Cellar Smarts

American consumers from construction workers to bank executives are having a love affair with wine. While many collectors are long-time wine connoisseurs, others have begun collecting wine for reasons you might never have thought of. As one Napa Valley winery executive recently commented, "You designers must realize that collecting wine is about much more than drinking it!

In addition to the pleasure of a fine glass of wine, Americans are fascinated with collections assembling categorized objects is a way they express themselves. Therefore, joy of 'collecting' is one of the primary reasons many consumers search out special wines!"

So, what does that mean for these new collectors who suddenly have no place to store their precious bottles of wine and for kitchen designers accustomed to meeting clients' various storage needs? For the majority of wine lovers, a wine storage appliance may be the best solution. Fortunately, most kitchen designers are already familiar with and currently specify such units. These appliances are well engineered and self contained, and can be an elegant addition to a custom-planned kitchen.

At times, though, a designer is called upon to plan a "wine cellar" adjacent to the kitchen, in an unneeded closet, or in a lower level location in the home. Planning such a space requires a unique knowledge base and skill set. Let me share with you some key design details I gathered this past fall as I prepared for a presentation to wine connoisseurs at "The Food and Wine Event" held at The American Club in Kohler, WI.


Before you think about the wine, focus on the collector. In The Philadelphia House and Garden Magazine, Mike Donaldson, sales director for Baltic Leisure, a Pennsylvania-based builder of wine racking systems (www.balticleisure.com/catalogs/wine), identified three different types of wine connoisseurs:

1. The Look-at-Me Collector: "That's a person who wants a wine space that's part of the overall design of their home. They want a chance to store their wine as they drink it, so the room is a showcase for their collection. For them, their main concern is the appearance of the rack system, so they often place it off the dining room and they want a lot of glass."

2. The Wine-as-an-Investment Collector: "The second kind of wine aficionado is the one who is building a collection of investment-grade wine. For such a collection, a room in a separate part of the house is preferable, and should include a racking plan, a dedicated cooling system and controlled lighting all in a draft-free, windowless room everything that it takes to enhance the value of the wine."

3. The Accidental Collector: "This might be a client who brings home hundreds of bottles of wine during trips to Europe and simply needs a place to store them. Depending on the client's entertaining style, they might like the collection hidden away or want it 'center stage.' "

Such clients offer new opportunities and challenges to kitchen designers. Just as finding out how many people cook in the kitchen is a priority, we need to identify what type of collector the client is before counting bottles or surveying the glass collection.

Learning how and when the wine is to be served is the next piece of information you need to gather. My experience has taught me that, in addition to the type of collector, the second "people" information you should seek out is "What part of an entertaining event does the actual wine serving/drinking play?" For many gourmet cooks, the wine is selected to enhance dinner presentations; therefore, a hard-working wine cellar is the best solution.

However, for other wine collectors, the ambiance of the cellar may be part of the entertaining event. For example, appetizers might be served in the cellar. The host and his/her guests might sample tastings (if a table is provided) in the cellar. Perhaps after-dinner wines (such as an elegant Canadian ice wine) might be offered in the cellar as the evening concludes.

So, if you're planning a wine cellar, a key space allocation question is, "Will the host/hostess be the only one scurrying to the cellar to retrieve the proper wines, or will the collector share the cellar with invited guests?"


Once you've thought through the collector's preference, you can finally focus on the actual wine collection. If you have never designed a wine storage area before, I suggest that you visit the Internet for information gathering: One excellent resource is Vigilant, Inc., a manufacturer of custom cabinets for special collections (http://www.vigilantinc.com)

I also recommend that kitchen designers partner with a wine cellar specialist if a really serious wine connoisseur is including such a special space in their project. These specialists understand how to make the wine room airtight and humid, what type of insulation is right and what's wrong. For example, proper door hinges (refrigerator type) are needed to seal the room. They will also have a better idea of your racking options and sizes.

Following are some key questions to help you build a wine cellar that's appropriate to your client's needs and tastes.

--- What type of wine does the family enjoy?

Because there's no tannin in white wines, they generally reach their peak within three years of the vintage. Dry white wines are generally drunk even younger. Rose wines and light bodied reds are consumed before they reach three years of age. Full bodied reds need extensive aging six years at least, and many wine experts feel they really need 10 years. Therefore, in addition to knowing the number of bottles the family has now, the "turn-over" plan will be used to calculate the number of bottles to be stored as the collection grows.

--- What size bottles are normally stored, how will they be identified and opened, and is there a wish for a display area for prized bottles?

Be aware that German wines are bottled in taller, skinnier bottles than domestic or other international wines. This can be a key point if you're installing hanging racking systems that store the bottles in a sideways position.

For a client who buys cases of wine, plan deeper shelving (26") for wine that will stay in original containers. If wine is purchased in quantity yet removed from the original case and space is limited create bins, not individual cradles.

Create some shelving for big bottles, such as magnums (twice as large as standard bottles, a large wine bottle holding about 1.5 liters) or jeroboams (four times as large, an oversize wine bottle holding about 3.08 liters).

Again, Food & Wine Magazine tells us that collectors buy these larger bottles partly for show and partly because wine ages slower in large bottles. Their suggestion is that oversized bottles always be laid sideways with their labels facing out on 5-1/2" deep shelving. (I have to chuckle I always thought just cheap wine came in big bottles!)

Display prized bottles by creating a tilted shelf on top of a lower cabinet so the labels face forward. This type of storage is also recommended by Food & Wine Magazine for wines the consumer wants to keep accessible for tasting.

Consider hanging plastic tags marked with the winery and vintage on bottlenecks so the consumer doesn't have to remove wine from the shelf to read labels. (The Web site www.iwawine.com International Wine Accessories is a good site for many wine cellar items.)

Also ask the customer what type of wine bottle opener is used. One popular opener must be attached to an extended countertop overhang.

--- What type of wine glass collection does the family have?

A true wine lover will use very large (8 oz. or larger) glasses, which allows them to "open the bouquet" as they swirl the wine around the inside of the bowl, enjoy the aroma as they smell the wine through the large opening in the glass, and "inspect the legs" as they study how the wine slides down the side of the glass.

Traditional red and white wine glasses and champagne flutes are all different sizes. These differences will impact the shelving spacing and any hanging racking you are considering and becomes critical when planning a dishwasher for these glasses. Adjustable racking systems within the dishwasher are very important! By the way, the newest wine glass craze is stemless versions of traditional glassware.


To keep it simple, I agree with Scott Ziskind, owner of a firm that designs and installs residential and commercial wine cellars, when he says, "If you want wine to mature, it requires a few basic conditions: you need cool, you need low vibration, you need darkness, and, if at all possible, you need humidity."

--- Temperature: Although many people think light causes wine to deteriorate, it's the heat that accompanies light that's truly the culprit. That's why many wine specialists recommend low levels of lighting in a cellar, with no direct light fixtures shining on the wine bottles: it's the heat!

The best temperature for wine storage is 55 degrees. Although gradual temperature changes are not nearly as dangerous to sleeping wine than sudden temperature changes, wine should never be exposed to temperatures above 70 degrees.

--- Humidity: Humidity is our second concern. Humidity should be maintained at 60% to 70% within the room. We Americans maintain our homes at "room temperature" which is too warm and too dry for storing wine properly. And air conditioning is not the solution. Room and central air conditioners suck the humidity out of the house and are constantly shifting on and off. Experts agree that if you plan on holding 10 cases of wine for more than one season, a dedicated refrigeration system is important.

Why all of the concern about humidity? The cork needs to remain damp so that it doesn't shrink, exposing the wine tooutside air. Proper humidity within the storage area prevents the exposed portion of the cork from becoming excessively dry. Laying away good wines on their side, slightly tilted, with the wine touching the cork keeps the cork moist on the inside. Currently, there's a great debate in the wine industry about man-made synthetic stoppers replacing natural cork -- stay tuned!

--- Vibration: Wine should be allowed to sleep peacefully. This is especially critical for red wines. One of the major differences between the red and white wine-making process is that fine red wines are fermented with the grape leaves, skins and stems in the vat with the grape liquid. As the wine ages, it throws off sediment. The sediment needs to settle to the bottle side and then to the bottom of the container when it is stood upright.

This is the reason why red wines are often decanted (poured from the original bottle into another container). The clear wine is separated from the sediment before serving. This is also why storage for glass decanters and a decanting table may be requested in a wine cellar used for entertaining as much as for storage.


There is a wide selection of custom-built rack systems available on the market manufactured by specialist firms. The companies will work with you to create a cellar after you fax them dimensions and talk with them about the type of room you're planning ("functional room," "statement room" or somewhere in between).

These companies provide modular rack kits, cooling systems, and have some amenities such as redwood doors and cellar art. They also can give you an idea of the cost something that's good to share with your client before spending a lot of design time.

If you opt to build custom racks on your own, the specialists' recommendations are very specific about the type to be used:

--- Clear, kiln-dried Western Red Cedar that is non-aromatic is considered critical for the storage of collectible-grade wines. Soft woods, such as cedar, are the standard for storage because they absorb moisture and are resistant to rot, unlike hardwoods such as oak. Mahogany modular racking systems are also available (www.vintagecellars.com).

--- Food & Wine Magazine expands the type of woods to include heart redwood again, because it won't warp from humidity, nor deteriorate from moisture. Pine is used in less expensive rack offerings.


During my research, I found three sources willing to talk about approximate costs. Although any discussion about "averages" is dangerous, I believe it may be useful for you to be exposed to these industry experts' comments.

When it comes to creating a wine cellar budget, one manufacturer of custom systems suggested the following breakdown of expenses: 40% to 50% should be invested in the racking, 15% to 25% should be invested in the cooling, and 25% to 45% should be allotted for the balance (door, lighting, room preparation, etc.)

In Philadelphia Home & Garden Magazine, an additional range was suggested by a specialist based on a per bottle cost when he said, "Installed racking systems typically cost $2 to $10 per bottle."

Lastly, another specialist gave this overall budget: "The framing and installation of a 10'x15', 1,500-bottle capacity room, for example, would run approximately $40 per square foot (or $6,000). A cooling unit would run about $1 per BTU (or $4,000). The installed racking system is best figured at about $10 per bottle." This equals a $25,000 budget.


A talented designer Peter R. Salerno, CMKBD, recently designed a wine cellar that incorporates the key points we've discussed.

The space includes a variety of bottle storage systems reflecting a collector's focus on an area to display prized bottles, as well as case storage for wines from favorite vineyards or excellent vintages.

In addition to the tasting table, storage to hold corkscrews, tasting cups, decanters, the cellar book and candles is provided along with shelving for wine glasses.

Wall space for vineyard maps, vintage charts, wine-oriented artwork or shelf space to save favorite empty bottles are all enhancements a wine collector will surely enjoy.

Clearly, planning a wine cellar is not a simple process. During the Kohler Food & Wine Event, I spoke with homeowners who were carefully planning 400- to 600-bottle cellars as "a start." Just observing the seriousness of the various tasting during the weekend demonstrated to me a person who enjoys wine but who's not a serious collector how important this space can be to a focused wine collector. I hope the sources quoted and the ideas presented in this article will help you create a great wine cellar for your client.