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Wine Cellars
by Dr. Oneida Cramer

Building custom wine cellars has grown into a booming business for Tim Smith who keeps three full-time employees working overtime to stay abreast of the demand.

?We?ve really seen a change, say, in the last ten years,? said Jasper Russo, spokesman for Marty?s, a wine retailer since 1943. Before, the only people buying wine cellars were hard core wine geeks who didn?t care what the cellar looked like because they were more concerned with keeping the wine. Nowadays, people who aren?t wine geeks are introducing wine as part of what they do and bringing wine into their home life. So, how the wine cellar looks becomes as important as the racks, themselves.

?Actually, this year, more than years past, we?re getting into custom cellars, where the customers want the job artfully done,? said Smith, who made the transition from refrigeration to building wine cellars four years ago. In fact, art translates literally into one of Smith?s latest cellars designed with a blind archway for a painting.

?It?s done first class all the way,? said Smith. And the top priority is wine. Any room converted into a wine cellar needs refrigeration (55 degrees F), humidity (60% to 80%), and a vapor barrier (a three step procedure including a layer of polyurethane and a coat of oil) to seal the wood from moisture. Sometimes, people, even builders, tried to cool a closet without a vapor barrier, according to Smith. But the walls get damp and moldy, and eventually rot out. Then Smith and his crew have to tear out the damage and start over.

Designing a wine cellar varies with tastes in drinking wine. For instance, people who buy wine to drink within a short time?like a month or so?can store the bottles at room temperature in small racks in the kitchen or dining room. International Wine Accessories ( offers a number of racks.

The wine cellar comes into importance for long periods of storage. For comparison, if two bottles of the exact same wine are stored differently, one at room temperature and the second at the optimum temperature of 55 degrees F, the wine under optimum conditions may last ten to fifteen years while the bottle stored at room temperature will be drinkable for only four to five years. Cooler temperatures allow the flavors to stay together as the tannic acid (from the skin of red grapes) precipitates out, according to Russo. Not all wines need long periods of storage; but a good white burgundy does improve with age.

Aging begins immediately after the wine is bottled; so connoisseurs tend to buy young vintages to control the handling of the bottles at an early stage. Consequently, the best wines often become unavailable or prohibitively expensive by the time the wine reaches maturity. Although some connoisseurs prefer buying unbroken cases (one or more), others opt for less than a case of a single vintage. People who buy cases often don?t open them until years later, when tasting begins--one bottle per year until the wine reaches peak flavor; then the owner will drink the remaining bottles.

So far, the biggest wine cellar Smith ever built holds 10,000 bottles. Costing $28,000, the cellar is cheap for that many bottles, according to Smith. But the owner wanted to keep the cellar simple?a rough textured cave filled with aisles of wine racks. On a big scale, Smith is working with a customer who wants an entire condominium converted into a wine cellar, equipped with chandeliers, space for tables, entertaining, and 20,000 bottles of wine. The cost could potentially go over $150,000. Most cellars are considerably smaller and hold fewer bottles, usually 600 to 1000.

?Each one is totally unique,? says Smith. ?I try to keep them that way.? For instance, one cellar was built in a penthouse on the roof of a ten-story building. Another cellar is going underground with stone imported from a French chateau in France to give it the look of a 200-year old French Chateau cellar. Most people prefer the rough and rustic winery look. Although one cellar was built out of cedar, other choices are oak, walnut, pine, or brick perhaps. Yet, Smith is building a cellar with stainless steel racks and white and black marble to give a modern look. This cellar will have lots of light (Smith usually uses halogen lights), probably back lighting behind the bottles so people can see without turning on the lights. Interior lights create excess heat, which needs to be dissipated with refrigeration; but interior lighting will not hurt wine.

Sunlight will damage wine. To prevent sunlight from entering a wine cellar, Smith puts shutters on all windows. Smith has built wine cellars in almost every part of the home. Most locations are able to accommodate the refrigeration unit in the attic, under the floor in a peer and beam foundation, or in an out-of-the way spot in the house. In new home construction, Smith builds the refrigeration equipment inside the walls.

Today?s new homes tend to have wine cellars instead of wet bars, according to Russo. Likewise, in existing homes, Smith has built wine cellars in place of wet bars. One customer, in particular, built a glass-enclosed cellar to hold his wife?s 70 bottles of wine and his cigars, which required a humidor to maintain 75% humidity and Spanish cedar racks to retard cigar-eating beetles. Not just wet bars, people have converted garages and hall closets into wine cellars and built wine cellars under staircases, in pantries, and in kitchens. Custom wine cellars begin at $5,000, minimum.

For $4,000, Smith will build a custom portable cabinet (like an armoire) from solid walnut to hold 240 bottles of wine and fit into any room, especially in the living or dining room.

?I?ve never met anyone who built a big enough wine cellar,? Russo said. ?Everybody thinks they?ve built huge wine cellars. But six months to a year later, they?ve run out of space.? In cases like this, Marty?s can provide long-term storage?for example, a customer with a 500-bottle cellar currently building a new home that has a 3,000-bottle cellar and won?t be able to move in for a year or so. If a customer wants to store bottles or cases of highly sought after wine that require years of storage, but that customer doesn?t have the space, Marty?s will provide off site storage.

For a number of years, wine bottles have provided a pleasant atmosphere in restaurants. That sense of socialization comes home in the custom wine cellar. Cheers!

-by Dr. Oneida Cramer
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