Saving Grapes: creating the Montana wine cellar

Montana wine lovers have many options for pursuing the grape
By Adrienne Newlon

    Julia Child once said, "Wine is a living liquid containing no preservatives. Its life cycle comprises youth, maturity, old age, and death. When not treated with reasonable respect it will sicken and die."
    The world's oldest bottle of wine dates back to approximately 325 BC.  The Romans used to float oil on top of wine to keep it from oxidizing.  Later on, wine was fortified with spirits so it would hold up over time.  In 1797, Chateau LaFite discovered the benefits of aging wine in cellars.  Here, in modern society  (and that would include Montana) "cellaring" or "laying down" wine for long-term storage isn't just for the aristocracy anymore.
    Today, wine lovers cellar wines for many reasons - to store their favorite wines in optimal conditions to keep them drinkable, to age premium wines over a number of years to improve them, or to invest in rare wines. Home cellars also have the same attraction as the home theater or professional-style kitchen.  "They're an accoutrement...a nice hobby, not just for the rich and famous,"  says Renee Nadon, wine consultant from Rocky Mountain Distributors in Kalispell.  Nadon not only assists restaurants and wine shops in assembling wine collections, she also provides private consultation to Montana homeowners who need advice on strategies for their private wine collections.
    "Whether you have a $500 cellar or a $50,000 cellar, buying strategy is important," says Nadon.  Optimal combinations for cellaring include short-term wines (those that age from two to four years), long-term wines (aging five to 10 or more years), and a combination of whites, reds, and even champagnes.  "Aging captures the purity of the fruit," Nadon says.  "If you drink a young Merlot, the tannins from the skins of the grapes and the oak in the barrels will stand out.  They are the backbone of the wine...later, [after aging], tannins become more integrated, or dormant, and the fruit is in the forefront - it's a more balanced, mellow interpretation."  Bouquet and color also change over time in the cellar.  Wine will have an earthier nose, and become paler to the eye.
For your wine cellar, Nadon lists California, France, Italy and Spain as among the best producers of wine to age.  Although red wines better lend themselves to cellaring, better Chardonnays and dessert wines are also favorable for white wines to lay down. You can even age champagne,  something that is catching on. "It's very big in Great Britain right now," Nadon says. Aging brings out more nutty, butterscotch notes in higher-end champagnes such as Bollinger or Krug. It's a trickier aging process, because champagne goes through two fermentations.
Finding just the right age for a bottle of wine is trial and error.  Nadon recommends buying at least four bottles, but preferably full cases whenever budget allows. When getting one's feet wet cellaring wine, it's helpful to test different bottles of the same wine at two years, four years, and so on, to find out when the best time to drink them.  
    In addition to improving a wine's character, another advantage to cellaring wine is the investment possibility. Certain vintages become rare and more sought after over time, and sell for many times their value later on. When you see expensive wines at a wine shop, what you're often paying for is the fact that they are less numerous and that they have been aged for you and have reached their peak of drinkability.
Once you've learned about what wines to store, what do you do with them to keep them from turning to vinegar?  The two main concerns are temperature (between 52 and 53 degrees Fahrenheit) and humidity (between 70 and 75 percent).  In addition, vibration and light must be minimal.  There are many ways to achieve the proper setting.  In some households, "passive" cellars exist, where the right conditions are already present.  Here in Montana, temperature and humidity need to be actively controlled to eliminate detrimental fluctuations in temperature and humidity.
    According to Duke Mahl of Vintage Solutions in Spokane, there are many options. They range from household, to professional quality cooling and humidifying systems.  Some are all-in-one, cooling, humidifying, and monitoring units.  Some are incorporated into duct systems in the house. One particular unit available through Mahl is the waterfall system, which has a hidden cooling unit, built into a wall or cabinetry, and a decorative stone fountain that gets displayed, but is responsible for creating optimal humidity.  Mahl supplies whole cellar packages, from a choice of hardwood modular racks, to climate control, to art and finish work.  He specializes in custom home cellars in Washington, Idaho, and Montana but occasionally gets to branch out and get really creative, as he did in helping design and construct the global wine structure at the new Liquid Planet in Missoula.  The spherical wine storage resembles the world, complete with polar caps.
    Mahl can install a cellar in an already existing room, but says getting in at the construction level is great because you can plan ahead.  However, if you live in smaller home, or apartment, "portable caves can be a great way to go." 
Caves can be free-standing or installed under kitchen counters. Mahl says an effective combination is to have a larger cellar in the lower part of a home and use the portable cave to store the wines you use most frequently."

IF OLD-WORLD workmanship is your wish, master woodworker, Jeff Gilman, is someone who can either build and finish a cellar, or add superbly hand-crafted doors, cabinets, or racks to an established cellar.  Gilman is well-known in Montana for creating magnificent kitchens.  He has also been hosting cooking classes and wine tastings for the last two years, which have been a hit with locals.
    His enjoyment of wine and cuisine and his desire to give better options to clients have prompted his expansion to cellars. "Wine cellars are like an extension of the kind of kitchens I already provide," he says.
Gilman's most unique wine cellar project to date is one that is set apart from the main house.  It's a greenhouse above, and wine cellar below and overlooks a lake. With this kind of imagination and Montana's natural graces, there's no end to the ideas that can go into keeping wine in the proper state of grace.
Want to learn more about wine but were afraid to ask?
Karen McNeil's "Wine Bible" is a valuable title to have on hand.  McNeil is the director of the Culinary Institute of America's wine program and has produced a thick, well-endowed volume that's divided by country, recognizing both major and minor producers of each region.  McNeil expertly offers food-pairing examples, and examines each region's personality along with its wine-producing capabilities.  
    There are photographs, historical contributions, and unabashed adoration for all things connected with the nectar of the grape.
A third choice for wine references is "Wine for Dummies," by wine master Mary Ewing-Mulligan and her husband  Ed McCarthy. "Wine for Dummies" is solid and unpretentious.  Among many topics, it covers growing, tasting, pairing, cellaring, and investing. What this book lacks in romance it more than makes up for in an abundance of solid information.
Wine collecting is as complex as what you find in the glass. You can enjoy the bouquet, and the way it tastes in your mouth, but those are just the top notes.  Wine is rich with characteristics of history, science, art, geography, and nature.  

Renee Nadon, Rocky Mountain Wine Distributors  406-261- 5973
Duke Mahl  -
Scott Billadeau, Liquid Planet -
Jeff Gilman  -
Vintage Sellers -

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