Seattle Times wine adviser Paul Gregutt says that once you have begun acquiring a cellar, you must keep your hands off it long enough for it to take root. If you are starting from scratch, set a reasonable ramp-up curve for expansion. It could be as little as a bottle a week, as much as...

SHORTLY BEFORE the holidays I received this brief email from a reader. “I’m starting a cellar. Can you recommend a few Washington producers of age-worthy syrah and cabernet under $30?”

This is the sort of query that could fuel an entire evening’s conversation. But in the hopes that a brief column might help others in a similar situation, let’s take a stab at it.

“I’m starting a cellar” leads immediately to more questions than answers. OK, what sort of cellar? How many bottles would be full capacity? Is it to be entirely devoted to age-worthy wines, or will it be a working cellar, for everyday use, too? What are the owner’s preferences in terms of flavor and style? Ask yourself these questions when you do your own planning.

A wine cellar is very much like a garden. It may be large or small, simple or complex, but in every case it needs tending. Once embarked on the journey, you will find that you experience a subtle but profound mind shift regarding the selection and purchase of wine. Rather than grabbing some cheap plonk that happens to be case-stacked next to the Doritos, you will take a pleasant moment or two to contemplate a variety of choices.

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Once you have begun acquiring a cellar, you must keep your hands off it long enough for it to take root. If you are truly starting from scratch, set a reasonable ramp-up curve for expansion. It could be as little as a bottle a week, as much as a case a month. When I began collecting many years ago, I considered my consumption patterns, my budget and my interests. I decided to work toward a cellar of about 100 cases. I figured it would take me about five years to get to a steady state, where I drank one bottle for every new purchase. Until that time, I knew I would have to buy more than I consumed.

I bought the best wines I could afford to lay down, and the cheapest I could stomach for immediate drinking. This ensured that my cellar would grow not only in size but also in quality. And I bought multiple quantities: at first two bottles, then three, then four, and finally six. I found that half cases are just right for wines that I expect to age for up to 10 years. I would drink the first bottle soon after purchase, to taste the young, fresh fruit. After that, I pulled out a bottle every couple of years to see how it was aging, and by the time I reached the last bottle, the wine had matured nicely but was unlikely to be over the hill.

It is a mistake to try to fill a cellar all at once, as you will be selecting from a limited number of vintages.

As for age-worthy Washington syrahs and cabernets, I list many of them in these columns, week after week. A well-stocked cellar is your tool to find the producers you like best. Track them over time and see how they age. Your own tastes will decide who does the best job for you. In general, I drink syrahs within five to eight years of release; cabs within five to 10.

It is always better to enjoy the wines throughout their evolution rather than waiting for some mysterious moment when they are “ready” to drink. Any winemaker will assure you, they are ready as soon as you pull the cork. And there will be more made next year, should you run out.

The revised second edition of Paul Gregutt’s “Washington Wines & Wineries” is now in print. His blog is www.paulgregutt.com. Email: paulgwine@me.com.