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Constructing and Outfitting a Wine Cellar

More quickly than you would have possibly imagined, the small wine refrigerator you bought first is clearly inadequate and a dark closet is too warm to protect what has become a costly investment.



Photo courtesy of Vintage Cellars (www.vintagecellars.com).
Photo courtesy of Vintage Cellars (www.vintagecellars.com).

The next step is to acquire a wine cellar, either by building one yourself or—if the project is extensive—hiring one of the growing number of contractors who specialize in them.

Build Your Own Wine Cellar
If you have a basement, building a simple wine cellar is a good do-it-yourself project. Jeff Cox, author of Cellaring Wine, says it’s a good first building project for someone who’s just learning. He details the job thoroughly in his book, breaking it down step by step.“Anybody can follow those directions,” Cox says. “Or, these steps will be familiar to a licensed carpenter.”

Start by choosing a dry corner of the basement with 12 available feet of wall space extending in both directions. Plan to build two more insulated walls that are also 12 feet, giving yourself a room that is 144 square feet. This size will allow you to hold 100 cases of wine in standard wine shelving. If you scrimp on the dimensions, you’ll have to modify the prefab shelving or custom build it, which is a lot more trouble and expense.

Contractor Gene Walder, owner of Vintage Cellars in San Marco, Calif., says that whether you are building a basement unit or converting an upstairs bedroom into a wine storage area, insulation is a key step.

He recommends building the walls with 5/8th-inch green board, installing a vapor barrier and insulating with a faced rigid cellular polyisocyanurate thermal insulation board like Thermax or its polyurethane foam spray cousin. At the very least, he urges R-15 in the walls and R-30 in the ceiling. In warm climates, more insulation is better, he says.

Seal the outside walls and any window that is in the space. Keeping the area dry is important because otherwise the labels on the wine bottles will mold. A coat of waterproof sealer on the basement walls will help prevent this moisture from seeping in. You also don’t want light from the window, so cover the glass and fill the window well with insulation.

Keep Your Wine Cool
The ideal temperature for a wine cellar is 58 degrees. Equally important is maintaining the humidity at about 70 percent. If the air’s too dry, it will suck humidity through the corks and prematurely age the wine. That’s one reason why a standard portable air conditioner doesn’t work in a wine cellar. Another reason is that vibration is as bad for wine as warm temperatures and most portable units hum and vibrate when they are operating.

Two brands of wine cellar coolers that Walder recommends are Whisperkool, manufactured by Vinotheque, and Wine Guardian. Each of these manufacturers makes two styles of coolers. A split system requires putting the cooling unit

outside of the cellar, usually in the backyard, and piping the cool air in. A ducted system has a unit that resembles a window air conditioner and the exhaust has to be vented such as through a basement casement window, for


Photo courtesy of Vintage Cellars (www.vintagecellars.com).
Photo courtesy of Vintage Cellars (www.vintagecellars.com).

instance. Some models can also be vented into the basement itself. The air handler pipes the cool air through ducts in the wine cellar.

Which system is better? Cox prefers a split system because the mechanical parts that can cause vibration are far from the unit. But he also says that a well-insulated basement wine cellar in a temperate climate may not need additional cooling at all unless there’s a furnace in the basement that makes the space hot and dry.

Wine cellar cooling expert John Cunney, owner of Design Heating and Air Conditioning in Woodbridge, Va., prefers Whisperkool’s split systems because they are easy to install and maintain. But he thinks that they are not a particularly attractive option because the evaporator is visible. If décor is a key concern, then he recommends Vinotheque’s ducted system, which he says is much less obtrusive.

Finish the Job
Putting the finishing touches on the cellar includes adding flooring, electrical, lighting, paint and racks for the wine. Here are some important tips in creating your wine cellar.

• Avoid carpeting. It will soak up the moisture in the air. Wood flooring doesn’t work very well either because of the high moisture content in the unit. The best choice is tile.

• If you paint the walls, use a zero or low volatile organic compound (VOC) paint like Benjamin Moore’s Eco Spec. Low VOC paints have little or no odor and can pollute indoor air quality. Strong-smelling paints can corrupt the wine.

• While wine doesn’t like bright lights, you’ll still want to be able to see the labels and record which bottle you’re drinking, so adding electrical outlets and task lights is important. Walder also points out that if you’re converting an existing room, the electrical code will probably demand a certain number of outlets and neglecting to install them can lead to potential electrical danger.

• Adding racks is the final but very important step. The simplest and cheapest solution is pine diamond bins. WineRacks.com sells some that are sturdy.

Building a wine cellar can be an expensive proposition, but it doesn’t have to be. Adriennevan Dooren, author of The House that Faux Built: Transform Your Home with Paint, Plaster and Creativity, spent $950 to turn an ugly basement corner with 6½-foot ceilings into a charming wine storage area. The room doesn’t have a cooling system, although one could be added. “Room-temperature red wine isn’t a big deal for me,” Dooren said.

At the other end of the spectrum is the custom design department at Wine Enthusiast Co., a wine retailer and magazine publisher, based in upstate New York. As the custom design manager, Stephen Del Duca travels all over the world building custom wine rooms. He tells potential customers to expect to spend a minimum of $25,000 and a buyer who wants to go the distance can easily spend as much as $150,000.

Credit: Renovate Your World