Vintage whine

iStock_000020609163_Large_PPBen Canaider muses the rewards and challenges of having your own wine cellar

Investing in a wine cellar can be an expensive and possibly bankrupting dream for any such wine-crazed restaurateur. Besides the financial factors which seem to count against the practice, there are also changing cultural aspects surrounding today’s wine consumption—diverse ingredients and more informal dining habits do not nowadays necessarily demand a 10-year-old bottle of Bordeaux with every main course. Indeed, and as far as I can tell, your average 55-year-old Australian real estate agent now drinks rosé—and openly, too, in restaurants, taking a ‘selfie’ as he does so.

Be that as it may, a niche may exist and a case may be made for branding your wine list ‘cellared’; but let’s consider the hurdles and impediments first.

Cons

The obvious one is capital expense. The $$$. All of them sitting in a cellar waiting for the day, which might be a decade away. When so many hospitality enterprises revolve around the very simple principles of a cash business, with money constantly coming in, the notion of a high cost inventory item sitting in a costly critical care facility (ie. a proper cellar), well, it’d be a tipsy accountant who’d too readily give the green light …

This touches on the second problem you face after buying the wine. You need to store it properly, in the right conditions. A cellar is not by definition a lot of six-packs of posh wine sitting in a storeroom. Wine spoilage through poor storage conditions has been one of the lowlights of the post-cork era. Before screwcaps came along—at least with regard to Australian wine bottles—cork taint was the big factor in all wine presentation. (Although how many customers actually detected cork taint and sent the offending bottle back is another question.) Now that screwcaps so dominate wine bottle closures, it isn’t cork taint, but storage spoilage that’s affecting wine. One summer and a hot restaurant’s even hotter back-of-house facilities will literally cook the wine in the bottle, making it taste prematurely and badly old, no matter how it is sealed.

So, if you’re going to establish a cellared wine collection, you need to make sure the wine is kept in the right condition: a lowish temperature and a humidity around 65 per cent (too low and corks can dry out; too high and labels can turn mouldy or peel off). This requires investment in climate control systems, adding to the capital expense of the whole thing.

Even if you do have the capital reserves to invest in wine for cellaring, and let’s say your premises afford proper cellaring conditions, you still have to have a customer who wants to buy the wine. With diversity and eclecticism being the self-entitlements of the modern restaurant goer, our contemporary wine and drinks mood seems to hinge on everything but the traditional. It used to be white or red, but now, as alluded to above, there is a third wine—rosé. What’s more, bottles of wine don’t even own the delivery logistics anymore—by-the-glass is as big as it is mandatory on any wine list. There are half-litre carafes making a comeback; there is the unstoppable vogue of imported wines; there are sommeliers preaching about the delights of ‘natural’ wines; and there’s a general customer pathology for wine that’s fresh—if it wasn’t made yesterday they don’t want it.

Yet if you can afford to buy and cellar wine and underwrite the storage specifics and find the customer who wants to drink and pay for the cellared wine, you’ve also got to bring a lot of service theatre and protocols to the game. Decanters, stemsware, staff, time, effort—and the monologic post-dinner wine analysis that the customer seems to think comes with the cellared bottle’s price.

Yet there’s the rub. Such customers do exist. And if you can or even like standing around in your own restaurant at 10.30pm on a Thursday night ‘discussing’ the indisputable vagaries of the 2002 vintage in Coonawarra so far as it affected terra rossa cabernet sauvignon then maybe you are the right sort of hospitality industry professional to throw in your lot with cellared wine and make it your mark, your belief, your brand and your calling. Now it’s time for the positive, or opposing, side of the cellared wine ledger.

Pros

One thing a cellared wine selection on your wine list does offer is choice. And choice is one of the mantras of our on-premise age. Cellared wine also hints at something special, a little like Champagne does. So rather than focusing on your wine drinking customers’ fickleness, why not see them as a developing and evolving wine cognoscenti, who are attracted to intelligent and thoughtful wine lists and cellared wine—the sort of wine they can’t get at home.

There’s a good working theory behind this positioning: whereas once it was only glowing reviews or high-profile chefs that brought in the customers, nowadays it is also the wine list. It attracts the posher wine customer.

In this regard a cellared wine list can be an impressive long-term marketing tool. As word grows then more and more of
the high-net-individuals who can afford and who like cellared wine will treat your business as their special wine home. Having such a cellared wine list is impressive, and will undoubtedly build up your wine-set and wine industry regulars, but it is a long-term strategy. As one Hong Kong restaurateur once all too frankly put the risk to me: “Well, if my plan goes wrong I can always drink the wine!”

Or sell it on the secondary market. Blue-chip wine investments—whether they be treated like share scrips or used in your own businesses wine inventory—have been not unimpressive profit centres in recent years. Live-ex, a London blue-chip wine index which annually calculates the value of the world’s 100 most prized wines reckons that such wines’ worth is up over 150 per cent over the past decade, even taking into account Bordeaux’s falling value over 20011 to 2013, which saw a general plateauing in the secondary wine market.

The good news though is that Live-ex reckons prices are on the rise once more, as increased Chinese investment in
blue-chip wines kicks in more strongly. Of course, the other thing that’s on the rise is fine wine fraud which, when you
think about it, is probably the keenest indicator that fine wine is indeed a good investment. Perhaps cellared wine is money in the bank? Or is it a niche too far.

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