When my husband first proposed that we build a wine cellar in the basement, I confess I rolled my eyes. It just seemed so pretentious and unnecessary. After all, we live outside Boston, a city full of great restaurants and sophisticated wine lists. I didn't see the point of storing umpteen bottles in the confines of our basement when we were planning to do most of our wine drinking out on the town anyway.
What a difference a recession makes. That wine cellar has turned out to be one of our better investments in recent years. Like everyone, we're reeling from the economy's indiscriminate blows, and going out to dinner has become a relic of our flusher past. We've been living off the contents of the mysterious foil-wrapped packets in the freezer, and selling "Breakfast for dinner!" as an exciting new meal option for our kids. Sushi is for special occasions.
But raiding the wine cellar is the one thing we can do that makes us feel like we're still living the good life. To be sure, our collection is relatively modest—about 400 bottles—with none costing more than $125. Still, there's something seductive about the rows of gleaming bottles nestled in their slots, their labels shining with promise. It's impossible to feel strapped or miserable when you're choosing between a 1995 Dominus and a Pio Cesare Barolo—even if you're serving it with macaroni and cheese.
The cellar itself is a thing of beauty, and a reminder of better days. Constructed by a local carpenter in the basement of our 1755 farmhouse, the two- by three-meter room boasts an exposed brick wall, recessed lighting and a tile floor. It's painted a soothing shade of beige, and maintained at a perfect 13 degrees Celsius. The glass door seals shut with a satisfying click, blocking out the heat and noise of the furnace. I have, on occasion, been tempted to retreat there to escape the chaos created by two dogs, three children and a parade of their playmates. (If only it were a little warmer.) Visiting the cellar has also become a favorite ritual, with guests escorted ceremonially down the stairs to admire the handiwork, the scattering of paraphernalia (corkscrews, decanter, fine mesh strainer), the smell of the redwood racks, the tidy triangular bins stacked with bottles wearing white tags announcing their date of purchase and price.
But it's the wine that really makes us feel like we're still riding high. Every bottle tells a story, and Bill remembers them all. There's the Albariño from the Spanish-wine dinner with the purple potatoes we enjoyed so much. That bottle of John Duval shiraz? Autographed at a tasting by the winemaker, who told how he learned his craft at Penfolds. And the 1996 Château Palmer Bordeaux was a gift from me to Bill one Christmas half a dozen years ago when we lived in the Victorian house in New Jersey.
Visiting the wine cellar also allows us to travel cheaply. That 1998 Castellare Chianti Classico takes us right back to the glorious August week we spent at a villa in Tuscany, where the kids swam all day and managed to sit through leisurely dinners with the help of a deck of Old Maid cards. The Inniskillin ice wine on the top shelf lets us relive our long weekend at a family wedding in the charming town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, in Ontario, Canada. With the Heitz Martha's Vineyard cabernet, we are transported to the tasting rooms explored in Napa one autumn. And the 1991 Magill Estate shiraz is a souvenir of our three-year stint in London, purchased at the Oddbins on our high-street corner.
We are not the only ones turning to our wine cellar for solace. In London, Marks & Spencer recently reported that sales of Châteauneuf-du-Pape are up 200 percent so far this year—and casserole beef sales are up 60 percent—indicating a revival of the dinner party. According to Bob Gilbert, the proprietor of our local wine store, Andover Liquors, wine sales are up—precisely because everyone is staying home. "People are going down into their cellars to drink what they've got," he says. When they need to stock up, they buy in quantity but at a lower price—$15 bottles instead of $40, for instance. "I don't think people want their neighbors to see them in the 'fine-wine room' right now," he says. Customers are also much more willing to experiment with lesser-known producers that might be better value. "Rather than buy an expensive 90-point [Robert] Parker-rated Bordeaux, people are looking to discover the next great bottle," says Gilbert. "This economy creates a wonderful opportunity for small producers of great wines."
Bill has zeroed in on some delicious lower-priced Spanish and Argentine wines to replenish our rapidly dwindling supply. These days, our weekends consist of sharing homemade pizza and a nice Super Tuscan with the neighbors while the kids play cops-and-robbers outside. It's a welcome throwback to a slower time, when life felt less like a competition than a communal adventure. So when we found ourselves with a four-kilo brisket in the oven the other night, we spontaneously invited some friends—and their 2001 Châteauneuf-du-Pape—over for dinner. Between their bottle and the Spanish red Bill pulled out of our cellar, we couldn't have had a nicer evening if we'd dined at the Four Seasons. And we didn't even have to wear shoes.