Fred McElveen, M.D., grew up Baptist. He did not drink until he was out of medical school, and then only the occasional martini. But his drinking preferences changed when Carl Johnson, M.D., joined Fred’s Columbia dermatology practice. “He got me interested in wine, and within six months I was drinking Pichon Longueville.” With a chuckle, Fred says, “It’s been downhill ever since.”
For 28 years, Fred has kept a wine cellar. His current one is located in a room on the bottom floor of his house on Wheat Street in the Wheeler Hill neighborhood. A cooling system keeps the 5 1/2- by 11-foot room between 54 and 56 degrees F. That ideal temperature range hearkens back to ancient underground cave cellars. In 2013, the world’s oldest wine cellar was discovered in a storage room in Israel. The 40 jars — currently in shards — date back to 1700 B.C. As time progressed, Romans used catacombs and subterranean cemeteries under cities to keep wine cool, while the French began digging wine caves to store their bottles. Unlike the original passive cellars, most modern wine cellars are called “active,” meaning they use cooling units to control the interior climate.
“You don’t want the temperature to go up and down rapidly,” Fred says. “If you want to age your wine a little faster, some people put it at 60 degrees F, but you don’t want it to go above that.” In the small and efficient cellar, the Burgundies, Rhones, Bordeaux, Californians, Italians, Sauternes, and white Burgundies all have their designated sections in the individual and diamond-shaped mahogany racks. “We’ve got about 1,900 bottles in here,” Fred says, “and I have some stored other places too, 2,300 bottles total. I can’t drink all that. I’m 76 years old.”
To reduce the number, Fred has begun selling a few cases of wine. He recently sold a case of 1995 Château Haut-Brion to a younger collector, and Fred says, “It paid for my trip to go quail hunting in Mexico.”
Fred is a member of the Columbia Bacchus Society. Formed in 1988, the local group of oenophiles focuses on promoting the knowledge and appreciation of fine wine and food. One of Fred’s favorite wine memories happened at a fellow Bacchus member’s house. When the friend told Fred to drink anything he wanted, Fred spied three bottles of 1981 Penfolds Grange Hermitage from Australia, and he opened one to share with the other guests. “I’d never had Grange. It was the best wine I’d ever had in my life.”
When Columbia lawyer Matthew Richardson wants to pick a bottle from his cellar, he heads down a long staircase off the kitchen. Once below ground, he travels to the end of a hallway and stops at the last door on the left. Turning the handle, he opens the stained wooden door and points to the original mail slot now flipped to the inside. “We took the exterior door and moved it down here because you need an insulated door,” Matthew says.
While renovating their historic home in the University Hill neighborhood, Matthew and his wife, Beth, originally thought the below ground bedroom would be a good storage space. As the project neared completion, Matthew realized he would be able to add the vapor barrier, insulation, and cooling and humidification system to create a cellar.
Inside the cool room, against each wall, wine bottles are tucked in beautiful untreated redwood racks. Kessick Wine Storage Systems of Greenville, South Carolina, custom built and installed the racking system, which is laid out in a combination of individual, diamond, case, and larger format racks for larger bottles. “I like to discover something I may have forgotten or something new that I haven’t had in a while,” Matthew says. “It’s a huge advantage to have a wine cellar that you’ve previously stocked available to you at any time.”
He walks across the light-colored tile floor. Beth had noticed the tile on the floor of Urban Nirvana in Trenholm Plaza and thought it would be a nice addition to the cellar. On a wooden table, Matthew picks up a thermometer. It is 53.4 degrees F with 62 percent humidity. “Humidity keeps the cork from drying out,” Matthew says. “That’s another reason you put bottles on their sides, so there’s constant contact from the wine side with the cork.”
In general, wine cellars should stay between 50 and 70 percent humidity. If it is too dry, air can get into the bottle, causing oxidation or a loss of liquid, and when it’s too damp, mold might grow. Matthew used a low VOC paint on the walls and installed low-heat LED lighting because odor, heat, and sunlight can harmfully affect wine — the last being one reason most cellars are below ground and vintners use colored glass bottles.
Matthew likes to keep a variety of wines, not just from different regions but also different levels of maturity and age. “I only collect as a consumer. I try not to collect what may be called trophies. I look for wines that I can enjoy and don’t hesitate to open, for instance, a really good Rhone wine from a region in France specializing in grenache, mourvedre, and syrah. They’re more reasonable and affordable than the big-name Bordeaux.”
Matthew first became interested in wine through University of South Carolina School of Law Professor Howard Stravitz. Matthew says, “He’s been the gateway for lots of folks to appreciate and learn about wine. When he shared a particular bottle while I was in law school, I realized the pleasure you can get from not only drinking great wine but also learning about it. One of Howard’s sayings is, ‘There are no great wines, there are just great bottles of wine.’”
On a wooden shelf built into the racking system, Matthew picks up an empty bottle. “A reminder of a wine that Beth and I brought back from Sicily that we had on the day of the christening of two of our children,” he says. Matthew pulls out a smaller bottle from the half bottle racking section built for mostly storing dessert wines. He says with a smile, “I mean how much port are you going to drink?”
One wall features upright Champagne bottles visible through the wire meshing inset into the redwood cabinet doors. Champagne does not need to be kept on its side because of the pressure inside. Champagne and sparkling wine bottles will keep the cork moist and the seal intact, and most have already been aged by the producer.
Below the cabinets, a few dead soldiers — empty bottles kept as mementos — are lined up on a shelf. “We had a wonderful Champagne tasting as part of the Bacchus Society here at our house,” Matthew says. “I kept them just to remind me that sometimes you get these special opportunities, and you should treasure them.”
Howard Stravitz, Matthew’s friend and wine mentor, is also a member of the Bacchus Society. Before moving to Columbia in 1983, he lived and worked as a lawyer in New York. In the 1970s, Howard and fellow lawyer Tim Zagat were on opposite sides of a case, and they met while taking depositions. Howard soon became friends with Tim and his wife, Nina. When Tim and Nina decided to create the well-known Zagat restaurant guides, they asked for Howard’s help. “Tim realized that I knew a lot about wine and food, and he asked me about doing the wine evaluation,” Howard says. From the mid-1970s until 2012, Howard prepared the “Wine Vintage Chart” for the Zagat Surveys of major cities throughout the world. Rather than evaluate a wine when it reached its optimum drinking period, which could be 10 or more years in the future, Tim and Howard wanted a vintage chart that enabled a restaurant diner to select wines that were best for drinking during their dinner.
Howard says, “When I was starting to drink wine in the ’70s, wine was not unreasonably priced.” He bought a 1970 Chateau Latour for $17 and some of the best red Burgundies for $25. “Those wines all now start at more than $1,000 a bottle when they are released. The whole world wants the same bottles of wine. Needless to say, I don’t buy those bottles anymore.”
Howard lives in a 1920s house on Wateree Avenue. In 1985, a local carpenter built the cellar’s pine racking system in a room in the underground basement. A refrigeration unit with a quarter ton compressor keeps the cellar cool. “When it gets to be 100 degrees in Columbia,” Howard says, “even though it’s below ground, it’s too warm to store wine long term.”
Howard likes having a cellar so that he can buy wine when it is released at the best prices. Otherwise, he says, “It’s just outrageous in price as it matures.” He collects mainly European wines, and his cellar is organized by regions, which he ticks off with ease. “If you walk in, to the left is predominantly red Burgundy, below is Rhone wine, Spanish wine, Italian wine, and then Oregon pinot noir. Straight ahead is Chablis and below that is more serious white Burgundy. To the right is mainly Champagne, Alsatian, and dry German and Austrian rieslings.”
This past year, having run out of storage space, Howard added a redwood tabletop with built-in wooden racking below. The unit can hold around 200 bottles of wine, and he mainly keeps Bordeaux in it because the signature high-shouldered bottles lie flat while other bottles move around too much. Bordeaux and Burgundy bottles both have distinctive shapes. The Bordeaux has straight sides and high shoulders while Burgundy bottles have longer necks and sloping shoulders. The Burgundy shaped bottle is used for chardonnay and often for pinot noir and sauvignon blanc.
Howard also added rubber flooring to keep the new storage unit stable on the uneven floor. He has another reason as well. “Last January I was bringing a bottle of 1985 Margaux down to Charleston to a friend and former student’s cellar,” Howard says. “I put it on the shelf and put another bottle below it, and it popped out on the floor and broke. It was a $500 bottle of wine.” Howard has successfully tested dropping a bottle from the lower shelves onto the new forgiving rubber floor but has not yet attempted to drop one from a top shelf.
When Howard arrived in Columbia 36 years ago, few good wine sources were available in the city, so he would call stores in other states and ask the wine sellers to ship the wine to him. “If you got a group of people together and ordered 10 to 20 cases, they would send a truck, he says. “One of the purveyors in New York would unload it at the medical office of Tommy Hearon, Rick Umbach, and Stan Juk on Laurel Street across from Providence, and we’d all go there and pick it up.”
In present-day Columbia, great wine is only a short drive away, as many local stores and dealers carry wine from all over the world at every price point for novices and serious wine collectors alike. Once it arrives home, either store it or open that bottle and pour a glass.