Rod Byers: 100 Bottles Under The Stairs |

Rod Byers: 100 Bottles Under The Stairs

One of the wines sampled during the Coravin tryout.
Photo by Rod Byers |

I have a Coravin.

No, it’s not a car.

It’s a rather clever device that allows you to pour wine out of a bottle without removing either the foil cap or the cork.

The kicker is that it replaces the missing wine with a layer of argon gas preserving the remaining wine as it was.

Research tells us that well over 90 percent of wines sold in America are consumed within a few days of purchase. No cellar required. But there are people who collect wine.

The main reason to collect wine is so you can drink what you want, when you think it’s ready.

If you like to drink 10-year-old Napa Valley Cabernet, the only way to guarantee a supply is to buy it and age it yourself.

Both the glory and bane of wine is that wine continues to change in the bottle over its lifetime before ultimately dying.

It would be like having a Picasso painted with very slow disappearing ink fade to nothingness over time, except with wine you can’t see it happening.

Knowing when to drink a wine is the perpetual quest of the cellar master.

You can see what a benefit it would be to peer into the invisible world inside a wine bottle without disturbing the cork.

You could finally know for certain how the wine was progressing without committing to drinking it that day.

I invited friend and fellow wino Dave Nurse to bring over a few bottles.

I asked him to bring a wine he had recently purchased but didn’t intend to drink for at least five years. I asked him to bring an older wine in its optimum window for drinking, and finally, something even older, one that he might have saved too long.

And I told him not to worry; he could go home with all his bottles still intact.

Nurse’s transformative wine moment came way back in the 1960s when a college professor sent him out to get wine for an upcoming dinner. He was instructed to get Beaulieu (BV) Cabernet Sauvignon and don’t come back with anything else.

The message was clear. All wines are not the same.

While living in Los Angeles after graduation, he had the good fortune to live close to the second store of what was then the beginning of the Trader Joe’s empire.

“It was a great source of wine,” Nurse explained. “At one point, you could find wine from every winery in California.”

When the original Trader Joe Coulombe returned from a wine-buying trip to Europe in 1970, he stocked his shelves with a new universe of wines for Nurse to explore.

In those days, his budget was around $4 per bottle, but he still remembers the same pleasure of thinking, “there’s one I haven’t tried yet. I wonder what that’s like?”

Wine was still a special occasion thing in those days. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that he and wife Barba started having wine with dinner.

About that time, they moved to a new house with a closet under the stairs that could hold 100 bottles of wine. The cellar started.

A move to Nevada County in the early ‘90s provided an opportunity for an even larger cellar holding over 1,100 bottles. It’s full.

Nurse is unwilling to call himself a collector, thinking that implies a sense of elitism, a wine trophy hunter.

He buys what he likes.

Although he has a wide range of interests, as long as it’s red, his main preferences haven’t changed much over the years.

“I’m not a pinotphile,” he explained. “I prefer bolder styles, Zin, Cab-based blends, Rhones from France.”

As a life-long collector of wines, I wondered what advice he might offer to someone starting out?

“Try different things. Discover what you like. Start building based on that. If you can’t get more, buy two, at least,” Nurse advised.

He believes you should try a wine fairly quickly after purchase. That way you have an informed idea of when to drink the others.

Finally, he talked about the importance of developing a relationship with a wine shop with a good inventory.

Once the store gets a sense of what you like they can help you find things you might never find on your own. It’s like being in sync with a good movie critic.

What about those three wines he brought over?

The first was a 2009 Chateau Godeau, a Grand Cru from St. Emilion in Bordeaux. It was a bold, robust wine loaded with black fruits, and certainly capable of doing five to ten in the cellar.

His should-be-ready-by-now choice was a 1995 La Jota, Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley.

At 20, it was in a holding pattern showing aged aromas of cedar and cigar box, still with a bite of tannin. It might have been more vibrant five years ago, but not likely to be much different five years from now. Time to drink whatever’s left.

The third was a 1973 Beaulieu Georges de La Tour Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley.

At 43, it was a surprise.

Far from over the hill, it was elegant and interestingly aromatic with cedar, tobacco and black cherry notes.

It was old, no doubt, but a lovely example of a good wine well-aged.

When we were done Nurse scooped up his bottles, now slightly lower in the shoulder and headed home.

I will wonder the circumstances of when he finally opens those bottles, but I won’t wonder what they taste like.

Rod Byers, CWE, is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. He is the host of the local television show Wine Talk. You can find information about his wine classes at and he can be reached at 530-802-7172.

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