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Stellar Cellars

For a top-tier wine collection, a well-designed cellar is not simply an indulgence—it's a necessity. Jeff Book reports on accommodating your most valuable bottles in style.

Photography by Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images.


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When Sharon Songal, co-owner of Songal Designs in Connecticut, was hired to custom-design a wine cellar in Florida, the client specified that it should double as a hurricane shelter. "If his house was going to be wrecked and he had to be in a room for three days, he wanted to be with his wines," Songal says. Everyone has tales of collectors who reaped big profits (and paid for their cellars) by buying and holding cases of once young and inexpensive wines like the '82 Bordeaux. But for many, like Songal's client, a wine cellar is above all an emotional investment. New York wine-cellar designer Christine Hawley recalls the Manhattan woman who hired her to create a cellar as a tenth-anniversary gift for her husband. "She specified blonde maple, explaining, 'He's already married to a brunette—this is going to be his mistress, so let's give him a blonde.' "

"A cellar should be an extension of its owner," declares Joe Newmyer, who's been collecting wine for three decades. When he and his wife bought a roomy lakeside condo in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, last year, they began a top-to-bottom remodeling—or, rather, bottom-to-top, since the first space to be finished was a fully climate-controlled wine cellar.

"When we moved out of our house, I had to put my wine in storage," explains Newmyer. "But I didn't feel comfortable leaving my valuable collection in someone else's care."

Now a stuffed peacock stands guard just outside the cellar's wood-framed glass doors. Inside, 2,400 bottles bide their time in cedar-trimmed redwood racks created, again, by Songal Designs. Newmyer has also personalized his collection with a selection of art and antiques, including 18th-century crystal cherubs, a French deacon's bench, a bearskin rug, and a painting of a woman bearing grapes from the harvest.

He isn't the only oenophile with a vivid imagination. "There are two kinds of cellars—the purely functional kind and the statement cellar," says Robert Cunningham of Vintage Cellars, in San Marcos, California. "In recent years we've been doing a lot more of the latter."Some people have hired him to create cellars echoing Poe's sinister story "A Cask of Amontillado," with faux-brick and plaster walls and iron gates. (Has no one recreated the suspenseful cellar from the movie Notorious?) Another of Cunningham's clients collects homes as avidly as wines, and commissioned separate cellars for each of his seven houses.

The lavish home cellar is the next logical step in the long-term trend of duplicating commercial spaces at home, such as movie theaters, workout rooms, and spas. "People have been inspired by display cellars in restaurants," says Adam D. Tihany, who created one of the most dramatic examples, the glassed-in, 45-foot-high "wine tower" at Aureole, a restaurant at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino, in Las Vegas. Adds cellar designer David Spon, of Virginia-based Wine Cellar Concepts, "With the increased importance of entertaining at home, a wine cellar can be as essential as a gourmet kitchen."

With that in mind, here are tips from experts across the country on building a wine cellar that will give you years of pleasure:

Aging Well is Everything

A well-designed cellar is imperative, since it safeguards what is often a substantial investment. At today's heady prices, even a couple hundred youthful bottles can easily have a five-figure value that will escalate with age—if properly stored. Collectors who buy and sell on the resale market understand that only well-cellared wines fetch top dollar.

"I know people who go to the trouble of using a museum-style graphing machine to document cellar conditions," says Cunningham. "That may seem extreme, but I've seen auctioneers reject poorly stored bottles. Imagine thinking that you have a case worth $8,000 and discovering you've just got twelve bottles of over-the-hill wine." Beyond monetary value, oenophiles feel a duty to coddle their bottles for the sake of the wine. "It's heartbreaking to let a fabulous wine go past its prime," says Hawley.

Always Keep Yours Cool

Wine ages best in a cool, damp, dark, still environment. Humidity should remain in the 60-70 percent range—enough to avoid oxidation and evaporation resulting from dried-out corks but not so much that mold or moisture damage corks or labels (which are like dust jackets on first editions—if they're flawed, a bottle's resale value drops). The most important factor, of course, is temperature. Experts say that the ideal for both red and white wines is around 55 degrees (mimicking, not coincidentally, a typical château cave)—much lower and a wine will mature too slowly, much higher and it will age prematurely (the rule of thumb is that chemical reactions double with every increase of 18 degrees Fahrenheit, and that at higher temperatures bad reactions may outpace beneficial ones). "Just as important as the temperature is that it not fluctuate more than one or two degrees year-round," notes Songal.

If you're lucky enough to have a deep basement with an area well insulated from furnaces and other sources of heat, you may have the right conditions for a passive (nonrefrigerated) cellar. "That's hard to achieve," cautions Josh Farrell, director of marketing for The Wine Enthusiast, one of a handful of catalogues that sell both custom and stock cellar solutions. "In July and August we always get calls from people saying, 'My fifty-degree cellar is at seventy degrees—what should I do?'"

In most large cities it's possible to rent space in a climate-controlled wine-storage facility. But not having your wine under your own roof means you sacrifice spontaneity and control. "I had my wine in a storage locker until I went there and found the cooling system wasn't working," relates a California oenophile, who still shudders at the memory. "They fixed it, but I decided not to wait for the next heat wave."

Whether in a basement or aboveground (a necessity in Florida and other areas with a high water table), a refrigerated cellar is an isolation chamber for wine. Every cellar specialist has been called in to correct wine cellars that were either too dry (a problem in arid areas like the Southwest) or dripping with condensation (a bane of humid areas). Critical for humidity control is an effective polyethylene vapor barrier on the outer (or warm) side of the room's insulation. "If an inexperienced contractor puts the vapor barrier on the inside, you'll get moisture, and possibly mildew, inside the wall," explains Doug Smith of Apex Wine Cellars & Racking Systems. You will need plenty of insulation (Evan Goldenberg, architect at the Connecticut firm Design Build Consultants, recommends an R-19 insulation value for the walls and R-30 in the ceiling) and you may need to reinforce the floor to support all those full-bodied Cabernets. Doors should be exterior-grade, with adequate weather stripping.

Imagination Pays Off

Although wine cellars ranked last in a survey of real estate amenities conducted by Century 21, they do have a strong appeal for the very affluent. For that market, custom wine storage can enhance property values. In Manhattan, for instance, all 13 units in a luxury SoHo loft conversion came with access to a Hawley-designed "Enoteca" in the basement, complete with tasting room and individual temperature- and humidity-controlled storage for at least 700 bottles (including individual cellars that can hold 3,500 bottles for residents of the $8 million penthouses). Designer Paul Wyatt of Fine Wine Rack & Cellar Company is creating private wine cellars to go with $4 million loft-style apartments in a Seattle high-rise.

But with so many possible decorative elements (murals, mosaics, chandeliers, rope lighting, wrought iron), it's easy to overwhelm a small cellar space. That wasn't a problem for Carnival Cruise Lines president Bob Dickinson. When he and his wife moved into a new house in Coral Gables, Florida, he converted 1,200 square feet of it into a cellar for his 22,000-bottle collection. The structurally reinforced floor features a marble mosaic of grapes in one room and a granite panel bearing the inscription in vino veritas in another. The most venerable of his wines are safely stowed in the coldest of three temperature zones, to retard aging. "My oldest is a 1795 Madeira," he says. "I opened a bottle at the turn of the millennium and it was absolutely delicious after twenty or thirty minutes, like an old man stirring from a long sleep."

"You can let your imagination go on a holiday with a wine cellar," Hawley says. "It can be a relaxing escape." Beyond such flights of fancy, a cellar must function flawlessly. "Building a custom cellar is expensive because it goes far beyond conventional construction," explains Goldenberg, whose cellars typically cost $400 per square foot. "You have almost all the trades you'd have building a house working on one room."

Based in cellar-rich Greenwich, Connecticut, Goldenberg says he has designed hundreds of wine cellars, from the purely utilitarian to one that brings to mind an English country house library, with mahogany and cherry woodwork and a limestone-topped central table. "We always try to create something elegant," he says. "It's not a meat locker." For cooling, he favors what he calls a "stealth system," an ultraquiet split system with an optional humidifier.

Jean-France Mercier (Tixa Custom Wine Cellars), who creates cellars for many prominent producers and actors, has the Hollywood flair for camouflaging flaws. "In a low space, I might use Venetian stucco on the ceiling, lighter in the center and darker at the edges for an expansive effect, then columns to punctuate the racks," he says. In one of the cellars he has done for Joe Smith, the former president of EMI-Capitol (which owns Capitol Records), Mercier used a rack of oversized bottles as a base for a tasting table with a glass top and lighting, showcasing imperials of La Tâche and Pétrus.

Doug Smith recalls a glass coffee table that an English client planned to situate over a transparent panel in the floor, affording an unobstructed view of the cellar that Smith's firm installed beneath the living room. Headquartered in Bellevue, Washington, with showrooms around the country, Apex manufactures racks from redwood, cedar, and mahogany (in addition to custom-order woods), and has installed cellars worldwide. David Spon, who has crafted five cellars for chef Charlie Trotter, emphasizes furniture-quality cabinetry in 20 different species of wood. "Building a first-rate cellar requires the right mix of design, craftsmanship, and engineering," he says.

Hawley, who designs striking French cellars for upper-crust wine collectors, draws inspiration from the wine estates she's visited in Bordeaux and Burgundy with her husband, Michael Aaron, CEO of the New York wine store Sherry-Lehmann. "I often create an aged look," she says, "to make the cellar appear 300 years old." Hawley's cellars run about $1,000 to $1,500 per square foot, or an average of $500,000 (a particularly grand one in Chicago cost over a million), but everything in them is custom-designed. She commissioned a terra-cotta wall relief featuring Bacchus for oilman David Koch's cellar in Aspen, where bronze grapes and grape leaves festoon stools and grillwork. She likes to employ arches and vaulting, even in a small space, and to add a transitional step or two "to enhance the cellar feeling." She prefers iron racks and bins. ("They gain a patina with age," Hawley notes, "and that's part of their charm.") She also favors antique hardware, distressed wooden doors, and the French way of bordering a stone floor in gravel, which is not only aesthetically appealing but traps humidity and keeps dropped bottles from breaking.

What a Rack

In two decades of creating cellars here and abroad from his base in San Francisco (and now also in the Napa Valley), Wyatt has developed wood racking that is beautifully functional, balancing steam-bent curves with rhythmic grids. When Wyatt pulls out all the stops, with spotlit display niches, figure-eight overhead racks, and a mirrored ceiling, the result has the visual pizzazz of an M.C. Escher drawing. His pared-down structures increase air flow over the bottles, "with the added benefit of flexibility so they're more earthquake-resistant," he notes. "Everything is sprung in place, not attached to walls. In an earthquake, the racks may walk over the floor but they'll stay with the wine." Finding the redwood currently available too soft and not as rich in color, he has switched to Australian jarrah, Guatemalan mahogany, and dark Peruvian walnut. Clients laud his double-deep racks because they can make a cellar look full while leaving room for expansion.

When planning your rack, don't forget to factor in space for future acquisitions, and for what collector Peter Boboff refers to as "the highway effect"—build a highway and it fills up. "No one ever complains of too much capacity," remarks Mercier. Cellar specialists analyze their clients' needs to determine how much room to allot for standard-bottle racking, oversized bottles, and case storage; how many display niches or stepped "waterfall" racks to put in; and how much table or counter space to create for unpacking and tasting.

Your Cellar Shouldn't Cost More than Your Wine Collection

Both the Dallas-based International Wine Accessories (IWA), and The Wine Enthusiast sell a cost-effective solution for smaller, but still valuable, collections—prefab walk-in wine rooms, complete with insulation, cooling unit, and racking, that hold between 600 and 2,800 bottles and start at about $2,000.

"It's a wonderful in-between option," says Roger Tafel, cellar specialist at IWA. "You can put it in an existing room and take it with you if you move. It's a day's work for two people to assemble the room, another half-day to install the racking. And you can get added insulation if you're going to put it in an uninsulated space like a garage." While well-heeled wine collectors may seem unlikely do-it-yourselfers, there are those who get involved in cellar construction, more out of pride than to save money. "People have very personal relationships with their wine collections," says Cunningham. "You'd be surprised how many CEOs and CFOs out there are good carpenters." Hawley, however, counters: "My clients are better with a corkscrew than a screwdriver."

For smaller wine collections, stand-alone or built-in cabinets may be the answer. "If you're storing 500 bottles or less, stand-alone units are the most economical means to safeguard your collection," advises Tafel. "To build and equip a home cellar for that many bottles will cost at least twice as much." Offering more wine-friendly temperature and humidity levels than a standard refrigerator, these coolers come in various sizes and finishes—stainless steel, wood to match the adjacent cabinetry, solid or framed-glass doors—in models that can stand alone or be installed flush with surrounding cabinets or walls. Some of the best-known brands are Sub-Zero, Le Cache, Vinocave, Eurocave, and Transtherm.

Perhaps the priciest of them is the German-made Chambrair's deluxe line, which starts at $13,000 for a commercial-grade, multitemperature-zone cabinet with microprocessor-controlled temperature sensors, charcoal air filters, and a range of finishes, including one that consists of eight layers of glossy piano lacquer. "Chambrair produces good units that can be customized," says Sharon Songal. "We offer one-of-a-kind custom-made units for similar prices." (Chambrair's appliance-grade line is much less costly, and the company also builds custom walk-in cellars.)

Keep it Quiet

There are three types of wine-cellar cooling systems: the split system, the ducted system, and the through-wall unit. In a split system, the evaporator, or fan unit, is installed in the cellar and connected by a refrigerant line to a condenser, or motor, which is outside; a ducted system has both the evaporator and the condenser outside the cellar.

"A ducted system's the most expensive, partly because it requires a contractor to install ductwork, but it's the most unobtrusive and the only kind in which you can have both humidification and dehumidification," says Songal. "With the other two, correct humidity is dependent on correct construction of the room." The through-wall unit (the cheapest and most common system) she finds best suited to an isolated room you're not going to spend much time in, "because they can vibrate and be noisy."

Create a Safe Haven

Some clients are asking designers for secure, individually climate-controlled compartments within a cellar for other valuables, including cigars, fur coats, and documents. High-value cellars frequently have sensors linked to alarm systems. Hawley's cellars send a signal if they go ten degrees over or under 55. For a wine collection valued at $5 million, Brian Wilson of Boston Wine Cellar Designs installed two independent cooling systems that alternate from week to week, a propane backup generator, and a device to alert an alarm company if the temperature or humidity go out of range. For smaller cellars, a warning light can be placed on the main floor of the house.

Make Sure You Love It

To those considering their own cave à vin, one cellar owner says simply, "Do it right, because you and your wine are going to live with it for a long time."

Dining In

One of the pleasures of a cellar is taking guests along to select bottles for dinner, perhaps lingering for hors d'oeuvres. But those who fancy dining in their cellars generally find them too cold for comfort. Some turn off the cooling system for a few hours, figuring that the thermal mass of the wine will keep it from warming significantly. That's unthinkable to purists--far better to divide dining and storage areas with triple-paned Thermopane glass, as Paul Wyatt did in a wraparound cellar for California real estate mogul Ken Behring. Its double-deep racks hold 7,000 bottles. "All the wine is ready to drink," Wyatt says. "He told me, 'I'm old and I'm rich and I don't want to wait.' " Hawley installed a Chicago cellar behind a reflective glass wall, where it lies unseen by dinner guests until the owner illuminates it with the flick of a switch.

Vino Vidi Vici

Restaurant cellars need an element of spectacle to sell the wine," says designer Adam D. Tihany. His dazzling glassed-in "wine tower" at Aureole restaurant in Las Vegas is pure drama. Rigged with a pulley system, it whisks employees up a 45-foot-high stack to retrieve bottles. "A residential wine cellar celebrates the mystique of wine in a more intimate way," Tihany adds.

Wine Cellar Sources

While we list companies by state, many of them have clients all around the country.
ARIZONA SCOTTSDALE: Valentini's Fine Wine Line, Inc. $; 480-991-1980;
CALIFORNIA LOS ANGELES: Tixa Custom Wine Cellars $; 415-626-9463; • SAN MARCOS: Vintage Cellars; 800-876-8789; 760-735-9946;
CONNECTICUT GREENWICH: Design Build Consultants Inc. $; 800-820-9463; 203-861-0111; • SOUTH KENT: Songal Designs; 800-449-4451;
FLORIDA MIAMI: Chambrair U.S.A., Inc. $; 305-573-5120;
MASSACHUSETTS HOPKINTON: Boston Wine Cellar Designs $; 508-497-8811;
NEW YORK MANHATTAN: Christine Hawley Designs, Inc. $; 212-721-0831 • ELMSFORD: The Wine Enthusiast; 800-377-3330;
TEXAS DALLAS: International Wine Accessories, Inc.; 800-527-4072;
VIRGINIA MCLEAN: Wine Cellar Concepts $; 703-263-9500; 202-251-1999;
WASHINGTON BELLEVUE: Apex Wine Cellars & Racking Systems; 800-462-2714; 425-644-1178;

Jeff Book wrote about collecting Tibetan rugs made in Nepal in the March/April issue of Departures.



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