User ID:

Remember me
Lost password?

Tuesday Tributes
Coming Out of The Closet

By Charles Olken

I am old enough now to tell the truth. A few of my friends have known, but I have kept the facts shielded away from public view. Time to fess up. My wine cellar used to be the closet of my wife’s sewing room.

Yes, it’s true. I started collecting wine in the early 1970s. Even in high school, when everyone else was drinking beer, I was drinking wine. Not sure why, except that I didn’t like beer all that much. But, one of my friends, the son of Italian immigrants who made wine in their basements and had it on the table every day of their lives just like in the old country, was a wine drinker and I found that I liked his tipple a lot more than the bitter brews that the rest of the guys would be drinking.

So, wine it was and continues to be. I did become a beer drinker along the way. Something about going to college and having a beer joint just down the street that served undergraduates as long as they behaved themselves. And then I discovered whiskey-—first bourbon and later Scotch whisky, which I liken to wine because of the many subtleties to its flavors that come from place, age and technique.

But, wine has always been number one for me, and when I started collecting, the first boxes went in the bottom of the closet of the spare bedroom. There was no problem at first. Those four or five boxes of Inglenook and Beaulieu, of Christian Brothers and Mirassou and Beringer were not the most expensive wines around.

And then I discovered great Chardonnay. Back in the day, the leading Chardonnays were from Chalone, Hanzell and Stony Hill, and they were being joined at the top of the collectible parade by newcomers named Spring Mountain, Freemark Abbey and Mount Eden. All of a sudden, a few boxes became ten or fifteen, and the wines became a lot more expensive on the one hand and longer aging on the other.

It was only months later that the red wine collectibles started. Chalone Pinots, Joseph Swan and Ridge Zinfandels, half a dozen or more different Cabernets from the fabulous vintages of 1968 and 1970, and the great but unheralded 1969, whose wines might have been more complex for some producers than the ‘68s and ‘70s. And now the wines began to own the closet. And, then they owned the room—because now I kept it dark all day long so as to keep the temperatures moderated and to allow my first wine cellar to function as well as possible.

My first wine cellar, the one that eventually had to come out of the closet, consisted of inch-thick sheets of Styrofoam formed into a box and held together by that staple of my limited handyman existence—duct tape. It was cooled by half-gallon milk bottle boxes filled with water and frozen overnight. Every day I would take three of them out of the freezer and put them into the box. At night, I would return them to the freezer for recycling into ice once again. This system worked perfectly well until I spilled one of those containers, and then the mold set in. About that time, my wife decided that she wanted her sewing room back.

And so it was that I took the back of our garage and built a 12 foot by six foot cold box that would hold about one hundred cases of wine. It seemed to me then that I would never own that much wine. I was wrong. Now I have three wine cellars and own far too much wine to ever drink or to use for Connoisseurs’ Guide retrospective tastings. And what became of the old sewing room? It was soon turned into the first Connoisseurs’ Guide office. And then it was combined with the adjoining bedroom to become and even larger office. We added on new bedrooms for the kids, because we had begun to collect them as well.

There are times when I still long for those good old days when I owned just a couple of dozen cases of wine and knew the location of every bottle without having to search around. I blame Connoisseurs’ Guide, of course. Once we got to tasting all the California wines on a regular basis, I just had to have a few bottles of each of the best. I guess I don’t really regret it—that coming out of the closet. I have been tasting wines for a living for over three decades now. On the whole, I might rather have been a great baseball player, but one thing is sure. I have lasted longer than those guys, and I still don’t have time to play golf. Not when there are new wines to discover and a few places left in the wine cellar.


The CGCW Experience - Take the Tour

Meet the New CGCW

For thirty-five years, Connoisseurs’ Guide has been the authoritative voice of the California wine consumer. With readers in all fifty states and twenty foreign countries, the Guide is valued by wine lovers everywhere for its honesty and for it strong adherence to the principles of transparency, unbiased, hard-hitting opinions. Now, it is becoming the California winelover’s most powerful online voice as well. And, our new features provide an unmatched array of advice and information for aficionados of every stripe.


by Pamela Heiligenthal
Posted on:8/16/2011 5:45:48 PM

It’s about time you came out of the closet :)

Leave a comment below, but please limit your comments to 1,200 characters or less. We find it helpful to make a copy of our comments to be sure that they fit. In that way, you can edit them if they run long.

(Please note: your e-mail address will not be visible after posting)



Note: Refresh your browser to see your latest comments.

Having technical problems with the comment system? Click here.