America's New 'Trophy Room'

America's New 'Trophy Room'

Combining elements from kitchens, great rooms and pantries, the Wine Room offers an exciting opportunity for kitchen designers to see their cup runneth over with profits.

By Lis King

The wine room is a room that combines elements from kitchens, great rooms and pantries, so it presents a natural opportunity for kitchen designers and dealers to claim an extra share of the high-end home market.

Glowing reports of the wine room as a profit-builder are coming in from all corners of the country. One example is the Michigan subdivision of homes selling for $1 million to $5 million. There, every house ordered includes a wine cellar. Another example is a New Jersey home remodeling firm, which recently added a wine cellar to its showroom. In short order, this venture inspired seven contracts for lavish rooms devoted to wine collecting, storage and sipping.

More proof was offered at recent builders' shows, where tour guides pointed proudly to temperature-controlled wine rooms, luxuriously appointed with brick and iron work, finely crafted cabinetry and rack systems, gleaming counters, stone floors and grape-inspired art and accessories. And, interior and kitchen designers with a nose for trends are fairly bubbling over with tales of tapping this new slice of the luxury market.

Designer Diane Boyer's description of a recent estate home project proves just how high-end a wine room can be.
"We created an entire complex devoted to wine," Boyer explains. "The storage area for the wine was just the beginning. We also designed a bar, a dining room and an adjoining kitchen strictly to serve this area."

According to Boyer, the complex was designated for the basement, and it was designed with vaulted ceilings, iron gates and chandeliers hand-crafted in Portugal. Finishes were stucco, stone and terracotta.

"When it was all done, one would never guess that this was new construction," Boyer said. "The rooms looked like they had come straight from a medieval chateau. The homeowners are so serious about fine wine and dining that they employ a French chef and a sommelier."

In a Michigan subdivision built by Cambridge Homes, the wine cellar is a temperature-controlled room lined with wood or brick, where the walls are covered with racks of redwood, mahogany or cedar. According to Matthew Hatz, sales and marketing director, the wine room in the model home also features a tasting bar and chairs, plus such amenities as murals with vineyard themes and a special locker for extra-
special wines.

"People love to show off their wine cellars and collections, but they don't want guests helping themselves to a rare bottle," explains Hatz. "The locker provides a way for guests to admire such wines, but not get their hands on them."

Bob Lamond of Cornerstone Design Company, a residential remodeling firm in Bridgewater, NJ, observes that his clients ask for rooms or areas to store and display collections of anywhere from 500 to 5,000 bottles.

"There's no question that the wine cellar has become today's status symbol," Lamond says. "It has taken over where the hot tub left in the late '90s. Typically, our clients ask for such features as Old-World iron gates, masonry walls and tile floors. One of the flourishes that we've come up with is wine labels that are hand-painted on some of the tiles.

"I suppose that if you spend $300 on a bottle of wine, you want to keep it in a room that costs $300 per square foot," Lamond adds. "And, some people spend a lot more than that on a bottle. I was amazed to learn that one of our clients owns an 1855 port wine worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. It's the only one in existence."

Further evidence that private collectors take their wines seriously is offered by David Parker, head of the West Linn, OR-based Brentwood Wine Company. The firm is a major purveyor of wine and wine accessories and operates, the premier business-to-consumer Internet auction site for wines.

Parker tells of a client who called to order 300 cases of wine. Discussing shipping arrangements, Parker learned that his customer would be quite ready to accept shipment by refrigerated truck. He had a loading dock and fork lift installed at his home for just this kind of eventuality.

"His collection consists of 12,000 bottles," says Parker. "That's the largest private collection I've heard of."

Wine cellars are intended to duplicate the temperature and humidity conditions naturally found in the "caves" of legendary French vineyards. A "cave" is often part of the subterranean regions of a centuries-old chateau, or it might be specially constructed underground to hold the wines that continue to be France's coolest export.

The French "caves" provide temperatures of 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity of 60%- 70%. Under these conditions, the wines are able to mature slowly, a process that generates the various aromas and flavors that make them special.

So, in designer-speak, a wine cellar is "an environment that prevents fine wines from spoiling due to environmental stress, such as temperature swings, odors, vibrations, light and dryness."

The cellar might indeed be in the basement, but it may be located elsewhere in the home as well, even in the garage, as long as it duplicates the conditions in those French caves.

The cellar doesn't even have to be a room per se. Cabinets outfitted to provide perfect wine conditions are now widely offered, and, of late, major appliance manufacturers, such as General Electric, Sub-Zero and Viking, have joined the fray with special wine coolers or wine chillers. These appliances are often under-the-counter units, perfect as part of kitchen or family room layouts. They are even finding their way into today's elaborate master suites.

Companies like Brentwood, Vigilant Inc. and Vintage Cellars offer a variety of storage options. There are rack systems and cabinets for 50 bottles or 1,000+ bottles. Materials used may be redwood, mahogany, cherry, maple, oak and other fine woods that look great against stucco, brick or stone walls and special cabinets designed to provide just the right environment for wines are available in designs from traditional to contemporary. Cabinets often have glass doors to offer delicious views of the Sauternes, Rieslings and Burgundies within.

If a kitchen client suggests he or she might store wine in an ordinary refrigerator, your response should be a resounding no.

"Standard refrigeration is designed for good preservation, not for wine storage," explains Richard Walsh of Wine Cellars Unlimited in Houston. "What works for hamburger patties and tomatoes is not appropriate for fine wines. Standard refrigeration must chill food as quickly as possible. This is achieved by blasting cold air to reach a desired temperature. Once that temperature is reached, standard refrigeration shuts off, only to blast on to high later on. These changing temperatures are harmful to wines."

Walsh adds that conventional refrigerators are also designed to remove the heat and moisture that food products give off. That leads to shrinking corks, leaky bottles and spoiled wine. The vibrations given off by standard refrigerators will harm fine wines, as well.

There are wine fridges in sleek stainless steel, and there are others that masquerade as antiques. Alvin Patrick of Westside Winecellars, in Rancho Dominques, CA, says his favorite is a custom cabinet crafted to look like a Provencale heirloom.

"It was not that large, but we styled and distressed it so one would swear this was an antique armoire," he says. "Yet, it was as scientifically correct as one of those French cellars."

There is more to specifying and designing a wine cellar than knowing how many bottles a collector has or craves.

Walsh explains that designers and specifiers need to consider the location of the wine cellar (house, garage, basement); climate conditions (hot dry/humid, for example); what size bottles must be stored, and if wine is ever stored in their cases.

"The location in the house and the climate will determine the cooling system needed," he notes. "A built-in unit must be constructed with front venting, and you really don't need a wine room unless you expect to collect over 700 bottles. Any less, and a freestanding unit or a special closet will probably be perfect.

Designers and their clients should also remember that a half-empty wine unit won't work properly.

Walsh also points out that designers often forget that bottle sizes differ. "Many of the rack systems fit only American bottles," he warns. "But some foreign wines come in different sizes, and champagne bottles are always different. You won't fit these bottles into the average rack not unless you're Houdini. So, rack systems have to be modified to suit the client's collection. There should be room to store wine cases, as well. Adjustable shelves are often a good idea."
Walsh cautions designers that some clients have overly romantic expectations from a wine room. "They see the wine room as a place to have a party," he explains. "But the temperature and humidity that wine needs aren't comfortable for people for any length of time, so wine tasting and dinner parties are best held in an adjoining space."

Often, Walsh notes, this problem is solved with a glass wall separating the party space from the wine cellar. "This way, guests can admire the wine room without shivering and suffering from wilted hairdos," he says.