Bottled Up

This custom wine cellar contains wine rack tables, individual wall-mounted wine racks, custom cabinetry, a granite countertop and vaulted ceiling.
Photo courtesy of Vigilant, Inc.

You can separate the serious wine buyers from the mere casual connoisseurs by taking a look at where they keep the good stuff. Is that 1997 California cabernet safely nestled in a climate-controlled cabinet or is it hiding out in a dark corner of the refrigerator?

For some, the answer is neither. They’re part of a growing number of oenophiles building special rooms in their homes to store and, in some cases, show off their vast collections of vino.

These custom cellars are typically insulated rooms with redwood racks, decorative doors and small indoor chilling units to keep wine at optimum temperature for aging—between 55 and 57 degrees Fahrenheit—and humidity levels at around 65 percent. Some build humble storage units while others add opulent tasting areas with richly stained wooden tables and chairs, decorative millwork and rustic stone flooring, says Charles Griffiths, president of Vigilant, a New Hampshire company that designs and manufactures high-end components of wine rooms and cellars across the country.

“Builders and developers of high-end homes are now specifying space for wine rooms,” Griffiths says. “It has increased at an exponential rate. I call it the great room of the 21st century.”

It may sound extravagant to the casual wine drinker, but wine experts have compelling arguments for getting serious about storage. Some spend thousands of dollars building a wine collection. The best vintages of wine are meant to age years before opening. As wine chemically changes as it ages, variations in temperature, humidity and lights affect its taste, color and aroma. Wine collectors will often buy by the case and pick out one bottle each year or so to see how a particular vintage tastes as it ages. Over time, the cases and bottles add up.

That’s what happened to Chuck Collins. The Uptown resident used to store his wine in two coolers: a wine cabinet and an industrial-sized cooler like you’d see at a 7-Eleven. When he bought a new house in 2003, he seized the chance to upgrade. He and his wife hired a contractor to turn half of an extra bedroom into a wine room. The floor and walls of the 5-foot-by-12-foot room are covered with stained cypress veneer. Tall wooden racks capable of storing up to 2,000 bottles line the periphery. The racks are redwood, which can stand up to high humidity levels without retaining moisture or mold.

“I got them from to a commercial establishment that makes racks,” he says. “They send you the pieces and you build them up.”

The room is cooled with a unit that looks like a small air-conditioner. It cycles on and off to maintain a consistent climate.

storage solutions
Collins built his cellar to be more of a functional storage room rather than a showcase area. However, guests do take notice. “Most people aren’t used to seeing a room with a couple thousand bottles of wine,” he says.

Collins and others who have built in-home cellars say the trickiest part is finding unused space to claim for a cellar. You want to avoid any area that is consistently exposed to heat. It’s best to pick a place on the first floor with few exterior walls because they require the most insulation. Typical spaces include areas under staircases, hall pantries and new rooms in renovated additions. “You can almost turn any space into a wine cellar,” Griffiths says.

Here’s how it works. Use a minimum of R-19 insulation in the walls and R-30 in the ceiling. Some use a combination of fiberglass batt insulation and rigid foam board. A vapor barrier of 6 millimeter polyethelene plastic wrap is needed on the warm side of walls and ceilings to prevent condensation. Builders recommend green board instead of drywall because it’s more moisture resistant. Flooring can be anything that stands up to humidity. Most use tile or stone.

There are several types of chilling units, but most are in-wall machines mounted near the ceiling and vented through an interior wall. They cycle on and off like a window-unit air conditioner. Be careful to choose one that is appropriately sized to for the room.

An oversized unit can chill too quickly and suck out the humidity in the room.

Lastly, experts say an insulated, exterior-grade door is needed to keep all the cool air trapped inside. Many choose doors with tinted glass to keep light to a minimum.

on the rack
Racking is a personal choice, but it’s wise to consider how many bottles you plan to store and the types of wine you intend to collect. Certain wines have oversized bottles that can crowd some rack designs. Uptown resident Ted Nass says he regrets installing several X-shaped wine bins in his home cellar. While they look sharp, large bottles won’t fit properly inside; it’s also hard to take bottles out without rattling or tipping over other bottles.

“Racking makes a big difference,” says Nass, whose cellar can hold 1,100 bottles. “Nowadays, bottles aren’t uniform. One is bigger or smaller and some are bowling pin shaped.”

He recommends shopping online for stackable racks that are easily accessible. Racks can be the most expensive component of the cellar. Griffiths’ company, Vigilant, estimates it can cost anywhere from $5,200 for a 500-bottle racking system to more than $25,000 for a 3,245-bottle system. Total budgets for construction and materials can run anywhere from $12,000 to more than $75,000, depending on size and quality of materials. Homeowners can save money by building the room themselves and by buying cheaper racking.

lost and found

Coming up with a cellar organizational strategy is also key. When you have more than 500 wines, it’s easy to lose track of inventory. Nass stashes his vino away by region and grape variety. Specialty stores sell special wine labels and small calculator-sized inventory tools. Nass nor Collins bother with that. When you’re having a dinner party and need to find a bottle, the last thing you want to be doing is fumbling with a computer.

“I’ve got a good memory,” Collins says. “I rarely find a wine that I’ve forgotten about.”

Categories: Home Renewal, LL_Home