ASHLAND, Ore. (AP) — Toss away that thought of building an expensive wine cellar to age and protect your precious vintages. Eric Weisinger buries bottles in the ground. One at a time. And thousands of miles apart.
Weisinger is a wandering winemaker. He spends half of the year in the Rogue Valley and the other half in New Zealand, making wine and serving as a consultant to grape growers.
In between, he creates his own wine and stashes cases of it in his Ashland home, the crawl space under a friend's house and, for a few dozen special vintages, in the woods, on an island, in different countries, on different continents. Years later, he tries to find them using GPS coordinates and his memory.
"The feeling of locating the bottles, digging them up after having buried them so long ago is a little like when you've lost something valuable for a long time and then one day you find it," says the 43-year-old, who has worked in his family's Weisinger's of Ashland vineyard as well as in California's Alexander Valley, Western Australia and Marlborough, New Zealand's largest wine growing region. "But finding wine is much better than locating car keys or that single sock that disappeared."
Weisinger's pursuit is a twist on the high-tech treasure hunting game geocaching, played by explorers with GPS gadgets looking for hidden containers. With Weisinger's version, wine is the prize.
Once, on the back label of a wine he made in 2004, he printed the GPS coordinates then buried a bottle. He says no one seeing the label has yet to ask him what the numbers refer to.
For centuries, wine producers have known that fermented grape juice needs to be protected from light, heat and vibrations to reach peak flavor. Some producers and collectors go to great effort to build custom, climate-controlled cellars or above-ground wine closets. Old World practitioners who trust the Earth's natural cooling system carve out wine caves in hillsides.
Weisinger's unconventional way to cellar wine came to him when his head was in the clouds. He was hiking with friends around the Grizzly Peak summit in 1992; his backpack was filled with food and a bottle of his wine. A thunderstorm interrupted the hike before lunch and instead of taking the bottle down the mountain, he buried it on a rock cliff that shadows the valley.
"It's a beautiful site and requires a good part of the day to reach it if snow on the road doesn't stop me," he says.
The bottle, he thinks, is still there. To find it again, he would have to rely on his memory since he didn't draw a map of where he left it.
"I've looked for it on occasion while hiking around the peak since, but never with any luck," he says.
Since then, the 20 or so other bottles he has left underground have been marked with stones and the spot captured either with a photo or, lately, coordinates on a GPS device. He has planted his very best cabernet franc, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and malbec in some of the highest peaks in Oregon and Colorado and as far away as Mongolia.
In 2008, he unearthed a bottle of 1997 Petite Pompadour, a Bordeaux-style blend, that he buried in Belize eight years before.
"My friends and I drank it that night in the jungle with dinner," he says. "It was great."
Weisinger selects the spots carefully. They all take effort to reach, have stellar views and are places he would like to return to someday. He marks the bottle with a message — "When found, please enjoy! Eric Weisinger" — wraps it in protective clear plastic, sets it in the hole and covers it up with leaves and natural debris.
When he returns to look for the bottle, Weisinger's Garmin eTrex gets him within a few yards of where he buried his wine. If left undisturbed by man or beast, he should be able to find the four foot-long stones he arranged like a compass to point north, south, east and west.
He sometimes takes the bottle home and compares it to one that has been aged in a traditional way. So far, the outcomes have been similar — the bottles and corks intact, the wine matured and tasting good.
Recently, Weisinger was on a hill above his family's Ashland vineyard. He was sipping a newly recovered 2002 Petite Pompadour from a stainless-steel Indian tiffin cup.
Later, he took the almost full bottle down the hill to share it with fellow winemaker Gus Janeway, who reported that the wine was delicious despite its odd storage.
"I was very surprised, as I figured with its rough treatment it would be off or oxidized or something, but nothing of the sort had occurred," Janeway says. "With its aromas of black fruit, tobacco, and smoke and a still-substantial tannic backbone, polished from eight years in a bottle, it reminded me that one of this valley's real strong points is wine age-ability."
Weisinger, a bachelor, says that he's thinking of giving his nephews the coordinates to his hidden bottles when they turn 21.
"They can crack open a bottle on the spot to celebrate finding it," he says.
He hopes to bury more on his travels.
"I may go to South Africa this summer," he says, "and if so, I'll probably bury a bottle."
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press