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Keeping a cellar, and keeping track of it February 2, 2009

Posted by Peter Hornby in food&wine.

Suppose your wine habit has progressed to the point that you”re buying bottles with a drinking horizon somewhat beyond tonight’s dinner.  Once you start buying wine with the expectation that it might be a while before you drink it, you’re a collector, and you’re faced with two problems – how to keep the wine in good condition, and how to keep track of it.

Depending on how long a drinking horizon you’re talking about, the first of these might not be a problem at all.  If you can find a cool location with no major temperature extremes, preferably fairly moist, you’ll be OK for wines which you expect to drink inside a year or so.  If your cellaring is longer term than that, you do have some work to do, but it’s a problem which can be readily solved by the application of money, like we did last year.  You decide on how much “archival” wine you think you’ll need to store, and for how long, and you buy a wine cabinet with, preferably, lots of capacity to spare.  Like everything else, there are options – large or small, under-the-kitchen-counter or in-the-garage, expensive and last-for-ever or less expensive (there’s very little “cheap” here) and replace-the-compressor-in-five-years.  But, in reality, it’s a problem with a solution.  And, if you’re interested, our solution came from Vintage Cellars in San Marcos, CA, whom we recommend unreservedly.

The problem of keeping track of the wine you buy is less easy to solve.  Depending on your level of geekiness, your solution might be a database, a spreadsheet or, heaven forbid, pen and paper.  Whatever approach you take, the rewards of doing it are mostly outweighed by the pain factor and the human capacity for indolence.  I know that my “Fine Wine” spreadsheet bears only a marginal resemblance to what I actually own.

However, I believe that there’s a solution which finally makes it worthwhile to invest some time in keeping a current wine inventory.  The solution is a website called CellarTracker.  CellarTracker takes a rather different approach to wine inventory than other solutions I’ve seen.  The key point is that, rather than maintaining your inventory in isolation,  the site is driven off a single huge wine database (nearly 12,000,000 bottles stored by over 70,000 users), and your stock list simply refers to that – you tell it that you have six bottles of Charles Shaw Vintners Reserve, and you immediately get to share the information maintained by the site on that wine, including drinking windows, tasting notes (the site has almost 800,000 tasting notes online), links to sites with pricing information – a whole slew of fascinating stuff.

Entering data is easy, because you don’t have to describe your own wine.  Nearly every wine you can buy is represented in their database. You just need to make the link between what you own and what CellarTracker knows about, and the interface you use to do that is just beautifully intuitive.  A few weeks ago, I took the plunge and entered my hundred or so bottles.  The whole process took less than an hour. There were only two bottles which CellarTracker didn’t know about already, and that was only because I had vintages which no-one had referred to previously. CellarTracker does offer bulk import capabilities, but unless you’re sitting on a huge collection – many hundreds of bottles – I really don’t think it’s worth it.

Once your import is done, CellarTracker’s huge – and growing – feature list becomes available to you.

  • You can see tasting notes created by other users for the wines you own.  This can even be turned into a custom RSS feed so you can see updates in your newsreader.  It is really interesting (and useful!) to see tasting notes written in the last week for the wine you’re thinking you might drink with dinner on Saturday.
  • You can sort your wines by drinking window (what should I be drinking now, what should I leave for another five years, what should I have drunk sometime last century)
  • You can track the value of your collection
  • You can print custom cellar labels on Avery 5160 stock
  • and much more…

There’s even an iPhone/iPod Touch application (cor.kz) which allows you to keep track of it all while you’re in the middle of the desert with only your cellphone!

CellarTracker is a “shareware” site.  You can sign up for free, load your wine and start browsing.  However, the site’s presiding genius, Eric LeVine (and I’m not sure what to make of that name!) suggests that small donations would help, and there are ways you can do that too.

Highly recommended.  Now for that 1990 Caymus which CellarTracker tells me I should have drunk last year!  It’s a tough life.



1. Patti - February 8, 2009

Thanks for the tip, I signed us up and blew our list in… damn, knew we should have drunk that Caymus already.

2. The awesome responsibility of the blogger « verb. sap. - February 18, 2009

[…] David, who has now uploaded all his wine into CellarTracker (or at least Patti has), only to discover that he owns a substantial number of bottles […]

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