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Tim James: On the practical difficulties of a wine collection

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Buying wine is an expensive interest; storing it well is not cheap either. I don’t know how many bottles I have – usually somewhere between 600 and 900, I think. Because they’re not all kept in one place, and (despite earnest intentions) my record-keeping is shoddy, I can’t easily be quite sure. I could get to a less vague estimate than the one I’ve just given, but for some reason I don’t.

What I know is enough for my purposes. Although I do admit that I sometimes get surprised when I look on a shelf (in colleague Angela Lloyd’s enviable cellar – she kindly stores some of my wine: around 100–150 bottles I’d guess), or unpack a case that had been resting for years at the Wine Cellar commercial facility in Observatory, Cape Town, and find bottles that I had no idea I had. It can even be quite exciting. This seems culpably casual, perhaps, but it’s a system, or non-system, that’s worked well for me up to now.

Having a cellar (ie, a collection of wines destined for future drinking, stored in good conditions) serves at least two important purposes. The obvious one is that it allows one to drink wines that are more mature than those commercially available – at least at reasonable prices. Connectedly, it’s always seemed to me vital to have a lot more wine around than you are likely to drink in a shortish space of time. You must be able to virtually (or literally) forget what you have just acquired, and allow those bottles to rest there in the cool, quiet dark, gaining interest, one hopes. Pressure to drink immature stuff must be avoided, and the best way to sidestep temptation is having other bottles available.

Of course, there’s a time lag while waiting for the first lot you laid down, but there’s plenty around for drinking young. I don’t rely only on my cellar, which consists mostly of serious, often comparatively expensive bottles that aren’t for everyday drinking. I keep in my house more youthful wines not needing excellent storage. Recently, for example, I bought some of the “lesser” Intellego wines (six Syrah, six Kedungu) as “house reds”.

So, some of my wine is in Angela’s cellar, some (until recently the majority) is stored in perfect conditions at Wine Cellar in Observatory, Cape Town,. But there’s obvious satisfaction in having one’s wine immediately available (even if it is can be desirable to be prevented from drunkenly stumbling after that bottle of old Domaine Blank in order to make a comparison with what’s already made one stumble). As I have no spare room to convert into a properly airconditioned storage space, I have four wine fridges, or coolers: two large ones, with upwards of 150 bottles each, a smallish one (about 60 bottles) and a medium-sized one (which I hate, for various reasons, mostly because it doesn’t have a uniform temperature but ranges from icy-cold at the bottom to warmish at the top; I keep some fragile old bottles in the very cold section, which is useful; I shouldn’t hate it).

As I suggested, storing wine properly isn’t cheap. I now pay about R12-R14 per bottle per year at Wine Cellar. Good wine-coolers are ridiculously expensive. My large ArteVino, with thirteen sliding drawers, would now cost me around R38 000, and that’s far from the priciest available. My little one I found at auction, and just a few weeks back I got a large old-ish Liebherr second-hand (it’s not easy finding second-hand wine-fridges). That was a triumph, especially as it is more generously proportioned than the ArteVino, and the racks allow for the irritatingly bulky bottles of the likes of Sadie. I happily withdrew a dozen cases from Wine Cellar to reload them in my fridges.

The end of my garage is, then, lined with wine-coolers, and I must have at least half of my wine here within easy reach. Good. All I need to do now is to properly catalogue it all rack by rack, so that I can locate what I’m looking for. And I suppose I could easily count this lot, at least. Why do I resist wanting to know, I wonder?

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.

11 COMMENTS

  1. hi tim
    a bit off the topic. do u ever buy wine online ?
    im a bit away from all the wineries and have tried a few of the main online shopping options ( wont mention names as some are linked on winemag ) , ive found the service not up to scratch compared to loot and takealot ive used with books.
    also some big price differences between online shops.

    • Hi, Rolf

      I live in Gauteng and have generally received very good service from the following online merchants (over many, many years):
      salewine.co.za (probably my favourite, because their prices are generally the best, also they have a large variety of products and deliver for free at any amount, as long as you order in multiples of 12 – odd six-packs only attract a R40 delivery fee)
      Getwine (currently selling stuff like Haskell Hades Syrah 2014 @R197 and unlabelled First Sighting Pinot Noir 2015 at below R70)
      Wine Cellar (able to buy single bottles – and where else to get Vina Tondonia and Gabriel glasses?)
      Cybercellar (able to buy single bottles and some nice beers, too)
      Great Domaines (able to buy single bottles – I wish I could afford all of their superb lofty international wines)
      Debi van Flymen Distributors (I don’t think they have an online shop, but they have crackerjack wines and great service)

      Those are the main ones (along with Port2Port and wine.co.za, which I don’t think I have used yet) that I can think of right now and some of them also sell non-vinous stuff like gin. Getting a proper tax invoice out of some or slightly delayed delivery were the worst service issues that I’ve had, but nothing serious at all. I’d much rather buy from these trustworthy enterprises than from ones like Takealot, because it’s important to me that people who understand wine handles the storage, transport (up to a point, at least, when third party couriers are often used), etc.

      • great thanks , i will try salewine.co.za – and yes i will never ever USE winecellar.co.za , bad service

    • The mysterious world of wine, that intrigues us all, makes the product complex to buy, sell and transport. Wine Cellar has been known for good service for 18 years and we are constantly striving to improve our offering and service. Please take us up on any gripes as mistakes do happen and we are eager to rectify them. You can send me a personal email via roland@winecellar.co.za or get hold of us on +27 21 448 4105. – Roland Peens, Director of WineCellar.co.za

  2. Rolf – it’s a pity there isn’t a forum on SA wine (it would be a great addition to this website…) to discuss questions like this. I can’t say as much as Kwispedoor has, as I generally buy local wines directly from the producer, when possible. I buy from Wine Cellar, but collect or they store it for me. I have had very good delivery experience from both Great Domaines and Reciprocal. One thing that worries me (and I’m definitely not making any accusations here) is whether all of the online distributors store the wine properly before delivery And during delivery – I wouldn’t want my wine in the back of a baking-hot van all day. I hope all of them take proper care of the wine but, as I say, I do wonder.

    • Tim, I don’t think I’ve ever had a delivery of wine that was delivered to me in a temperature-controlled vehicle – and this includes expensive deliveries directly from top producers. And I’ve had about 2 389 476 wine deliveries so far, give or take. I also think very few (if any) wine sales entities take any particular care to inspect courier warehouses along the way. That’s why I prefer to order wine in winter time – kudos to those who don’t release their small-batch/quick-selling vintages during the summer. I’m sure we will be required to pay exorbitant prices if any seller had to implement a completely solid logistics chain all along the way, but if any of them already do, I’d be most interested!

  3. Regarding the state of online wine retail, I have to say I find it alarming Getwine, Makro and Norman Goodfellows all find it acceptable to list Meerlust Rubicon without vintage – I would not be impressed if I placed an order thinking I was going to receive the much lauded 2015 and the 2014 was delivered instead.

  4. I’ve been getting delivery from Wine Cellar for a few years now, including seven times this year without any issues. I only use others if WC doesn’t have what I’m looking for. I’d certainly avoid ordering from the Makro’s of this world. Your wine may have more than just a bumpy ride.

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