After being away from wine for the past 15-16 years I decided to revive an old passion. I started a wine news and reviews site Fine Wines Gazette along with a twitter and Facebook page. to help people like me get more out of their wine enjoyment. I hope you enjoy this and find it useful. It’s a bit of a read but worth it
This is a paper I wrote many years ago “Building and Stocking a Wine Cellar”
For hundreds and possibly thousands
of years people have laid wine down
in great cellars. They knew then
that wine needed rest before it was
consumed. In this paper I will
discuss the design, building and
stocking of a wine cellar.
I. The Reasons For a Wine Cellar
A. Proper storage
1. Old Refrigerator
2. Central air conditioning
3. Window style air conditioning
4. Specialized Unit
A. What needs do you have?
1. Who will do it?
1. Importance of proper insulation
A. What wines do you like?
B. What should you cellar?
C. Where will you buy your wine?
1. Neighborhood wine shop
2. Large discount store
3. Visits to vineyards
4. Mail order
A. What do you need?
For hundreds and possibly thousands of years, people have
laid wine down in great cellars. They knew then that wine needed
rest before it was consumed. No one would drink a red wine
younger than ten to fifteen years old, or white wines younger
than five years of age (Sennett 248). What has happened to
society? Today, we drink wine straight off of the store shelf,
much before it is time. In this paper I will discuss the design,
building and stocking of a wine cellar.
The reason one constructs a wine cellar is to have a place
where wine can be properly stored and aged without disruptions
(such as humidity and light) and temperature changes. Many
factors contribute to the proper storage of wine.
Temperature is the main concern. When temperatures vary
more than several degrees wine expands and contracts, which
pushes wine gasses out through the cork when heated and pulls in
oxygen (the process that promotes premature aging) when cooled.
This process is called ullage. To help bring this into
perspective, wine and the bottle both expand and contract at
different rates. Water (wine) expands seven times more than
glass. When temperatures rise, the wine expands seven times more
than the bottle. The air space in the bottle also expands more
than wine or glass. It expands thirty-two times more than water
and 188 times more than glass (Gold 14). This can cause a great
deal of ullage which, in most cases, will never be noticed until
the bottles are checked and one finds wine missing! Most wine
will evaporate before it hits the floor, leaving no telltale
signs. In extreme cases, the cork can be pushed out, a bottle can explode, or you can have over-mature wine in a very short
The proper temperature at which to store wine is 55? F
(13 ‘C) in a controlled situation, but a variation of several
degrees is acceptable. Some people feel that a temperature range
from 45? to 70’F will not harm wine. Every collector has his or
her opinion (Rosengarden 17). In our cellar we try to maintain
55’ to 60’F year round.
Humidity also comes into play because cork is sensitive to
humidity. When humidity is low, dry air can seep through the
cork and cause wine to evaporate. High humidity, however, does
not harm the wine. One hundred percent humidity is ideal because
you would not lose any wine; the cork would seal perfectly, but
you would cause your labels to become moldy and falloff. If
this happens you may not be able to identify that rare 1865
Rothchild — then what would you do!? The perfect humidity is
around 70%. This level makes for ideal conditions; moisture
enough for the cork and dry enough for the label (Gold 20) .
Lighting is the third major factor in wine storage. Many
Oenphiles (wine lovers) feel that light can cause damage to wines
through high frequency wave lengths generated by the sun or
fluorescent lighting. Sunlight and artificial light can cause
damage because it can raise temperatures in the storage area
causing temperature variations. Lights should remain off when
you are not in your cellar and all sunlight should be eliminated
(Gold 21) .
These are the three main factors that contribute to the
success or failure of properly cellaring fine wines. There are other factors involved-vibration and sediment. Both are controversial so I will not elaborate on them.
Designing a cellar is a personal thing. You build or have
built, an area that fits your space, your needs, and your goals.
The rule of thumb is if you want to build a cellar that can hold
three hundred bottles now, maybe you should construct an area
with enough space to hold six hundred bottles in the future, if
you chose to expand later.
There are two types of cellars — passive and refrigerated.
Let’s look and compare both. A passive cellar is an ideal
cellar if you have the proper conditions. A passive cellar needs
no aid in maintaining proper and constant temperatures. You
would need to be underground, below the frost line or deep in a
cave. Most people do not have this luxury. Nevertheless, these
conditions are perfect for wine because temperatures remain
fairly constant during both summer and winter. Given this
option, the only problem you may have is humidity and it can be
controlled. Wine can be cellared in nearly perfect conditions
and you have virtually no expenses for cooling.
Refrigerated cellars are the other option and they come in
several forms, from simple to complex. Let’s review them.
The easiest and least expensive method, and far from the
best is to use an old style refrigerator that does not have
self-defrosting capabilities. On the plus side, this will keep
temperatures constant but on the other hand, it will not hold
many bottles and humidity can be a problem.
You can utilize sources in your own home if you have central
air conditioning by running a vent into the storage area. The
main problem with this is in the summer the cool air is very dry
so humidity must be added. In the winter, unless your storage
area is very cool, you would have to run your air conditioning
all winter. This is not a good idea unless you live in Florida.
Also, you need to close the vent tightly to keep heat from
entering. Obviously, this system has many limitations.
One step better is the use of a small window style air
conditioner in a sealed room. This is better but also has some
problems. This system keeps the cellar cool but also dries the
air. Humidity must be introduced into the cellar to compensate
for the dry air. Also, excessive heat is generated by the air
conditioner. This air should be vented outdoors. If vented into
an adjacent room, it could make the temperature very
uncomfortable. Air conditioners cool the air and pull the
moisture out and that moisture must be drained from the unit. A
plan must be devised on how to collect and dispose of this water.
The next two methods are the most preferred. They are both
made specifically for the storage of wine. The first is a device
that is much like an air conditioner in design but controls the
humidity In the cellar. The unit mounts In one wall of the
cellar and is vented to an adjacent room. The exhaust is warm,
not hot because all the moisture is not being taken out. This is the unit that we chose in our cellar. It has a capacity for
cooling up to 600 bottles in a sealed and insulated room. This
is the smallest of the units. Some units will cool thousands of
The second unit is a self-contained assembly. This unit
just needs to be plugged in and stocked. These units start at
refrigerator size and go all the way to vault size. Equipment
like this can get very expensive and will not hold as many
bottles as a custom built cellar (Gold 81-93). As you see, there
are many options you can explore.
Now that you have decided to build a wine cellar, who will
do it and how should it be constructed? All refrigerated
designs, with the exception of the self-contained and old
refrigerator varieties, need careful planning and construction.
The first question to answer is who is going to build your
cellar? If you feel confident in your carpentry skills, I would
say that this will be one of the most fulfilling projects you can
attempt. To watch your project come together from start to
finish will be quite an accomplishment. On the other hand, if
you are not comfortable in undertaking such a project, for
whatever reason call in the experts. Call several contractors
and discuss your plans with them. Get several estimates and
choose the contractor you are most comfortable with. You can
save money by ordering your racks, refrigeration, and accessories
through several companies which specialize in this area. These
catalog companies can supply you with everything you will need
at discount prices. Two catalogs that are the most popular are
“The Wine Enthusiast” and “International Wine Accessories”.
Addresses and phone numbers can be located in any wine magazine.
Next, determine your location. It can be in the basement,
in a closet, in the garage, wherever you have extra space.
Measure how much room you have and try to ensure that space
is adequate for your wine storage needs. Try to keep your soon-
to-be wine cellar away from heating pipes, furnaces or sunlight.
Once the issue of location is settled you can plan your placement
of storage racks, cooling unit and any other things you may want
Construction can now proceed. Basic construction of the
cellar is the same as adding any other room with the exception
that the room must be super-insulated. The walls, ceiling, floor
, and doors must all be insulated. Anywhere cool air can escape
and warm air can enter must be sealed. All insulation must be of
a grade of R-ll or greater. The “R” value is a measure of heat
conservation. R-11 insulation means that it has 3.5 inches of
fiberglass. The higher the number, the thicker and better
insulating quality (Gold 112) .
Other options to fiberglass include cellulose, which is
treated, shredded newspaper which is blown into place, or rigid
foam board. Foam board has a higher R-value per inch than all
the others. No matter which insulation you choose, always use
the best you can (Gold 112). The door of the cellar must be
insulated as well. You can build a door of foam and wood or buy
one from a building material supplier.
After construction is completed this is where the fun
begins. Stocking your cellar can be as much fun as building it
and almost as expensive. If you really love wine, and you must
because you built a cellar, a good round figure to keep in mind
is nine cases; yes, 188 bottles! You cannot drink it all before
Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Chianti, Barolo and
Syrah or Petite Syrah for a good selection of reds (Thompson 98).
Other wines can be stocked to lay for longer periods. These
wines include white and red of the Burgundy variety and red and
white Bordeauxs. If your purchases are from a good grower and
vineyard you will have some extraordinary wine in the future.
Purchasing your wine can be fun because there are quite a
few outlets for purchasing your treasure. One of my favorite
ways to make purchases is at my neighborhood wine shop where the
owner and staff are very knowledgeable. A small neighborhood
store can give you personal attention and explain the wines to
you. Most small stores taste all of their wines and give you a
first hand report on what they think of each product, verbally or
written on note cards with the product. Large liquor/wine stores
can give you a much better price, but are sure times lacking in
personal attention. If this does not bother you, this is a great
way to buy. Other options include visiting vineyards and tasting
their products and purchasing what you like or ordering mail
order from most any vineyard of your choice, at least in the
Continental United States.
If you want to buy special or old vintage wines you can also
attend wine auctions. This is where some of the best wines can
be bought. Just remember to bring your checkbook because most of
this wine is expensive. Wines at auction have usually been
acquired from private collections or vineyards that held small
amounts of their finest vintages just to auction when it will
draw a premium price. All of these wines are normally taste tested and the results are available well before the auction
begins Catalogues are available for all auctions. All tasting
notes and minimum bids are included in these catalogues.
Auctions offer you the chance to purchase that special vintage
you want for extraordinary occasions.
Now that your cellar is stocked, what other things will you
need? First you want a good quality thermometer and hygrometer
(measures humidity), a must for all cellars. You always want to
know that conditions are perfect for your collection. In
addition to “must haves”, you need a good, high powered
flashlight to check for ullage and sediment in your bottles. You
may also want to catalogue your wines so you know exactly how it
tasted for future reference. All you need is a bound book with
blank pages and use file cards for each wine and notes. Attach
the cards to each page and you have an instant log book (Gold
238-240). You could go on forever buying things for your cellar,
but these items are a must. Everything else you have or purchase
for your cellar are toys, extra things you really do not need but
Building and stocking your wine cellar will become one of
life’s little pleasures. A place where you can relax, where all
of your troubles disappear. Owning a cellar helps you save money
as well. You can buy in case lots and save ten percent or more
on the normal price.
As I have been writing this paper I have also been building
my own cellar and it has been a very rewarding experience. There
have been problems, but they have all been overcome. If you have ever thought about building and you can afford it, do it. You
will never regret it. #finewinesgazette
Lewis Bailie http://finewinesgazette.com
Gold, Richard M. PH.D. How and Why to Build a Wine Cellar.
Mass. Sand Hill Publishing, 1993.
Rosengarten, David. “Wine at the Table; Perfect Storage … Just
In Case”. Newsday, August 8, 1990, Food 17.
248 – 249.
“A Cellar Performance”. Vogue, Nov. 1987:
“A Case For Wine Cellars”. California, August