in his book are site and vintage, he cites the need, after that, for a winemaking team to harness that potential in some methodical ways—and some not so methodical. “It’s easy,” he says to descend down the rabbit hole of wine pH, potential alcohol, titratable acidity and tannin. But there is definitely a little magic (maybe randomness) that we can’t quantify or define.” Sound like a crap shoot? Not with established winemakers that have a history of producing wines that age well.
Can winemakers make Cabernets that are great young and after cellaring?
Old-school wisdom had it that serious reds started out life with dominating, angular tannins, a tightly closed nose and general rambunctiousness that needed time in the bottle to smooth into civility. Talk to any maker of top-notch Bordeaux-style wines today and they’ll tell you that every vintage they produce is perfectly ready to enjoy on release. They have to say that (all those bottles aging in the back seat of the car on the way home from the grocery store). Yet they promise rich rewards for collectors too, willing to forget the wine in their cellars for a few years.
The truth is, no amount of time will fix an awkward wine. And vineyard and cellar techniques have advanced to such a degree that winemakers can come very close to delivering on the promise of deliciousness now, as well as down the road. Dalla Valle puts it this way: “I believe that a wine cannot improve without first having structure, vibrancy, balance and an innate elegance that makes itself known through time.” The 2011 Dalla Valle Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley (amazingly, still available; $180), from a very cool year, carries that innate elegance 10 years on. Its gravelly character and supple tannins persist, still fresh and vibrant. High-toned aromas from a hefty splash of Cabernet Franc still share space with briny minerality. Dense, dark fruit is born of the earth. Balanced then, balanced now.
Crafton defends anyone’s right to consume a good bottle of wine as soon as they like. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to just pull the cork and enjoy in this ‘just in time’ world,” he says. His goal is to make both that—and evolution in the bottle—possible. “We operate with much more precision in both the vineyard and the cellar than we used to.” That’s thanks in no small part to technology—the ability, for instance, to remove all the stems from the fruit during processing, something that wasn’t possible 20 or 30 years ago and led to early astringency.
(No wonder people put those bottles aside for a while.) Likewise, he says, there’s a better understanding of ripeness today, from a holistic perspective, past sugar levels to flavor and mouth-feel, among other things. Real ageability, though, is a steeper hill to climb. “Wines destined for longevity race on a different track.”
What’s an example of a wine that has aged well?
The Chateau Montelena 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon (Calistoga), which will be re-released this summer ($225), has mastered that longevity track. While the original notes from the winemaker (Cameron Parry at the time) run along the lines of “Huge, powerful; ripe black cherry; rich, round and juicy; classic structure of fine-grained tannin and firm acidity,” the wine is in a moment of beautiful integration of all of that today. The black cherry has mellowed to a lovely compote and is joined by layers of earth, slate, dried tobacco and a sachet of dried florals. The early lively spice seems more like a dusting on toasted nuts now. And the formerly firm structure of tannin and acidity—holding the wine together still—is a backdrop for the unfolding flavors of a very good year from some very good land. A compelling argument that it’s far more than a break-even proposition to lay down a promising bottle of wine from a trusted producer and a great vineyard.
An Argentinian winery compared bottles of the same wine aged under the sea versus in the cellar head-to-head.
Once seen as a winemaking novelty—or something that happens because your ship sank and you didn’t have any other choice—aging wine underwater may be heading towards the mainstream. A winery in Argentina has announced the results of their oceanic aging experiment, and the difference between the sea wine and the control bottles has been billed as “stunning.”
The Rio Negro-based winery Wapisa—part of Bodega Tapiz—initially announced its “coastal terroir” initiative this time last year, according to Decanter, submerging 1,500 magnums of their 2017 Malbec-blend at a mix of depths between about 20 feet and 50 feet underwater in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Las Grutas. After nine months of lounging about at sea, these bottles were then brought ashore and taste-tested alongside identical bottles that had been forced to vacation in a boring old cellar.
“We were curious to explore if underwater ageing could actually allow us to have young wines with the benefit of maturity,” winery founder Patricia Ortiz was quoted as saying. “We tasted the underwater-aged wine and the cellar-aged counterparts blind, the difference was stunning: the former was rounder, more elegant and with fresher fruit.”
In theory, underwater ocean aging offers a consistent low temperature and additional pressure to create a different aging experience with Wapisa’s website suggesting, “Popular science states that three years of aging in a cellar are equivalent to one year underwater.” But regardless of the science, this technique offers a marketing opportunity as well: Ortiz said the winery’s next move is to age another group of bottles in new-and-improved underwater cages, and then they will reportedly sell these bottles alongside others, encouraging consumers to taste the difference.
Meanwhile, perhaps proving that underwater aging is a growing trend, Decanter points out that the first Underwater Wine Congress was held in 2019. It must have been popular enough to warrant a second one: The event’s website states that will be held in Spain this year.
This weekend is a bit special as it marks our first weekend back from #dryjanuary. Here at Beverly Hills Wine Club we have taken part in this trendy tradition for several years now. Yes, we know, no wine during a pandemic? Are we crazy?? Well, let’s just say…it wasn’t easy.
Back on point, this weekend we dive into Mount Peak Winery’s Rattle Snake Zinfindel 2015. Check it out here at Vivino and use our Coupon Code: 2021NEW10
(10% off on all orders for First Time Buyer is on till 03/01/2021; valid worldwide excluding Sweden, Ireland, Macao and Monaco.)
This inky purple wine is bursting with ripe dark fruits (especially black cherry) on the nose and palette, spice box thru the mid palette with a warming sensation toward the end reminding us of its hefty 15.5% alcohol. This wine has moderate acid and tannin and is very approachable at this time or with a little more time in the cellar. We paired it with a delicious meat filled pizza…A gorgeous medium body wine from Sonoma California!
What the critics say…
91 points 2015 Rattlesnake Zinfandel –The Wine Advocate
The 2015 Zinfandel Rattlesnake is medium to deep garnet-purple colored with a nose of raspberry preserves, fruitcake and blackberry pie with hints of Indian spices and tilled soil plus a waft of tree bark. Full, rich and balsamic in the mouth with firm, chewy tannins and a lively acid line, it finishes long and spicy. 5,100 cases produced.– March 2018
About the winery…
Built in 1886, Mount Peak was a marvel of innovation. The three-story, gravity-flow winery was built from the rocks pulled from the dry-farmed Monte Rosso Vineyard. Though it quickly emerged as one of California’s top ten producers, the start of Prohibition in 1920 forced the winery to shutter its doors. Like many of California’s pioneering wineries, Mount Peak was abandoned to the elements, a true ghost winery to never reopen. For decades the winery lay silent, as wild vines and towering fig trees sought to reclaim it stone by stone.
More than 130 years later, only the ruins of the winery remain, yet the vineyard’s still-thriving vines have persisted – standing above the fog line. The ghost winery and world-class Monte Rosso Vineyard are perched at nearly 1,300 feet along the spine of the Mayacamas Mountains, straddling Napa and Sonoma valleys. Monte Rosso’s steep hillsides, robed in bright red, iron-rich soils, are set against a dramatic backdrop of manzanita and madrone trees under the expanse of a piercing blue sky.
From the winemaker…
I love music. It’s constantly playing wherever I am, no matter what time it is. I believe life would be boring without music. I listen to all genres from reggae to classic rock, old school rap to heavy metal. But what I love most is Indie music produced by less famous, less supported artists. (I’m not sure my wife shares my passion.)
I’ve always felt there’s a strong bond between music and wine – they’re both crafted by passionate people and they both create a resonating sense of place. Just like it’s always exciting to find new wines, I constantly look for new music. I love the discovery of finding artists under the radar before they get famous. These first releases by emerging artists are often raw, edgy and have a sense of uniqueness because there’s nothing to compare them to or judge them against, and because they seem completely original.
I feel the same way about the 2014 wines from Mount Peak Winery – Mount Peak’s first vintage and, of course, my first wines for the winery. As we release our sophomore vintage, I wait with bated breath that you find them even better, more intensely flavored and more complete than the previous vintage. The 2015 season gave us concentrated wines with depth and length, and I hope you find that my second Mount Peak release is a natural progression from my first. I also hope you know how passionate I am about bringing them from our cellar to you to be enjoyed.
On a recent tasting trip to Napa Valley California, amid wild-fire evacuations and Covid 19 restrictions, Beverly Hills Wine Club Executive Director Jason Pate explored some of Napa’s cult favorite winemakers and wineries including Blankiet Estate in Yountville.
In early 2019 I visited with our friends at Beverly Hills Wine Merchant @winemerchantbh and was given a recommendation to try the 2014 Prince of Hearts from Blankiet Estate of Napa. At the time I hadn’t heard of @blankietestate and I put the bottle in the cellar until later that year. After finally tasting the red blend wine I instantly became a fan and placed the winery on my list of cellar-worthy must haves.
Flash forward to a pandemic outdoor tasting this September 2020, complete with a wild-fire smoke layered sky above us, I sat and tasted thru the current offering of estate wines and wow how gorgeous these wines were to taste! For an hour of time I forgot about Covid. I forgot about the smoky sky above. From there I was treated to a detailed tour of the winery and exclusive peek of the new Blankiet Port being hand-detailed for packaging. The inaugural release is limited to 500 wooden boxes each containing one 500ml bottle of each Port. Yes, two Port styles!
As the Blankiet member page describes, “The first one, named Prince of Hearts number 5, is our California expression of the fruitiness and complexity of a great vintage of Dow. It exhibits blueberries, blackberries, dark cherries, and oriental spices. The second blend, named Prince of Hearts number 7, is an homage to the Quinta Do Noval National, exhibiting uncanny caramelized notes of pineapple flambé, fig jam and hoisin sauce.”
If you’re a Port lover like me I highly suggest calling the winery direct for availability.