Cellar Savvy

Sheltering your wine collection in style

Wine has become so much a part of American life that many of us now are devoted collectors. And so, we look for appropriate places within our homes to install a special space for our liquid acquisitions.

Some wine enthusiasts will designate any nook or cranny, any closet or basement, for wine storage. Casual storage in an unprotected closet may work fine for short-term use, so long as one can shield the wine from wild temperature fluctuations, but long-term wine cellaring requires planning and some purposeful equipment. If your collection includes older vintages, such as a 1982 Château Lynch-Bages, or younger wines you intend to age, they will need to inhabit a well-disciplined environment, or you could be weeping with dismay when you do open them.

The space for a proper wine cellar doesn’t have to cost a queen’s ransom, nor must it consume half a house. One friend made a wine cellar out of a space that was supposed to have been a guest bathroom in her Buckhead condominium. Of course, the size of a wine cellar does depend on how many bottles you plan to store. Two or three thousand bottles may not fit easily into a confined space.

Senior Project Manager for Wine Cellar Innovations, Erik Kuehne, brings 13 years’ experience to wine cellar design. “The first question,” he says, “is what’s the bottle count. And be realistic,” he advises. He’s designed them for collections ranging anywhere from a couple hundred bottles to several thousand.

Properly done, with or without expensive embellishments, a wine cellar must control temperature, humidity and light. You want to keep temperature constant, around 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures can be a couple degrees higher, but wines kept at extremely high temperatures won’t last as long and their taste and appearance may be affected.

Cooler temperatures slow development. Prolonged storage in a refrigerator is thought to be detrimental to wine, but that jury is still out, and my own personal experience doesn’t validate it.

Humidity is important, and the target level is around 55 to 60 percent. Surpassing 70 percent risks mold infestations. Lower than that, and corks won’t hold up over time. Ever open an older bottle of wine only to have the cork come out piecemeal? Insufficient humidity likely was the cause, even when the bottle’s been held horizontal. Kuehne, who keeps a mold abatement expert on standby, agrees while cautioning that “passive wine rooms” with humidity that’s too low can result in dried-out corks.

Temperature and humidity requirements are at the top of the list for Gerry Bilbro of Renovation Options in Hampton. “A cellar needs to be an envelope that is basically an enclosure that is also a vapor barrier,” he says.

That’s a great description of a cellar’s ideal internal environment. Selecting the racking system, designing the layout, and choosing a cooling unit is only part of the job, he says, because there are more considerations to take into account. “We want to build a cocoon to control temperature and humidity,” he says, adding that he aims for 60 percent humidity or less. “I’m after a vapor-lock room.”

Light can damage wine, so the cellar needs to be located where light won’t penetrate the space during the day, and the artificial light needs to be low. Dark is wine’s friend. Yet today many wine cellars clients that Kuehne sees request sheer glass walls, he reports.

“They create more of a showcase for wine but require more refrigeration. They’re wine rooms more than cellars,“ he says, adding: “Some have a lot of art. “But in any event, he insists, stay away from windows.

Other homeowners may opt for more of a ‘wine room’ than wine cellar. Erik Kuehne of Wine Cellar Innovations says more and more clients are requesting sheer glass walls, which can showcase both wine and art.
Many homeowners opt for more of a ‘wine room’ than wine cellar. Erik Kuehne of Wine Cellar Innovations says more and more clients are requesting sheer glass walls, which can showcase both wine and art.

A second important question, says Kuehne, is “What’s the [external] environment? Don’t locate the wine room next to the space containing the pool chemicals, for instance.”

Vibration can also damage wine. So that external environment must take that requirement into account. The absolute last place for wine storage – and I’ve seen it often in high-end homes – is in diamond-shaped storage units over the refrigerator. Not only is the refrigerator’s rising heat inimical to wine, but the vibration it generates and the light of the kitchen all wreak their portion of havoc on any wine stored in them. Closets under staircases can be problematic if active children are racing up and down the stairs every day.

Another consideration is what kind of shape the wine racks should have. If you collect a case of a single wine, the diamond shapes are fine, but they’re clumsy to handle if you have several different Zinfandels, say, stored in one of them. Inevitably, the one you want is on the bottom, so you have to sift through the entire stash, removing every bottle, to get to it.

Not just a general contractor, Bilbro is the son of a well-known Atlanta architect and a wine enthusiast himself. He works with Becky Sue Becker, a designer, on the fine details of a project’s design, while he handles the construction aspects. Many of the more elaborate wine cellars this team creates come with adjoining lavishly decorated tasting spaces and are trimmed out with excellent finishes, such as real stone, real brick, faux stucco or sinker cypress, or a combination.

Every homeowner’s situation is different and needs to be approached individually. Both Bilbro and Kuehne have had clients near Lake Oconee, although a lot of their work is in Buckhead and each has done commercial installations as well as home cellars. Each brings to wine cellaring an enthusiasm for both wine and design, and that’s needed to inform a home wine cellar’s function.

Both have designed cellars within all sorts of budgetary constraints. Kuehne says he’s done wine cellars ranging from $5,000 to more than $100,000, but most run in the $20,000 to $40,000 range.

Both recommend finding a proven wine storage expert. Then you can sit back, relax and enjoy that 1982 Château Lynch-Bages without worrying (at least not so much) about its condition.

Jane Garvey is a writer and wine instructor living in Atlanta. She holds the Certified Specialist of Wine credential and has written and taught about wine for more than 20 years.


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