To have and to hold

The ins and outs of wine storage

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Sooo ... after binging on wine purchases at a recent tasting, you've suddenly morphed into an accidental oenophile. But you're faced with a quandary — what to do with the wine. Yes, you could fill your social calendar with night after night of drunken bliss, but you've also found yourself tied both emotionally and financially to your new "collection," right? It might be time to become one of those people who — gasp! — saves wine.

Just to clear something up — 95 percent to 98 percent of wine is meant to be consumed within the first year after release. Not all should age, especially that fruity $8 Australian shiraz with the furry-creature label. If you have four or five lighthearted bottles on the kitchen counter, don't worry about storage unless they're near a heat source or a window with bright sun — two elements that can torture delicate juice. In fact, two hours in a hot car can destroy the wine, but it can also slowly deteriorate if kept at 80 degrees on a daily basis.

Like gulping spoiled milk right out of the jug, you'll know "turned" wine when you taste it. Bottles that have been badly stored (or "cooked," in industry parlance), taste flat and musty, not grapey and far from what the winemaker intended.

There are five basic conditions that affect wine in storage: temperature, light, humidity, jostling and bottle angle. Rapid temperature fluctuations are the most damaging to flavor. The optimum range lies in the 50 to 55 degrees-Fahrenheit area, but the majority of my collection stays at about 74 degrees year-round with little effect. (I use a wine fridge for my "beloved" bottles.) Clear bottles fall prey to searing sunlight, which can also rob the wine of its character. Humidity affects only wines with corks. When the humidity is too low, the cork can shrink in the bottle's neck and allow oxygen to enter. When it's too high, the cork molds.

To avoid these pitfalls, keep humidity in the 70 percent range if possible. Most air conditioners achieve this level, but avoid standard refrigerators, whose high humidity and low temperature fall outside the preferred conditions for long-term wine storage. In fact, try to limit the amount of time any bottle spends in the fridge, since months of shivering can negatively affect it.

A few other tidbits: Storing wine horizontally keeps the cork moist so it doesn't dry up. Screw-caps sidestep this issue completely, a superior closure for most everyday wines. Also, wine prefers a calm, Zen-like state, so keeping bottles next to the stereo speakers ... not so good.

Wine snobbery aside, the ideal storing system is a refrigerator made especially for wine, which maintains the bottles at an optimal 55 degrees/70 percent humidity. I bought my 48-bottle cooler — which I've tragically outgrown — at Sam's Club. They run anywhere from $300 to $600, varying by how many bottles they hold. But a cheaper method to keep your wine drinkable is a dark, air-conditioned closet.

Yes, wine is a fickle, moody product that hates being neglected. You might even call it a pain in the ass. But when you're ready to crack the seal on that autographed, special-occasion bottle, you'll be rewarded for your anal-retentive efforts.

Recommended wines for labor day

Catena 2004 Malbec Mendoza (Argentina) Loaded with dark fruit like blueberry and black cherry, and opening up into rich vanilla and slightly spicy black pepper. Austere and sophisticated, this underpriced red gem will pair well with grilled meats. Sw = 1. $16. 4.5 stars

A to Z Wineworks 2005 Rosé (Oregon) Made from the fruity, acidic Sangiovese grape (of Chianti fame), this strawberry and raspberry chiller is something you can drink all day. Sweet enough to please a large array of people, yet dry enough to satisfy the wine snobs. Sw = 3. $12. 3.5 stars

Sweetness (Sw) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. 1 (star) rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.

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