Taster’s Choice

The increasing interest in entertaining has led to changes in the design of key living spaces in the home – most notably the kitchen and living room areas – and the creation of the Great Room. Branching out on the entertainment theme, many homeowners are embracing the idea of having a quieter spot for more intimate gatherings. Enter the wine tasting room and expanded wine cellars.

“Initially, wine cellars were designed to maximize the number of bottles that could be stored,” explains Jim Bilotta, co-owner, Bilotta Kitchens in New York. “However, like restaurant wine cellars, storage has become secondary to ambience and use. Restaurants now serve dinner in their wine cellars (or surrounding them); similarly, our clients like to entertain in their wine cellars/wine rooms as well.”

Bilotta notes that this could mean incorporating a simple tasting area or a full-size antique table to seat eight within the wine room. “Some are even equipped with a separate area for light food preparation and serving, including cabinetry, counters, sink/faucet, dishwasher, microwave, etc.,” he reports. “Clients with the proper space are requiring more than wine storage.”

As a result, he reports that sale prices have increased, since the space is larger and now includes a ‘mini kitchen.’
Refrigeration is clearly the most critical element to the space, as “the most important function of the wine cellar and wine room is to protect the wine,” stresses Bilotta. “Maintaining proper temperature and humidity is paramount.”

“As a designer, it’s one of the first questions you need to ask clients,” offers Janice Stone Thomas, ASID, CKD, principal/designer, Stone Wood Design Inc., in Sacramento, CA. “Is the room just for storage and keeping wine cool, or is it a wine room that requires the right temperature?” She notes that rooms located in the basement or dug out areas are more likely to be the right temperature without extra cooling.

Indeed, Cheryl Hamilton-Gray, CKD, president/owner, Hamilton-Gray Design, in Carlsbad, CA says that while clients love the idea of having a wine room and bringing their friends in for tastings, a refrigerated room precludes comfort. Instead, she often incorporates multiple wine refrigerators into the space to keep the wine cool.

Changing Perceptions

Aesthetically, many wine rooms exude an Old World feel, and that style allows for added decorative touches that inch profits higher.

While Hamilton-Gray notes that she personally follows a more rustic theme for her designs based on the wine rooms of Europe – complete with stone floors and wood or stone walls – that’s not necessarily the overwhelming design for these spaces in the U.S. “Here, many wine rooms have rich cherry furniture [and a more classic, elegant design]. You never have elaborate cabinetry in a European wine room,” she stresses.

“You’re creating a mood,” asserts Vasi Ypsilantis, designer/owner, The Breakfast Room, in Manhasset, NY. “People may have wanted a cherry kitchen, but decided it was too dark. So, they choose to do it in the wine room.”

Influencing wine room designs is the fact that men are heavily involved in the planning. Collecting wine and bringing in friends for tastings is a very big hobby and trend among men, note several designers.

“I haven’t worked with wine connoisseurs as much as I’ve worked with people who just want to have a beverage or bar area,” comments Ypsilantis. “In the past, people wanted a bar. Now they want a wine room. It’s today’s bar. We’ve become more sophisticated.”

“Today’s wine rooms have a much warmer, Northeastern feel to them, maybe incorporating a brick veneer on the walls,” offers Micqui McGowan, CMKBD, partner/designer, Kitchen & Bath Concepts, in Houston, TX. “I see it as recreating that warm look of the cigar bar. It’s a more intimate room. Plus, whenever you want to cool wines, a warmer, darker feel is more consistent with the overall mood than a bright and shiny look.”

“In keeping with the idea that it is the male who will use the room the majority of the time, I might incorporate a comfortable chair and a humidor – create a place where the homeowner can smoke cigars,” adds McGowan.

Dave Heigl, director, CabinetWerks Design Studio, in Lincolnshire, IL, reports that his firm did a wine cellar where the client requested just this. “So, we put in a smoke eater and ventilation to take the smoke out,” he reports. “It’s not ideal for the hard-core wine enthusiast, but he wanted to smoke cigars while he was drinking his wine.”

More than other rooms in the home, each wine room is distinctive to its owner, kitchen and bath designers agree.

“One owner’s cellar featured a great deal of German wines, so we kept to that theme with some artwork featuring German vineyards and bottle racking for the long slim (Alsatian) bottles,” reports Art Bogue, designer, Bilotta Kitchens in New York.

“Often, clients have collected ceramics, enamel tabletops, artwork or something exotic from Europe – especially Italy – that they want incorporated into the space,” adds Hamilton-Gray.

The lighting used in these rooms can help to amp up the desired effect, and boost profits.

“I think the lighting in a wine room should always be demure and dramatic,” offers Hamilton-Gray. “I don’t think it has to be a bright room at all. The whole ambiance is created by the mystery.”

Decorative lighting can include wall sconces, and wrought iron fixtures and chandeliers work well for the more rustic-style wine room. “The lighting can be extravagant, because the rest of the room tends to be a bit plain. With the lighting, you’re enhancing the wine stored in it. It can be a great profit area.”

Though McGowan is in favor of very low lighting in these rooms, she also stresses the need for variable lighting. “We like to include recessed cans on dimmers, so if you really need to turn the lights up, it gives you that control,” she explains. Ambient lighting from the ceiling works well, as does low-voltage lighting where the wine is stored at an angle. “This allows for viewing of the bottles,” she comments. “It’s not a harsh light, but it’s bright enough to read the labels.”

Stealing Space

Since the wine tasting room has not traditionally been a part of the home, designers and homeowners have had to be creative with regard to where they are being placed. Space is being “stolen” from a variety of areas in the home, and even created by digging out under the house.

Of course, the space being created for these rooms helps to determine how simple or elaborate the wine room is to become. The number of bottles to be stored is also a factor.

“I would say 85% of wine rooms and wine cellars are on the lower level,” offers Heigl. “People just seem to think that’s where they should be. But, in a lot of the houses that we do, people entertain on the lower level, because that’s where the home theater is.”

But for some designers like Hamilton-Gray, basements are not common in the homes she works on, so main-level wine rooms are typical. “We place the room where the family lives, and in proximity to the kitchen,” she notes.

“It could be a living room that you’re transforming, or a library that would act as both a library and a wine room,” stresses Ypsilantis.

Many designers are also creating rooms from lesser-used areas on the main level, such as laundry rooms and even showers.

“I have made countless closets into wine cellars,” reports Bogue. “Since some closets are already in the cooler, darker areas of the house, they can be easily converted into a cheap and effective wine cellar.”

Racks and Stacks

The amount of space available and the types of items to be stored are keys to determining what types of storage will be included in the room itself. In addition, the choice between rustic and elegant comes into play when choosing storage elements.

In traditional wine cellars, racking systems are the key components for storing wine bottles. In a wine room, where wine bottles will be displayed, racks need to be not only functional, but aesthetically pleasing as well.

“Wine racks can be made from any type of wood, which really makes wine cellars and wine rooms completely custom,” notes Bogue. “Depending on the wood you choose, the price can go up or down.”

Heigl works with a metal crafter who can custom build racking systems out of metal components. “They have a patina so they look old, and we sometimes mix them with cedar, oak or other wood for effect,” he says.

And, since racks are custom-built to work with the rooms, innovative accessories can be created right along with them.

McGowan notes that, on a wine room project, she was working with 11-foot ceilings. “The racks went all the way up to the ceiling,” she comments, “so we designed a ladder that could attach and detach anywhere in the room so the wine could be reached.”

Kitchen and bath designers debate the inclusion of cabinets in wine tasting rooms. When going for a more rustic, European-style room, open racks for wine glasses and minimal storage is the norm. However, for the more elegant and elaborate designs, rich cabinetry – and sometimes a lot of it – adds to the ambience and the bottom line.

“The profit areas are in the cabinets and the racking systems,” stresses Heigl.

And, according to Ypsilantis, a wine tasting room can have as much cabinetry as some kitchens. “If you compare the linear feet of cabinetry in a wine room to a kitchen that has windows and appliances, it can be very close to the same amount of cabinetry,” she explains. “And, it’s more specialized in the wine room because it has to include wine racks that have to be custom made because of the heights involved. They’re not standard cabinets, because you don’t want them to look like kitchen cabinetry.”

Sitting and Sipping

While typical wine cellars do not usually offer any type of seating or entertaining area, tasting and wine rooms often do. Depending upon the intended use of the room, gathering spaces can go from a simple bistro table and chairs to a lengthy dining table with seating for multiple guests.

Traditionally, wine rooms do not have elaborate seating, as the rooms are often refrigerated and not a comfortable place to congregate for lengthy periods of time. However, accommodating guests comfortably, even for short periods, is still important to homeowners.

“Homeowners don’t necessarily want to have seating for a lot of people, but rather have comfortable seating,” Ypsilantis adds. “They want club chairs and a table.” She sees this as a move away from the bar-type of feeling to more of a room where you sit down and have a drink.

“Seating can make the room a more relaxing, intimate space,” offers McGowan.

The Full Treatment

Taking their cues from Old World wine cellars, most wine tasting rooms include distinctive wall and floor treatments of stone and brick and exposed wood beams. This is definitely an area that lends itself to increased profits, designers note.

“When finishing the walls with wood, you could have wood paneling that can be in either raised panel style or rustic panel style,” offers Hamilton-Gray.

“I designed one wine cellar in the dirt basement of a home using the exposed earth and huge rocks as the walls,” notes Bogue. “It truly appears as a wine cave, with the bottle racking scribed to the stone.”

A lot of people go with a stone floor, whether it’s flagstone or another similar product. Heigl adds that his firm has done stone of the floor as well as on the walls, “mixed in between the racks. It’s so authentic looking, it’s almost like you want to bring the dust in, too,” he comments.

Hamilton-Gray notes that one of her designs features five wine refrigerators around the room that were recessed into walls that were finished in rock. “I put rock all over the walls and ceiling, which made it very cave-like,” she reports.

Ypsilantis used cork on the walls of a wine room she recently created. “The cork was kind of soft and, along with the cabinets, provided a casual area between the formal dining room and the kitchen,” she comments.

She also used cork on the ceiling in the room. “I’m very big on ceilings,” she comments. “I always feel that ceilings are forgotten in rooms. But, even if you can’t do something architectural to them, just adding texture helps complete the room.”
Indeed, ceilings are an area that might initially be overlooked for their profit potential, but designers are keying in on their importance.

“I think the ceiling treatment is very important in order to create a better sense of intimacy in the room,” concludes Hamilton-Gray. She believes that, in a wine room, they should be treated with wood paneling, coffers or stone.

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