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How to Stock Your Wine Fridge

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

If your wine fridge is full of possibility (but no actual bottles), you've come to the right place. How should you go about stocking up? What questions should you ask yourself before you start? What wines are handy to have and what wines are good for saving long term? We'll address it all in this guide.

Wine Storage Primer

Why do you need a wine cooler? Because you want your wine to taste good. Warm temperatures (even those just over 75 degrees Farenheit) tend to flatten a wine's flavor and scent; in extreme situations the wine becomes stewed and raisin-y tasting. If you notice a cork protruding from the top lip of the bottle or wine seeping around the cork, that's a bad sign: your wine has cooked. This is why you shouldn't keep your wine in the trunk of your car (even for a quick errand!) and also why you shouldn't keep your wine in a pretty rack next to your stove.

Even if your wine doesn't get cooked, higher temperatures can unevenly speed the aging of a wine. As enology professor Christian Butzke notes:

"Aging reactions in wine have substantially different rates, which explains why "speed-aging" just by elevated temperature alone will not yield a wine comparable to one that was aged at a traditional cellar temperature of around 13°C (55°F). Some examples of temperature increases that would double the aging reaction rate are 3.8°C for oxygen uptake, 7.8°C for browning, 16°C for ethyl carbamate formation, and 30°C for sulfur dioxide decline in white wines."

So your wine shouldn't be too hot. But it shouldn't be too cold, either, or it won't develop in a more complex flavor and aroma with age. Wine will last in your kitchen fridge, but it won't get better.

Not too cold, not too hot. Got it? Most sources recommend a temperature around 55 degrees.

And a few more things: it's best if the temperature fluctuations aren't extreme. Temperature changes can lead to expansion and contraction of the bottle's cork, which can lead to oxygen getting in the bottle. Moderate humidity is also recommended: a dried-out cork can let oxygen in. Over the long term, vibration can also be detrimental to the wine. Some wine coolers aim to prevent this through careful positioning of the compressor or special racks, but it's one reason why many folks aiming to age wines long term prefer a cool basement or offsite storage locker. (I also have a friend here in mild San Francisco who uses a well insulated antique fridge, unplugged, to store his wine. Ice packs can be added in extreme heat, but otherwise that old fridge keeps a pretty steady cool temperature without any energy use at all.)

How Much Storage Do You Need?

Probably more than you think. Like many hobbies, drinking and collecting wine tends to grow into an obsession, and many folks who buy a 20-bottle fridge find themselves needing a 40-bottle one, and those who start with a 100-bottle cabinet often realize they need to rent a storage locker somewhere offsite. I like to have both: a small fridge for what I'm going to drink within the next month or so, and an offsite temperature-controlled locker where I can keep things safely long term, and visit once a month or so for restocking the home fridge.

Your storage needs, of course, depend on how much you drink. Do you have wine on weeknights? Do you serve wine at dinner parties? Do you open bottles for special occasions? I think it's handy to have a month's supply of wine on hand without having to go to the store, but if you're hoping to keep bottles for years to let them develop, that space is extra, at least before you get a queue of aged wines ready to drink.

The right size fridge for you also depends on the size of your home and the room where you're putting the fridge, the cost of electricity to run the unit, and what you aim to do with the storage. Even 'silent' units often make a little bit of noise, so you might want to think twice before planning to put your wine fridge next to your bed.

So You Got a Wine Fridge...

Maybe you already have a wine cooler (thanks, wedding guests!) or you're planning to get one soon. Before you go on a mad supermarket sweep filling it up, it's time to think a bit about your wine-drinking habits.

Your wine fridge should hold the wine YOU want to drink. Don't go out and buy a bunch of things because some magazine or the points on some shelf-talker told you to: taste as much as you can and buy the wine you like. Otherwise, you're risking your hard-earned money on something that might disappoint you.

The wine you buy will fit into a few different categories:

It's time to think about each of these categories and what might fulfill your personal needs in each area.

Weeknight Wine:

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[Photo: Robyn Lee]

Opening a bottle of wine is an occasion in itself, but most people wouldn't choose to spend the big bucks on a wine they're drinking on a tired Tuesday. Still, if some amount of wine fits into your weeknight budget, it's good to plan ahead so you'll have something tasty on hand when the craving strikes.

You might want to set a price limit for these bottles and then go to tastings at your local shop to pick wines that fill the bill. Or throw a party and ask everyone to bring a bottle in your price limit purchased from a local shop. Then you'll get to try a whole range without laying out the cash for every bottle. Keep track of what you like in a notebook or by using an app like Delectable, which allows you to skip the 'writing down the name' part when you snap a picture of the bottle with your phone.

Questions to ask yourself: How often do you open a bottle of wine on a weeknight? Do you usually crave white wine, red, or rosé? What types of meals to you frequently eat on a weeknight? What types of wines do you like with those meals?

If you have, say, a favorite Chinese place, and you like to drink wine with your moo shu pork or ma po tofu, consider inviting a few friends over for an evening of takeout and wine exploration. Try the dishes you order with some German Riesling, some Prosecco, a bottle of Chenin Blanc, and maybe some Beaujolais. Keep track of what you like best, and be sure to include a couple of those wines when you buy your next mixed case.

Do you make roast chicken pretty often? Try it with Chadonnay and Chenin Blanc, Syrah, Gamay, and Nebbiolo. Do you order pizza on Fridays? Taste it with both reds and whites (and pinks!): Chianti and Barbera, Zinfandel, bubbly Prosecco and cremant, good rosé and even Muscadet. Your favorites can be good starting points for further exploration.

Are there foods you just don't cook at home? Consider those before you stock up on wine. If you don't eat red meat, you might want to skew your purchases away from big, tannic wines that really are best with, say, lamb chops. (Veggie-lovers, don't worry: if you love big reds, there are vegetarian dishes you can pair with them, but it just might not make sense to only buy Cabernet if you mostly eat fish.)

If you like wine on a weeknight but tend not to be able to finish a bottle, it might make sense to try some boxed wines for this category. These wines (we're talking about the boxes with plastic bags inside, not Tetra-paks) will keep for weeks as you pour them out one glass a time. Not all boxed wines are good, but there are some delicious options available. We often recommend the wines from Wineberry and From the Tank. You should keep these boxes in the fridge, not on the counter near your oven.

If you have room in your regular food refrigerator, you may not need to allocate wine-fridge space for weeknight bottles. Though we don't recommend aging wine for years in a cold, vibrating refrigerator, keeping some bottles in there for drinking in the short term is totally fine—and definitely better than putting them on a rack on top of the fridge.

Dinner Party Wine:

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If weeknight wine is about knowing yourself (and your regular dining companions), then stocking up on dinner party wine is that...plus knowing your friends and the sort of food you like to make for dinner parties. You can go out and buy a bottle of wine for whatever meal you're cooking, but it's pretty darn nice to be stocked up so that you don't have to make a separate trip.

If you and your friends are really into exploring wine, you may end up spending a little more here than you would for weeknight bottles, and allocating space in your little wine fridge. If your friends could really care less, it might not make sense to splurge.

Having on hand the types of wines that are pretty flexible and friendly with food can make your life that much easier. Sparkling wine, for example, is a great way to start the evening and a wonderful match for tons of different dinners. But if you hate it, don't buy it. It can be helpful to have a range of options on hand:

If you're frequently a guest at friends' houses, it can be handy to have a few reds and whites around so you don't show up empty handed; find out what they're cooking before you choose a bottle from your stash, and the meal will be that much more delicious.

Cocktail party wine:

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

If all your friends are really into wine, and you invite them to a bash, ask everyone to bring a bottle to share. You can even suggest a theme! Otherwise, hosting a big wine-filled shindig can get expensive, and the truth is, at a full-on party, you're not going to truly remember every sip you try, so it's not the time to shell out big bucks on rare and special wine for everyone.

For most people, though, a party is more about hanging out than drinking fancy stuff, and this category is the time to watch for sales on your favorites. The same wines you'd buy for a weeknight might be cheaper by the case, and great for parties, especially if they're the refreshing sort. Any time you're stocking up for a party, be sure to have both whites and reds on hand and ready to go.

How much you should buy in advance depends on your storage situation: don't buy 12 bottles and then stash them near your radiator.

Special Occasion Wine:

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

While you can probably buy Champagne on the day of your anniversary at your corner bodega, where the wine is stored in the window of the shop, do me a favor? Please don't. When you're buying more expensive special-occasion wines, planning ahead can improve your chances of drinking something great.

Special bottles are a good use of that wine-cooler space. Chances are, you'll have a reason to toast with something good in the next year: a special steak dinner to celebrate a promotion, a cheese fondue night for Valentine's Day. If you're at a shop and you get the chance to taste some awesome Champagne, buy your favorite bottle for the next occasion down the road, and you won't have to find something last-minute. Your favorite store is having a sale on Burgundy? Taste if you can, and choose one for a birthday meal starring wild mushrooms. If you visit a winery, choose your favorite bottles and set them aside for a year's celebrations.

One note: Be sure to check if wide Burgundy bottles and Champagne bottles can safely fit in your wine fridge. Don't invest in cellaring these wines if you don't have a safe way to store them. Fat Burgundy and Champagne bottles may fit in your wine cooler if you remove shelves, but then the overall storage capacity of the fridge will decrease.

Wine to Age:

Old Bottles in the Schloss Gobelsburg Cellar

Ok, maybe don't hold onto it this long. [Photo: Maggie Hoffman]

This is where the size of your storage space comes in. Your wine cooler can keep weekday wines, dinner party wines, and special occasion wines safe, but part of the fun of having a wine collection at all is getting to taste wines as they age. This category is a bit of an investment, but it can reap dividends if you like the flavor of mature wine.

Most wine in the US is consumed the same day it's purchased—there's no requirement that you stock up on bottles to cellar. But many wine lovers find that their favorite wine experiences involve bottles that have developed over time—and many wines truly are meant to age.

If you've gathered the weeknight and dinner-party wines you need and you still have six slots left in your wine fridge, you might want to consider starting something of a queue of mature wines to drink for special occasions. If you buy wines now that will likely taste even better in 3 or 8 or more years, and you have the space to leave them be and don't mind paying the energy bill to keep that cooler running, then the wines you have on deck aging can be your celebration wines in the years to come. Many folks use their home wine cooler for shorter-term bottles, and rent an offsite storage locker for longer-term cellaring. One key benefit: you won't drunkenly open something you were meaning to save. Another: These units offer steady temperature, no vibration, proper humidity, and you're not buying a pricey fridge or paying for electricity. For me, offsite storage big enough for about ten cases turned out to be much cheaper than the 100-bottle fridge I coveted.

We've talked a bit about which wines age well and why you should bother, but we'll cover this more in an upcoming 'How to Stock a Wine Cellar' post soon.

Before you invest heavily on aging wines, try to taste some bottles that have been cellared awhile. I find online shopping to be the best way to suss out aged bottles—as I've mentioned before, it can be quickest to look at your best local wine shop's website and sort the offerings by vintage. If you try a few aged bottles that inspire you, those may be the types of wines that you decide to cellar yourself. Love drinking wine that's been in the bottle 8, 10, or even 20 years? Welcome to our weird and wonderful club! Watch your wallet.

Taste for Yourself

Next up: taste and buy!

Get your butt to some tastings, whether they're at a local wine shop or in a classroom, or whether you organize them at home with friends. Free wine shop tastings are clearly the easiest on your wallet, and often offer a small number of wines to try and the chance to chat with someone how knows about them.

If you taste something you like at a shop, a class, or a friend's house, whip out your phone and take a picture, maybe even adding notes about what it might work for ('great with sushi...try with Thai') if you have the time. Practice these good wine buying methods as you explore—finding a shop where you trust the curation and have good conversations with the shopkeepers is the key to ending up with wine you like.

Buy by the (Mixed) Case

If you're lucky, the great shops you've found along the way offer a discount when you buy a case, even if that case is made up of an assortment of different bottles. Take advantage of this deal if you have the space to store twelve bottles of wine safely and you've tasted a bunch of stuff that you want to drink.

Twelve bottles at once might feel like a lot of cash to lay out at once, but it might be just the start of what you need, so take advantage of the discount! Before you put your wine away safely, you might find it handy to label each bottle so you remember if it's for a dance party or a special occasion.

Let's say you have a 24-bottle wine fridge. How should you allocate the space?

Here's one model:

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Here's another plan of attack:

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Goals and a Few More Tips

I could give you a list of wines I like, and tell you to buy them, but the right wine for you to buy and put in your wine fridge depends on your goals.

Are you looking to get the best deals on good wine and always have a bottle ready to go? Are you hoping to wow your friends with weird and cool wines they haven't tried before? Are you hoping to stash away some special bottles for some date in the future? Do you hope to become an Italian wine pro? An expert in French wines? A magician with food pairing? How you allocate your storage space depends on these goals.

I have two pieces of advice:

Go slowly. Don't buy more wine that you have storage for. Don't buy a ton of wine you haven't tasted. You don't accomplish anything by spending your whole wine budget on wines you don't love, and there's no need to buy enough wine for a lifetime now. First of all, discovering something awesome—the journey of tasting wine—is a fun part of the process. Let those discoveries happen over time, and don't rush it.

The more you taste, the more you'll get a sense of what you like. And your preferences may change over time. You may think you aren't big into Zinfandel, and then find a bottle that changes all that. You may fall for Shiraz from Australia, but then realize a few bottles later that you really prefer their Pinot Noir. Do your tasting research, keep track of what you like, and don't rush to fill your cellar in a day.

My second tip: Don't feel like you have to tackle the whole vast world of wine at once. Choose a focus. Tasting similar wines comparatively—side by side or even just trying one bottle of California Chardonnay on Tuesday and another on Thursday—can help you determine your preferences. You can't judge a region or a grape on just one producer's efforts—try a few different Rieslings from Germany, and then try some from Austria, and then from Oregon, and see what styles you like best. Pick your favorite and dig deeper, trying wines from different producers and different growing regions within the area. With focus, you'll find that you have a clearer sense of similarities and differences between wines, a clearer sense of what wine can be.

About the Author: Maggie Hoffman is a Senior Editor at Serious Eats, based in San Francisco. She founded Serious Eats: Drinks in 2011. You can follow her on Twitter @maggiejane.

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