We're already receiving holiday catalogs and, because wine is suddenly hip, they include all sorts of wine-related presents that are silly, useless and often expensive. So before you make a big mistake on a wine-related gift this season, we want to share with you the perfect present: a small wine cooler.
Yeah, we know that sounds about as exciting as getting a new skillet for Mom, but this is a present that really can change somebody's life. And thanks to growing interest in wine and more competition in this little niche, there are some fine wine refrigerators out there at very reasonable prices.
Many people, even people who enjoy wine, don't keep a single bottle in the house. They've been so terrified by stories about the necessity of "perfect storage" that they buy one bottle at a time, for dinner that night. This means that, too often, people skip wine with dinner because they don't get around to picking up a bottle. It also means their choices are often rushed. Sadly, some people who do keep bottles around the house for dinner figure the kitchen is a perfect place for them, so they leave them in little wine racks under bright lights or even on top of the refrigerator, where everyone can see them -- as they slowly cook in the heat.
Truth is, if you are simply keeping a dozen bottles around for dinner over the next couple of weeks, a wine cooler certainly isn't essential. Put the wine on its side, maybe in the box in which it was packed, in a dark, undisturbed place with a fairly constant, moderate temperature and it will be fine.
But a little wine cooler is so much better -- and you can indeed keep it in your kitchen, so the wine becomes part of the whole mealtime ritual, as it should. The advantage of a 12- to 17-bottle wine cooler isn't that it provides great long-term storage, though it could. No, the great thing about this is that you (or your lucky gift recipient) can buy wine by the mixed case, therefore usually receiving a 10 percent to 20 percent discount; you will always have a bottle on hand that will be perfect for dinner tonight; and the wine you choose will always be somewhere around serving temperature whenever you want it. Sure, the whites might need a slight bath in ice water and the reds might need to warm up a bit in the glass, but cellar temperature is a good starting point for serving both reds and whites, so when you call, the wine will be ready.
For several years, we have used a Danby 17-bottle wine cooler that we keep under a counter in our kitchen. We have two other, much larger cellars, but we use this for wines we expect to drink soon, either for tastings or for not-so-special weekday dinners. It has been reliable, makes no noise that we can hear and is nice to have in the kitchen. We didn't put much thought into buying this model, because there weren't many choices when we got it. Has that changed? We decided to find out.
We looked for wine coolers that held at least 12 bottles and cost less than $150. We quickly found six, in various sizes and with various features. Big retailers, including Kmart, Wal-Mart and Target, offer them. In almost every case, we saw the same cooler at several places, with competitive prices.
Three good places to begin a search for a small cooler are wineenthusiast.com, winecoolers.com and beveragefactory.com. You'll get a good idea what's out there and about how much they cost; then shop around.
We tested our six refrigerators for several weeks. One thing we noticed right away was that two had compressors while four were thermoelectric. We wondered what the difference might be, so we called John Ouseph, an engineer at GE Consumer & Industrial in Louisville, Ky., who is an expert in refrigeration and systems manager for GE's side-by-side refrigerators. He explained that compressors are more efficient than thermoelectric, which is why they're used in larger refrigerators, but thermoelectric units are solid-state, with no moving parts, which should mean less vibration (he suggested we test this by putting glasses of water on top, and indeed the units with compressors had just a touch more vibration, but not enough to bother us).
He pointed out that units with compressors are heavier and disposal of them is more of an issue because you need to dispose of the refrigerant. When buying a small wine cooler, should any of this matter to you as a consumer? "No to very little," he said. "Both will cool a small-size wine cooler. When you get to bigger sizes, then the thermoelectrics are not as efficient. Then it becomes an issue and you'd prefer to use a compressor."
Having tested all of the coolers, the truth is we'd be happy with any of them, though the thermoelectric Wine Enthusiast 16-bottle Silent Wine Refrigerator ($139.95 at Wine Enthusiast (wineenthusiast.com) and Avanti 16-bottle Thermoelectric Wine Cooler ($119.99 at Target) topped our list.
Here are some notes in general that you might want to keep in mind.
First, after spending $100 or more on the cooler, it's worth investing $5 in a little thermometer to go inside of it. Most of these simply have dials on the back to set the temperature to something like "minimum" or "maximum" and it takes some trial and error to figure out where you might want the dial. Even those with a more sophisticated dial were generally off by a few degrees. (Tastes differ on the "optimal" cellar temperature. We prefer 57 degrees, but others like their cellars a little warmer or cooler.)
Second, these generally work best with traditional Bordeaux or Burgundy bottles than with larger bottles, such as Champagne or some Rhone wines. Look at them carefully with that in mind; maybe take a bottle with you if you're going to have a look.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that these should always be full. The whole point here is to have an ever-changing inventory of wine in there to enjoy on a moment's notice. With a lovely mixed case of everyday-drinkables sitting right there in the kitchen, just about begging you to pop them open, it seems likely that the wines really will be drunk every day, which will make meals more fun and life a little better.