Reg’s Wine Blog – Post # 33, Wine Cellars Part 2, Nov 16, 2016, More Personal Than You Might Think

In Wine Cellars Part 1, Post # 31, I dealt with the decision, although somewhat humorously, to add your own wine cellar. You progressed from simple 12 bottle wine racks on the kitchen counter to temperature controlled wine coolers or wine fridges in the kitchen or any other room in the house. But once you outgrow that stage, or you have over 200 bottles that need proper storage, you make that fateful decision to create your own wine cellar.

There are a lot of personal decisions involved in taking this next step, some of the more important decisions you will be faced with include the following:

  • How much space will you need, how many bottles will you be keeping in your cellar? Everyone new to wine collecting always underestimates their storage requirements.
  • Do you want something practical or do you want something to show off?
  • How long do you expect to keep your house? No point to building a state of the art wine cellar if you anticipate moving in a couple of years. Wine cellars do not usually add value to a house, unless the buyer is a wine collector.
  • Do you have a solid marriage? If the marriage is shaky then consider an off site wine cellar to keep it safe. Better still, stick with a wine fridge, something portable to go if you go.
  • How simple or complicated do you want your wine cellar to be? Do you want temperature and humidity control, properly insulated walls including vapor barrier, display lights, vibration free, backup generator, and how about a tasting bench, table, or seating area?

Everyone has a different concept of how simple or complicated you want your wine cellar to be. Some people are perfectly satisfied with a closet in the basement, light and vibration free, not temperature controlled but noticeably cooler than the rest of the house.

My good buddy George lived in an apartment building and had to be satisfied with a shoe box in his closet.

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The closet was too warm, and the aroma of used shoes and socks had a tendency to fill the room, so George usually kept the closet door closed. One day he complained that a wine he had just opened from his “cellar” had a nose to it that reminded him of his socks, and this motivated him it to clean out the cupboard and do a load of laundry. George really needed to get himself a mini wine fridge good for 10-15 bottles.

Most people will never need a temperature and humidity controlled wine cellar, they won’t need display lights, they won’t need tasting space, and they won’t need custom built wine racks. You can build your own cellar by taking over a basement closet or storage area. Just remember that you need to reverse your insulation tactics, insulate the inside walls from the rest of the house, leave the concrete outside wall exposed, tear up any raised floor to let the concrete floor cool the room. If you have a finished ceiling then insulate that as well to keep the cool air in the closet/cellar.

When it comes to installing racks in your closet, consider bin style or some shelf style that will allow access to the bottles on the bottom. Many people make the mistake of just piling up the bottles row on row, and if you do not have some type of shelving two things will happen: 1) The day will come when you need a bottle from the bottom, and 2) If you pull the bottle out from the bottom, you risk the whole pile falling over and several bottles breaking. So be sure to install bins or shelves.

How warm is too warm? And what about seasonal temperature variation in my basement closet, will that hurt my wine? Well in order to answer that question properly we need to know how expensive the wine is, how old the wine is, and how long you expect to keep it stored in the cellar. If you have expensive first growth Bordeaux costing $1,000 per bottle and it is already 20 years old and you want to store it for another 20 years, you should consider a proper temperature and humidity controlled cellar. 100 bottles at $1,000 each is worth $100,000, so why would you put that at risk by second rate storage conditions? If this is the profile of the wines in your cellar, do the right thing and put some money into the cellar itself.

However, if you have 200 bottles worth an average of $50 per bottle that are all quite young and you only plan to cellar them for 10 years or less, then you will normally be fine without the fancy cellar. Make sure the closet is reverse insulated, dark, vibration free (in other words not beside an oil furnace), and put a lock on the door to keep the kids out. In terms of temperature you are okay up to 60 degrees  (17 celsius), and in summer up to 65 degrees (20 celsius). A seasonal increase in temperature is gradual and will not harm the wine. A warmer temperature than recommended will age your wine faster, which is fine if you plan to drink your wines younger and not at the end of their life span. Every wine critic who gives an estimate of how long a wine will age always gives a range, such as “this wine will reach maturity in 5 years, and will last another 20 years”. Under your less than ideal storage conditions, you should expect this to mean that your wine will reach maturity in 3.5 years and last another 14 years. If this works for you (and often it will), then you are good to go.

Below are some pictures of nice but not very practical wine cellars:

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In the first photo note the seating area which takes up a huge amount of space, and let us not forget that in order to sit there and taste a wine, you will need to be wearing your winter coat because it will be too cold to be pleasant. Also, please note the arched display booth built into the rack. Do not display a full bottle standing up, that is not good for your wine. Neither is lying the bottle down, then standing it up every time you have guests over and want to impress them. And displaying an empty bottle just does not have the same effect.

In the second photo we have an entire dining table set up in the cellar and ready to go. So I guess everyone will be wearing their winter coats at dinner. If the cellar was wider the dining area could be glassed in and kept at normal room temperature, otherwise this is a very impractical layout.

In the third photo the bottles are mounted sideways on the wall which is a much less efficient use of space, and the wine at the top is not easily accessible. That entire wall is holding less than 200 bottles, not recommended.

The fourth photo shows well but is not a great system. Problems with this design include too many bright lights on the wine, individual closed glass cases that will heat up quickly or will need to be individually cooled, cases go from floor to ceiling making it difficult to reach bottles at the top, and there will be temperature variation from floor to ceiling within the casing, especially if there are display lights inside the glass casing.

More practical designs and more efficient use of space can be seen in the following photos:

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The first photo shows a very plain, simple, do it yourself design that makes good use of limited space, including the bin style boxes that each hold a 12 bottle case. That small wall of bin boxes can hold close to 180 bottles, a much more efficient use of space.

In the second photo you see the bin system used once again, but the bins are too large as they each hold 16 bottles. Since wine is mostly bought by the case, design your bin size to fit 12 bottles, not 16. Also note the box racks underneath the display row, this allows storage for up to 24 bottles per box, or for wooden cases to be put on display. Those box racks  in this photo will hold 300 bottles.

In the final photo above you have my impression of the best and most practical design. Note in particular the island in the middle of the cellar. Islands are great if you have the space. You can design your island with or without a counter top. If you opt for the counter top, you now have a tasting station where a wine can be opened and tasted. Without the counter top you will have wines (usually your best wines) on display. Note the “X” style bins, they each hold 12 bottles. You also have a display shelf on the back wall for all your wine gear, and you have shelves that are meant to house wooden cases. The only criticism I have of this cellar layout is that the shelves are not the proper width, the dividers are installed to wide for one case, and not wide enough for two cases, so there is a lot of wasted space. I like this cellar layout the most.

Finally, for the high tech oriented wine collector, we have the spiral staircase accessed through a trap door in your floor:

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This kind of cellar can house between 600 and 800 bottles of wine easily on multiple circular racks. It can also function as a cold room for vegetables, fruits, and other food groups. You can install the access in your kitchen floor for close proximity to both your kitchen and dining room. To conceal the trap door entry an area rug will do the trick.

Wine cellars come in all shapes and sizes but please remember this is something that should be customized to suit both your available space and your individual taste and design preferences. A wine cellar can be very simple or very showy, just make sure that a designer wine cellar that is all for show does not compromise on the quality of the storage conditions. If you are going to have a state of the art wine cellar then you had better have lots of great wine to cellar in it, and you should also have state of the art cooling and humidity control conditions.

Finally, if in doubt, give me a call, I would be glad to drop by, sample a bottle, and give you further advice.

Cheers, Reg.