Friday, February 7, 2014

Constructing A Cellar [Source: Wine Spectator]

The nuts and bolts of wine storage
Kristiana Kahakauwila
Issue: November 30, 2006

You've purchased a French barrique to use as a tasting table. You've decided on slate from California for the floor. You've even found an antique oak door decorated with wrought iron to enhance the entrance. You've made sure your dream cellar will be beautiful, but are you sure that it will protect your wine?

Fluctuating temperatures, low humidity, high light levels and even vibration can all be detrimental to a wine collection. The most important aspects of a cellar are hidden behind the scenes. Buy a standard air-conditioning unit and your wine could oxidize in a low-humidity environment; install inadequate insulation and you're risking a mold infestation or waterlogged walls—not to mention skyrocketing energy bills.

A basic, well-built cellar can be had for less than $1,000 if you choose to do the labor yourself. But a custom cellar with antique furniture and exotic wood racking can easily run upwards of $150,000, depending on the size of your collection and the amount of space you require.

But no matter how much you're willing to spend, you'll want to get it right the first time. We'll take a look at all the key aspects of building a cellar, from choosing the right location and how to keep it cool and humid, to the different kinds of racking and how much you should budget. A lot to consider? Yes, but knowing how to protect your wine will ensure the enjoyment of your cellar and collection for decades to come.


As you scout potential locations in and around your home, think in terms of avoiding trouble. Extended exposure to ultraviolet light can create off scents in wine, especially whites, so a sunny breakfast nook is not the best space to convert into a cellar. Building a room above a garage or next to that new home theater system should also be avoided—a rumbling garage door or booming soundtrack will create vibrations that could disturb the sediment in your red wines, and some cellar designers believe that vibration over a long period of time can prematurely age wine.


Once you've identified the perfect spot, it's time to think about how you'll keep the space cool. The ideal temperature for a wine cellar is a consistent 55° F to 60° F. Fluctuations in temperature, whether they're over the course of a day or a year, will speed the aging process and can damage your wine.

Invest in a cooling unit specifically designed for wine cellars, as these units remove less humidity from the air than standard air conditioners. Most cellar units have a visible thermostat and begin cooling when a preprogrammed temperature is reached. There are three basic kinds of cellar cooling units: through-wall, water-cooled and split-system. All three are sold by a number of companies and at a variety of price points, so even the budget-minded collector should be able to find the right unit for his or her cellar.

With a through-wall system, the cooling unit is mounted within a cellar wall so that the face of the unit blows cool air into the cellar while the body of the unit extends through the wall to an adjoining room. This system requires plenty of space outside the cellar into which to vent hot air, and it can be quite loud, so this system is best used where an attic space or utility room is adjacent to the room being used as the cellar. A through-wall system can cost as little as $300 and as much as $1,400, depending on the size of the cellar.

With a water-cooled system, which is hooked into a water line and a drain line, the air is cooled as it travels through tubing surrounded by cold water. This works well for commercial applications, where large amounts of heated liquid can easily be recycled, but in residential neighborhoods, local codes can make the system prohibitive. Priced at $4,000 or more, water-cooled systems do not require a space to release hot air, are quiet and, because only a vent is visible, are less conspicuous than through-wall systems.

A split-system unit works like a regular air conditioner, with refrigerant cooling the air in an evaporator and a tube carrying out the resulting condensation. It can be set up within the cellar or remotely. In an in-cellar split-system, the cooling unit is hidden within the cabinetry. While this makes maintenance easy, it also reduces storage space. The cooling unit for a remote split-system can be placed a short distance from the cellar, such as in a basement or even outside the home, with the cooled air moved through air ducts to a vent. Unlike a through-wall system, only a small vent is visible, which makes the system inconspicuous. Prices for these systems start around $1,000. Be sure to purchase a unit with a built-in or attached humidifier so that the cooled air does not have a drying effect on the cellar.

Which system do the pros recommend? They decide on a cellar-by-cellar basis. Fred Tregaskis, founder of New England Wine Cellar in Connecticut, began his career building cellars for restaurants such as New York City's Lespinasse and Gra-mercy Tavern and now focuses on private cellars. In 2001, he founded CellarMate, which sells ready-made split-systems for wine cellars. The systems can cost from $3,000 to more than $6,000, with a humidifier an additional option. "Of course, being my own company, CellarMate is my first choice [for the cellars I design]," he says. "But I'm also the first guy to say, 'Look, this isn't the perfect place for my unit.' I'll use a through-the-wall when it's appropriate for [someone's] budget."

Some design companies, including Cellarworks in New York, owned by Lee and Amanda Zinser, and New Hampshire-based Cuvée Storage Systems, owned by Paul Fugere, build custom cooling systems. This allows for more precisely controlled temperature and humidity levels in oddly shaped or especially large cellars. Lee points out another perk of a custom system—it can be completely hidden away. "The main thing for us is that we don't want to see or hear the cooling system," he says. "We don't want to know it's there."

Fugere agrees: "The split-systems are effective, but instead of having a big thing hanging on the wall or a [centrally placed] vent, we have an air handler that recycles air within the room and [is hidden] within the racking." The wine's thermal mass, cooled to 55° F, helps keep the recycled air cool, too, reducing the cooling unit's workload.

For those collectors who are using their basements as natural cellars, a cooling unit may still be a worthwhile investment. It can help regulate temperature, which is especially useful if you live in an area that experiences extreme seasonal swings. And if you have any plans of reselling your wine at auction, aging it in a temperature-controlled environment will almost always guarantee a higher selling price than aging it in a passive cellar.


The average house is heated or cooled to 70° F and maintains a humidity level of 55 percent. A cellar, by contrast, should be kept at 55° F and about 70 percent humidity. It's an entirely different climate. To maintain this unique environment, proper insulation and a vapor barrier are required. Insulation keeps cool air in the cellar and warm air out; the vapor barrier lines the cellar walls and prevents the build-up of moisture.

There is a multitude of insulating materials available, and your contractor or designer will probably prefer certain products. The designers we spoke to did agree on a few basics, though.

First, pay attention to an insulation's R factor, which refers to how well the insulation resists the flow of heat. Insulation is essentially thousands of small air pockets layered together. Products with high R factors have more air pockets, so they better stabilize the temperature of the space they protect. Cellar walls require insulation with a minimum value of R-11; the ceiling needs a minimum value of R-19.

Second, think beyond fiberglass. With an R value of about R-3.2 per inch, you'll need a thickness of 3.5 inches of fiberglass batting to achieve a value of R-11. Although fiberglass is inexpensive, a variety of more advanced products are available and worth the extra cost. Insulation such as extruded polystyrene (or blueboard) and spray-on polyurethane foam like Icynene, have values of R-4.8 and R-3.6 per inch, respectively.

Moreover, fiberglass, with its unsealed air pockets, is more likely to absorb moisture and, over time, retain water. This can lead to mold growth and even water-damaged walls and ceilings. Blueboard and Icynene air pockets are completely sealed to prevent moisture penetration. Ideally, the vapor barrier would keep condensation from reaching the insulation, but it doesn't hurt to double up your protection.

Finally, take into account where your cellar is being built. If you're adding the cellar onto the back of your home and two of its four walls will face the exterior, you may need different insulation than if you were building a cellar in an apartment where all four walls are surrounded by a consistent 70° F environment. Similarly, collectors who live in Southern California, where the weather is fairly stable, will have different needs than those in the Northeast, who experience hot summers and drastically colder winters.

Many custom-design firms have developed their own products—insulation crafted for a cellar's unique climate. New York design firm Consolidated Cellars created Cellartherm, an insulating product with a built-in vapor barrier. Owner Robert Rodish says that before developing Cellartherm he saw "collectors having trouble finding a product that [would] give the right insulation value and vapor barrier properties but have no effect [on the wines], like lingering odor or taint."

With the help of architects and designers such as Lee Zinser, who identified common problems within cellars and made suggestions for ways to combat them, Consolidated Cellars developed a product that not only acts as an insulator and vapor barrier, but also dampens vibration and inhibits mold growth. "Your contractor builds the exterior shell [of the cellar], and then we'll build the interior with the Cellartherm system. The finish and the furniture come in thereafter," explains Rodish.

Zinser uses Cellartherm for almost all of his projects, whereas Fugere prefers to keep the vapor barrier and insulation separate. He relies on a product called DensArmor, which is manufactured by Georgia-Pacific. Originally designed as a vapor barrier for bathroom applications, where a hot, humid environment is the norm, Fugere discovered that it works equally well with the cold, humid environment of a cellar. "[Because] the product is guaranteed to be moisture-proof and mold-resistant, you're now just asking the insulation in the wall to do what it's supposed to do, which is to be an insulator and not have to deal with moisture," says Fugere.

When asked how his system compares with Cellartherm, Fugere is candid. "It's a coin flip," he says. "The DensArmor is a more expensive material so I spend more money on that, [but] I don't spend as much money as Lee would on his insulation. At the end of the day, I think we're both operating on pretty bulletproof systems."


Once you've taken care of the behind-the-scenes aspects of the cellar, you can concentrate on filling it with gleaming racks and dramatic lighting. Keep in mind, however, that some woods, such as cedar, impart an odor. Tregaskis and Zinser both advise clients to choose woods such as redwood or oak and leave them unfinished, to avoid chemical odors.

They also encourage collectors to consider individual bottle racks rather than bins. Individual racks hold a single bottle in each slot and can be custom built to hold large-format or half-bottles, making it easier to track, remove and safely store your wine collection.

Bins usually hold 16 bottles in one large square- or diamond-shaped rack; while they can be purchased inexpensively as do-it-yourself racking, Tregaskis points out that "most collectors have less than a case [of each wine]." Tregaskis, like most custom designers, will build nine-bottle bins, take into account odd-size bottles, construct smaller racks for half-bottles and incorporate display areas for large-format bottles.

For those who do favor large, diamond-shaped bins, Zinser recommends using them solely for one bottle shape or, better yet, one wine. "If you're buying Bordeaux, which are perfectly sized bottles with a perfect line, and then you put in bottles of [Zinfandel] or Champagne, they won't fit right," he says.

As for lighting, remember that wines like a dark environment. Over time, natural and fluorescent light sources, which both emit significant levels of ultra- violet light, can cause wines to be "light struck," resulting in off odors and flavors. The best solution is to avoid storing your wines directly below light bulbs, which also give off heat. Track or indirect lighting is preferable. Incandescent and sodium vapor lights also work well. Finally, store your delicate and sparkling wines near the floor of your cellar, where they will be less exposed to light and heat than will wines closer to the ceiling.


The obvious benefit of building your cellar yourself is that it will cost much less than hiring a designer and construction crew. A designer, however, will not only save you the headache (and backache) of planning out and doing the construction yourself but will also have access to rare antiques and unusual building materials. A cellar that's designed and built by Zinser or Fugere, complete with cooling, insulation, racking and decoration, will cost $100,000 to $150,000 on average. Zinser has recently designed a number of smaller cellars for between $50,000 and $80,000, but as both he and Fugere point out, their clients are usually building cellars for a minimum of 2,000 bottles and often upwards of 10,000 bottles. Tregaskis has designed cellars for as little as $45,000 but averages $70,000 for a 2,000-bottle cellar.

And be prepared to watch your collection grow once you have a beautiful cellar in which to store it. For a 1,500-bottle collection, for example, Tregaskis suggests building a cellar that can hold at least 2,000 bottles. "Most importantly," he adds, "be silly and have fun. Wine is celebratory. Your wine cellar should be too."

Kristiana Kahakauwila is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor, Mich.



  1. Some design companies, including Cellar works in New York, owned by Lee and Amanda Zinsser, and New Hampshire-based Cuvee Storage Systems, owned by Paul Figure, build custom cooling systems. Ultra Wine Racks & Cellars

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