Whether it’s a few racks in the crawl space under the stairs or a 40,000-bottle cellar/tasting room, there’s a wine storage solution for you.

Some people will go to any lengths to look after their wine. Take the Chicago chef who, to his wife’s dismay, seemed to care more for his collection of several hundred bottles than for their new baby. At the time, the couple was living in an apartment where the best place for the wine turned out to be the closet in the baby’s room. To keep the wine at the proper temperature, Papa would open the bedroom window, while his wife quietly followed behind him to close it again.

Thankfully, there are other cellaring methods more conducive to family harmony—and to more reliable wine storage. These range from the racking you set up in the corner of a cool basement, to the freestanding, temperature-controlled wine storage cabinet, to the multi-thousand-dollar cellar/tasting room that is fully insulated, mechanically cooled and decorated with Italian tile flooring and stained glass.

The latter is the kind of cellar that Karlis and Beverly Graubics opted for when they built what they call their “executive barn” on their property in Mechanicsville, Virginia. The couple, who run a small chain of day-care centers in the greater Richmond area, constructed the building to house Karlis Graubics’s business vehicle, an entertainment center, as well as their pet llamas. While they were at it, they built a 19×14 foot cellar to house their growing collection of wine. “When we have friends over, everybody wants to go down to the wine cellar,” says Beverly Graubics. “It opened up a fun place for us to entertain and explore the world of wine.”

Some cellar owners prefer to leave a portion of their wine collection in the crates in which the wine was shipped.

Jennifer and Scott Mackesey also use their wine cellar for entertaining. When they finished the basement of their Bronxville, New York, home they added a cellar for their 1,000-bottle collection. Their cellar has an attractive design of multicolored slate tiles on the floor, terra cotta-colored stucco walls and a tasting bar. “We entertain a lot,” says Jennifer Mackesey, a former department store vice president who is now a stay-at-home mom, “and my husband always winds up in the cellar with his friends, deciding what they want to drink.”

Some collectors prefer more utilitarian cellars. George Sape, a managing partner in a New York law firm whose collection totals some 10,000 bottles, is one such wine enthusiast. The majority of his collection—some 8,000 bottles—is stored in a freestanding cellar on the East Coast. The rest is spread between his Colorado vacation home, his New York apartment, a summer home in Connecticut and rented storage space on the West Coast. One thing he doesn’t have, he says, is “a fancy, designed cellar. I don’t use [the bottles] as a showpiece. My idea of wine is that it’s there to be had. To me, it was just important to have conditions where it was dark, damp and relatively cool.”

You don’t have to have a 10,000-bottle collection, or even 1,500 bottles, to wonder what kind of cellar or wine storage system is right for you. But where do you start? That depends on your collecting aspirations and your budget.

A wine cellar becomes a center for sophisticated entertaining with the addition of a dining table.

“You need to tailor your decision to your circumstances,” says Andrea Immer, Master Sommelier and dean of wine studies at the French Culinary Institute in New York City. She feels that a serious collector needs proper storage for his or her wine. By “serious collector,” she means “anybody who has a substantial quantity of wines that they plan to keep at least a year.” In addition, she says, there is another category of collector who might not need a full-fledged cellar but who requires optimum storage conditions nevertheless. These are the “tweener types,” says Immer, people who get a few cases of more expensive wine that they’ll keep for 18 months or so before drinking. If not stored properly, the wines will taste flat and tired, Immer warns.

For such small-scale storage needs, she suggests a reach-in, temperature-controlled cabinet big enough to hold several cases. These can be built into kitchens as under-the-counter units or set up in any free space. The only caveat is that these units give off heat and require enough space for air to circulate.

For larger-scale collections, there are myriad options. “There’s an option for everyone, from the do-it-yourself approach to the turnkey solution,” says Gary Sullivan, director of sales for The Wine Enthusiast, the wine storage and wine gifts company operated by the parent company of this magazine.

Whatever the size or style of a cellar, all should follow a few basic principles. To age properly, whether for months or decades, wine needs cool temperatures—around 55 degrees Fahrenheit—moderate humidity, low light, and little or no vibration or odor.

Of these factors, temperature is the most important. Temperatures higher than 55 degrees or so will cause the wine to age more quickly. “Generally speaking,” says Vernon Singleton, professor emeritus of enology at the University of California at Davis, “chemical reactions can double [in speed] for every 10 degrees Centigrade increase in temperature.” In the worst cases, higher temperatures will “cook” the wine and make it unpleasant to drink. In other cases, a constant temperature of 60 to 65 degrees will simply speed its development. “If you’re as old as I am,” laughs Singleton, who served on the Davis faculty from 1958 to 1991 and specialized in aging wine, “you can store it at 70 degrees.”

Lower temperatures will slow down the development process. James P. Gallagher Jr., of Gallagher’s Custom Wine Cellars, keeps his personal cellar at 45 degrees Fahrenheit.
“I like to pull the whites and drink them,” says Gallagher. The temperature slows the aging process but does not harm the wines; several of his clients have adopted the same practice.

Humidify and insulate
Far worse than constant highs or lows are extreme fluctuations in temperature. These can cause corks to expand, contract and loosen, causing spills or allowing oxygen into the bottle, which can result in spoilage.

Humidity should also be fairly constant, around 60 to 75 percent. Too much humidity can cause mold growth and can make labels disintegrate. Too little can dry and shrink the corks, causing spills and oxidation. Too much light can also harm wine, because ultraviolet rays can cause spoilage, and because light creates heat, which can ruin your efforts to maintain a constant temperature. Strong odors have been known to penetrate corks and permeate the wine, but this is not common. Likewise, excessive vibration can generate heat and cause corks to shift. These principles hold true whether you are contemplating a belowground cellar in your manor house or a few racks in the crawlspace under the stairs.

If you have a home with a basement, that’s often the ideal place for a wine cellar. Many wine experts swear by a “passive” cellar—one with no artificial cooling. Below ground level, the temperature hovers around 55 degrees. Steven Kolpan, professor of wine studies at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, subscribes to this theory: “Anyone with an unheated cellar or partially heated cellar in the house is blessed with a natural wine storage area,” he says. “Year-round, that cellar is between 50 degrees and 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Just add a humidifier or dehumidifier to get the air to ideally 75 percent humidity.”

Sape agrees: “A natural underground cellar that keeps a moderate range of temperature—from 55 to 65 degrees—is fine for someone who doesn’t plan to keep the wine for 200 years.” But, he adds, his underground cellars are not exposed to heat sources that can cause damage. Too much heat, he says, and “you can taste it in the wine.”
All heat sources should be considered when planning a cellar. Immer warns that a furnace cycling on and off, or even a clothes dryer positioned too close to the wine, can cause dreaded temperature fluctuations. So can a “lived-in” basement, in which lights are continually turned on and off.

“Most people who put their wine in the basement do so because they think it’s cool down there,” says Sullivan. “But there are always temperature fluctuations.” In his view and in that of other experts, it’s unwise to leave wine storage to chance. They advocate wine cellars that are insulated and humidity-controlled by means of a vapor barrier (usually 6- to 8-millimeter plastic sheeting). “If you’re going to refrigerate a room, you need insulation, and if you’re going to have insulation, you need a vapor barrier,” says Gallagher. “If that’s done right, there’s never going to be a problem.”

Unfortunately, not all building contractors know the building requirements of a wine cellar. “It is not standard construction,” says Sullivan. In standard construction, he explains, “the vapor barrier usually goes on the cold side [of the wall]. In the wine cellar, it goes on the warm side”—which is the exterior of the cellar, the interior of your living space.

Without a vapor barrier, condensation can be a problem. Just as cold beverages sweat beads of moisture on hot days, the moisture in the air of your warmer living space will condense on the cooler walls of your wine cellar. Too much condensation can threaten the integrity of the cellar walls and make the cooling mechanism work harder to keep the air inside the cellar at the proper humidity level, eventually causing it to burn out. “I don’t care how good a cooling system you have, if you’re not properly insulated, the unit will run and run,” says Steven Goldstein, former sommelier and owner of Classic Cellar Designs. A properly installed vapor barrier, on the warm side of the wall, will insure that moisture never reaches the cool surface.

When it comes to choosing insulation material, specialists advise, be sure to read the fine print. The effectiveness of an insulation material is measured in R-values. For a wine cellar, the insulation should be R-19, says Sullivan. Many cellar designers opt for garden-variety fiberglass insulation, but specialists prefer rigid foam insulation—should there be a problem with condensation, wet fiberglass can be a mess. The cellar walls can be regular sheet rock or plywood, though Goldstein likes “moisture-resistant dry wall, known as greenboard; it’s what they use in shower stalls.” Finally, specialists advise, be sure to consider doors as part of the insulation picture; sturdy exterior-core doors are recommended to keep the cold air in.

Size Matters
The size of the cellar area depends on the size of the collection, both now and in the future. Gallagher urges his clients to think long term and allow for growth. “People come to me and say, ‘We have 500 bottles and that’s as many as we can use.’ Then, a few years down the road, they have a thousand bottles,” he says.

The rule of thumb, says Sullivan, is to allow a space that is eight feet tall and two feet wide for every 125 bottles. Allow a little over 13 inches of depth for a standard bottle. Of course, size will also be determined by how you plan to use the wine cellar. Both Sullivan and Goldstein have clients who like to hold dinners in their cellars, which need to be large enough to contain the wine collection plus the dining table and chairs.

Once the room is prepared, it must be cooled. There are two kinds of artificial cooling: The less expensive choice is a self-contained unit, which looks like a window- anchored room air conditioner and must be vented to the outside. These units can be noisy. The other option, known as a split system, works more like central air conditioning.

It connects to an outdoor compressor. Sullivan does not recommend using a regular air conditioner for a wine cellar, as these are not designed to cool to 55 degrees. Regular air conditioners also dehumidify the air too much for proper wine storage, he says.

After insulation, humidity control and cooling, says Gallagher, “The rest—lighting, racking, color—is aesthetics.” You can opt for sturdy yet attractive redwood racking, or go for custom-milled cherry or mahogany—your pocketbook’s the limit. At the other end of the spectrum, some people don’t buy racks at all, but use the wooden crates in which the wine is shipped as racking, and put the money they save into more wine. Just be sure that your racking will hold the weight of the bottles over time.

A custom-built wine cellar, says Goldstein, is not for everyone, “because of the expense.” But, he says, there is a wine-storage solution for most everyone. “If I don’t think we can do a build-out, I try to present other options,” such as temperature-controlled wine storage cabinets, he says. “My feeling is, I’m thankful that they have respect for their wine.”

When Karlis and Beverly Graubics were designing an outbuilding for their property in Mechanicsville, Virginia, they took the opportunity to include a wine cellar in the plan. The couple had been collecting wine for nearly a decade and were running out of space. They had pretty much filled a 700-bottle, temperature-controlled cabinet, and were stacking cases in their basement.

Their new cellar has room for 3,200 bottles, allowing the couple plenty of room to expand their collection, which now totals about 1,600 bottles. The cellar is housed in the multi-purpose building they call their “executive barn.”

The cellar measures 19×14 feet and has a small foyer outside. Beverly Graubics loves the foyer for the dramatic effect it brings to the space. Three spiral stairs lead from the foyer to the cellar, which was designed by The Wine Enthusiast, the wine storage and wine gifts company that is the parent company of this magazine. (For more information about cellar solutions, visit The space is done in redwood, with large terra cotta tiles on the floor. “Everybody who comes here has their breath taken away,” says Beverly. “It’s beautiful.”

The Graubics say the cellar has enriched their wine experience in several ways. “I am more conscious of what I want to buy,” says Karlis. The couple has purchased certain wines by the case—a handful of bottlings that, in Karlis’s words, “we really like.” Then, he says, “we have a lot of two- and three- and four-bottle purchases we’ve bought on trips. If we like it, we order more.” With all the wine on view now, he continues, they are more aware of what they have. And this, says Beverly, has prompted them to branch out and explore areas they have not collected previously.

The cellar has also added another dimension to the Graubics’ social life; they often invite their friends down to the cellar to decide what to drink with dinner. Guests and hosts share what they know about the wines and reach a consensus on the evening’s selections. The Graubics have hosted the local chapter of La Chaine des Rotisseurs and other wine and food events. “Enjoying good wine opens up an opportunity to meet new people,” says Beverly.

The cellar is also a family affair. The couple’s two adult sons have become interested in wine. “They’re not into wines the way we are, but they have developed good palates,” says Karlis.

“We just enjoy a relaxed lifestyle,” says Beverly. “We’ve worked hard over the years to be able to have this wine cellar. We started 30 years ago with one little school, and we’ve come to the state where we can luxuriate a little and enjoy this good wine and share it with our friends.”

A custom-built wine cellar, in the planning stages. When companies such as Wine Enthusiast are commissioned to design and build a cellar, they will provide plans and illustrations a few steps beyond, but in addition to, architectural plans. Shown above: computer-generated renderings of the Graubics’s finished cellar, before it is constructed.

Published on June 1, 2003

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