Unlocking the Pleasure of a Wine Cellar

The romance of wine flows like a seemingly never-ending river. Having a cellar of one’s own to store personal favorites extends the romance. If wine is part of a routine, a wine cellar can become a great part of that lifestyle. And, when spending on investment-grade wine, a properly designed space tailored to ideal storage is an absolute must and it can generally be had in less than a few months.

Peter Cimino of North Fork Wine Cellar Designs in Carle Place plans and installs wine cellars from Manhattan to Montauk ranging in capacity from 400 to 8,500 bottles. “They’re now regularly included in most new home construction,” he said. “Other times it’s a homeowner’s request.” Cimino will often visit a site before starting a design to be sure it can meet the demands of a proper cellar. “Sometimes the desired site may not work and an alternative needs to be found,” he said, as when a furnace is nearby or if the space is not large enough.

Capacity is a big factor and differences can be substantial. Consider that a 6-by-6-foot space traditionally designed for the specific purpose of storage may hold 1,500-2,000 bottles. A more modern design that incorporates seating and other decorative elements can shrink that number down to about 200. Farmingdale-based Ken Windt, who designs wine cellars for Kedco Wine Storage Systems, recently completed a design for a client who wanted space from which to hang artwork. While many clients want brick walls for an old-world, cavernous feeling, “some want a more modern look with lots of glass and steel shelving. This style will generally have a lesser storage capacity but has almost an art gallery feel to it where the collection is the focal point.” Windt said.

It really comes down to how the homeowner uses the space. Often, it’s a grab and go. But increasingly, the cantina is becoming a place to gather and socialize. Still, as important as size is, it’s not the only element in the design. Lighting and spacing are often overlooked said Mark O’Donnell of Alternative Construction Solutions in Westhampton Beach. “Basic track lighting is all most wine cellars need. You want to be able to easily read the labels. [When] people like to linger in their cellar with a guest or two, space for moving about and tasting should be incorporated. Four-foot wide aisles are comfortable.”

While a temperature-control system will help preserve wine in an ideal state, it can make the cellar chilly. In order for the beauty of a cellar to be enjoyed without having to wear an overcoat, many are being designed with a separate tasting area, where guests can enjoy dinner in a warmer setting with a view of the wine.

The material used to build the room and display the bottles influences the size of the refrigeration unit and therefore the cost of maintaining the wine. Wine cellars also require superior insulation and moisture proofing. According to Cimino, a room with solid, insulated walls and a wood door with insulated, double pane glass is ideal for keeping the conditioned air in the cellar. Cimino also noted that drains are often needed to remove cooling unit condensation, which is difficult to incorporate when the foundation makes for some of the walls and floor. That’s why some newer designs feature ventilation and refrigeration systems in a separate room.

For safe storage, oak or maple racks accommodate various bottle sizes and should be anchored to a wall or floor—you never know when a magnum of Chateau Margaux is going to fall into your hands and you don’t want that rack getting toppled by a mop. As always, bottles should be stored on their sides on sloping racks to keep corks moist. Surrounding those racks, savvy builders will construct the areas in materials other than wood, which can warp or erode in the moisture over time.

Other features include software that automatically values a collection, provides “recommended drink dates” and a bar-coding system to keep track of consumption. A wine’s value often increases as it approaches its peak drinking years and decreases once it passes that point. Anti-theft devices now include password-protected or fingerprint-identification entry systems although traditional key-locks are more common. Others are linked to home-security systems that can signal a warning should there be an unauthorized entry or the temperature strays too far from the desired level (common after power outages). In areas prone to hurricanes or other natural disasters, back-up generators can prevent extreme temperature fluctuation, a few hours of which can destroy a collection that may have taken years to assemble.

Buying and Storing

“There are plenty of wines to be had in the $15-$20 price range that age well,” said Paul DeVerna, chief wine buyer at Vintage Mattituck. “Some like to store wine to see how it evolves,” he added. Aging changes wine’s flavor over time. Marco Pellegrini, head chef and wine buyer at Caci in Southold recommended northern Italian reds such as barolo and barbaresco from Piedmont. “These are robust wines that age well.” Barolo tends to age better but each peak in about 10 years. Langhe Nebbiolo, also from Piedmont, is usually a very good “value wine” for starting a collection.

Similarly, DaVerna recommended buying what you like. “Most people start collecting with Bordeaux. Over time one may develop a preference for wines from a particular winemaker or region they visited and subsequently focus their collection in that direction.” Start a collection by appraising your diet. If that includes a lot of red meat and strong cheese, seek out bolder reds like Long Island merlots. Lighter eaters may prefer wines that better accompany fish and white meat like chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.

Insuring a Collection

To protect a collection, blanket coverage is the most common as one lump sum covers everything with a maximum or “per item” limit for a single bottle usually peaking out at $50,000. While this is overkill for most collectors, blanket coverage usually does not require an appraisal or receipt.

“Over 40 percent of wine claims handled by AIG Private Client Group are a result of power outages or malfunctioning of a temperature-control system,” said Katja Zigerlig, a New York City-based vice president of art, wine and jewelry insurance for AIG Private Client Group. “Water damage is the second most common source of loss. This can be from pipes bursting or flooding. Damage during transit is another concern.”

Events such as fire, lightning, explosion and theft are rarely adequately covered by a standard homeowner’s policy, but specialized coverage can usually be added, often with no deductible and little additional premium. For example, a collection valued at $100,000 may cost about $450 to cover. As with all fine collections, a photo or video recording is recommended and in some cases required by insurers. Worldwide coverage protects wine while it is in transit from anywhere in the world and better policies pay up to 150 percent of the agreed amount.

Temperature Fluctuation—the Enemy of Wine

Temperature consistency is the most important aspect of wine storage. While most reds comfortably rest at 55-57 degrees Fahrenheit, 60 degrees will generally work providing the temperature stays level. A week or two with temperatures above 70 degrees may impact the wine’s taste. But when storing wines that are consumed young, this may not be as big a problem. “Temperature fluctuations can create small degradations which can become noticeable over time,” advised Windt. Many merchants will not ship wines in the summer months for that reason.

Proper racking and a cooling unit can also minimize breakage. Basic residential cooling units start at about $800, less than half the cost of a case of Dom Pérignon Champagne. According to Cimino, many contractors often install a commercial-grade refrigeration unit for residential use, which may not be fully compatible with a household electrical system. “Commercial cooling units can create problems in residential cellars. We’ve had cases where we’ve had to remove and replace them with a residential cooling system.”

Variety is Key

While a cellar may provide a feeling of well-being, there are risks to consider, such as paying more than necessary for a given wine and building too small a cellar. “When someone tells me they want a 500-bottle capacity cellar,” said Cimino, “I almost immediately say that will not be enough. Once you have the cellar you’re going to naturally start buying wine to fill it. Aim for double your expected capacity.”

Too much concentration in any particular region, varietal or single producer can create a dull collection. Acknowledging that there is an enormous range of wine available, many seasoned collectors refrain from buying by the case despite the discounts usually offered, opting instead to limit themselves to three to six bottles per selection. This leaves room to store a variety, especially useful if members of the same household have different tastes.