building a wine cellar

This article originated with a text from a friend.

Wondering if you’ve got a preferred source for wine cellar racking. I remember your setup and I figured with you being a cheap Scotsman you might have an opinion on the subject. I was going to buy the wall mounted racks but the wife gave me paranoid about if falling out of the wall.

Tom got his start at the Wine School over a decade ago, and now works for a national wine company. He could have been a master sommelier if he wanted to, but he went into wine technology instead.  Our conversation about building wine cellars ended up becoming this article.


Do You Really Need a Wine Cellar?

If you aren’t planning to lay down wine for a long time, don’t worry about building a wine cellar. As long as you aren’t abusing your wine, your wine will keep for a few years without being cellared.  You don’t even have to store your wine on it’s side: the cork won’t start drying out for a few years, anyways.

If you just want to keep wine for a few years, just empty out a closet and store your cases of wine there. It’s not sexy, but it’s cheap and does the trick. All you need to do is keep your home a reasonable temperature all the time. You only need to invest in a good thermostat for your new wine closet.

.Your main goal is to keep your wines from getting too hot. The magic number for short term wine storage is 75 degrees. Over that temperature, you’ll see faster degradation of the wine. A wine that would last ten years won’t last one. Over 80 degrees and the wine will need to be consumed within the week. Over 90 degrees, and you might as well start googling for a good sangria recipe.


Wine Cellar Essentials

An efficient wine cellar

An Efficient and Well-Designed Wine Cellar, Circa 2012

Let’s start with a basic idea: what is a wine cellar? It’s a room designed to store wine over a very long period of time. That’s all the room does. You shove a bottle into the room and ten years later you have a reasonable chance the wine will still be good.

It isn’t a place to entertain friends or even taste wine. It’s one-function room. If you want a room to celebrate your love of wine, you need a wine-themed playground for adults. That’s really cool, but it’s not a cellar.

The room has to control four  variables that can affect the longevity of a bottle of wine:

  • temperature
  • vibration
  • light
  • humidity.

The first three are forms of energy that can negatively impact your wine storage. The final variable affects the wine’s cork and label. A well built cellar will address all four issues.

Cellar Temperature

This is the most important, and also the easiest to accomplish. Temperatures need to be kept between 54  and 59 degrees, with no more than a 2 percent variation in a 24 hour period.

Cellar Humidity

Humidity is harder to regulate, as it varies both regionally and seasonally. The ideal level of humidity is 70%, but a range of 50-75% is fine. Under 50% and corks start to dry out within four years, and over 75% and mold becomes a major issue on wine labels.

Cellar Vibration

An often times ignored problem that can really do harm to wine over time. Vibration is a form of energy that easily passes through wine. It can come from a heavily trafficked hallway or even trucks passing on a nearby road. Vibration needs to be cancelled out.

Cellar Light

Sunlight and many types of artificial light throw off two things that can destroy wine: heat and ultraviolet radiation. Lighting sources have to be designed in a way to minimize impact.


Wine Cellar Ideas


Storvino Wine Racks in a Wine Cellar

Building a wine cellar doesn’t have to be expensive. The original Wine School cellar was in the basement of my apartment building. We didn’t keep wines around longer than a few months, so being stored at 70 degrees didn’t matter. After all, that’s pretty much the temperature it’s stored in at a wine shop.

When the school moved to Fairmount Avenue, we needed a larger cellar. I didn’t have much money, so I built the cellar with debris I found at a construction site. There was a lot of stuff left over from the previous tenants so I incorporated  that, too. It was the craziest looking wine cellar in history, but it did the job.

By the time we moved to Rittenhouse, I developed a plan to build a 4000 bottle storage facility that didn’t break the bank. Since then I’ve built three more wine cellars and consulted on dozens more.

Wine Cellar on the Cheap

The first rule of cheap wine storage is to stop googling pictures of wine cellars. It will just make you upset, so just stop!

You won’t be ordering custom hardwood wine racks. Your cellar door won’t be carved from by Mongolian monks from a millennia old cyprus tree. Nope. Home Depot and Amazon Prime are your new best friends.

Your new cellar isn’t going to earn a spot in Architectural Digest; although one of my student’s wine cellar did end up being featured in the Wine Spectator. Nope. Your room is going to resemble  a janitorial closet at the local high school.

And that’s a very, very good thing.

Wine Cellar DIY

Building a new room is often the best option, although retrofitting an existing room is possible.The most cost effective way of building a wine cellar is doing it yourself. If you can hang drywall, you can build a wine storage room. If not, you’ll have to hire a contractor. The trick is to not tell them that it’s going to be a wine cellar.  If you do, the price will go up. Not because it takes specialized skills, but because they’ll assume you are filthy rich.

Hire the contractor for the hard stuff, and finish off the easy stuff –like painting — yourself. To get the best price, the best time to bring in a contractor is when you need other work done. They will give you a much better price if there are several jobs to do. If you are re-doing your kitchen, they may even throw in the weird little room you want built in the basement for free.

Wine Cellar Plans

Smaller is always better. You want a cellar to have minimal open space: floor to ceiling wine storage and a narrow walkway. Designing a wine storage is all about the cubic feet of space you’ll have to keep cool. Empty space is surprisingly difficult to regulate. An empty cellar –even a perfectly built one– will jump up 3 degrees in temperature as soon as someone walks in, and will continue to rise.

If  a quarter of the space in the cellar is full of wine, the increase is negligible –about  .05 degrees in five minutes. Fluid  is a great insulator, so it’s important to keep it filled. When you start planning your cellar, have a reasonable idea for how many bottles you will want to store. Build your cellar plan around that number.

Wine Cellar Design

The Original Wine Cellar

The Original Wine Cellar, Circa 2002

How big a cellar do you need? You can hold 1,200 bottles in a 5ft (W) X 10ft (L) x 7 ft (H) wine cellar, which is about 350 cubic square feet of interior. The trick is to keep it efficient.

Wine Cellar Doors

The place to start designing a wine cellar is with the door. It’s the weakest link in the cellar. Most people install a fancy wood or glass door. They look amazing, but they are terrible ideas for a functional wine cellar.

You need two things in a wine cellar door: insulation and security. That is why I use prehung steel doors for my wine cellars. These are the type of doors a contractor would use when installing a front door on a house. You can pick one up for a few hundred dollars at your local Home Depot.

Wine Cellar Cooling Unit

This is the tough part. Cooling units are expensive, and they will be the one thing that will fail.

The Cheapest Way

If you want to go the cheap route, you can use a through-the-wall air conditioner. You’ll need a  powerful model  (over 15,000 BTU) with a remote thermostat. In a cheap wine cellar I built for a friend, I used the Frigidaire FRA156MT1, which cost around $400 at the time (it has since been discontinued).

Install the AC unit at 4 feet, and place the  remote outside the wine cellar. Since the remote will always show a higher temperature, the AC will continue to cycle. That will keep your cellar at about 55 degrees. However, there is always a chance of losing humidity. Because of that, it’s important to install a humidity sensor, or at least leave a bucket of water in the cellar.

The Best Way

The very best way  is to vent cold air into the wine cellar via ductwork. Systems like this are expensive, and tough to install for a novice. This type of system. My prefered system is the WhisperKOOL Extreme 5000tiR. With installation, this can cost upwards of $7K.

My prefered –and cheaper– way is to install a CellarPro 4200VSi with a VC  Duct Kit upgrade. I then install the entire unit inside the wine cellar, hanging from the ceiling.  I then run ductwork through the wall in two places. The first pulls filtered air from just outside the wine cellar. I run the other ductwork as far away as possible –another room or even outside– to exhaust the hot air. This system costs about $3k, and will last a decade, at least.

No matter what you do, always buy a unit larger than you need by at least 20%. This will increase efficiency, which lowers the long-term costs of a wine cellar.

Wine Cellar Racks

This is where my no-nonsense approach to wine cellars really changes how you design a wine cellar. I do not use traditional wine racks. The ones you buy on Amazon or at Ikea will most likely be made of pine, which will start to rot in the humid environment of wine cellar.

Wood wine racks must be built out of mahogany or redwood, and that is an expensive proposition. Over time, they will start to rot. Although that may take over a decade.

My preferred storage is using storvino, which is an extensible system of plastic extruded wine racks. They are efficient, easy to assemble, and easy to reconfigure. They are LEGOS for winos. They are also great to transport wine with: when you attend a class, you should notice the black boxes we carry wine in: those are storvino racks.

For a 1,200 bottle cellar, you can expect to spend about $4K for your storvino shelving if you purchase them online.  That is a lot of cash, but let’s put that into perspective: retail redwood shelving will cost about the same. However, to be as efficient space-wise as storvino, you would have to purchase custom sized shelving, which will cost upwards of $5K for a 1200 bottle shelving.

Wine Cellar Floor

The cellar floor should accomplish three things: insulate, retain humidity and protect falling bottles.  No matter what the surface of the cellar is, it should be coated with a non-porous sealer. When designing a wine cellar in a basement, I use three coats of an epoxy sealer over the cement floor. Use the kind designed for garage floors: it will last a lifetime.

I then lay down rubber mats, the kind used in restaurant kitchens. Let’s be honest: you are as much of a clumsy drunk as I am. You are going to drop a few bottles.

Wine Cellar Walls and Vapor Barrier

The walls are built like any other interior partition. built with 2X4 lumber and are faced with 1/2″ gypsum board on each side. These are 4 1/2 inch deep walls. You just have to make a few adjustments. Insulation is essential. R-15 fiberglass insulation is best, as it will also absorb most vibration.

Before you hang the interior gypsum board, line the lumber with  6 mil plastic sheeting. This is your vapor barrier, which is critical to the success of a wine cellar. It retains the humidity in the cellar, prevents the insulation from rotting, and helps keep the wine cellar pressurized.

Along with the walls, it’s a good idea to also do the same for the ceiling. Another smart upgrade is to use greenboard in the interior. It’s designed for wet spaces.  I also use a vapor barrier primer in the interior;  Benjamin Moore has a very good latex-based one.


Wine Cellar Lighting

Here’s an element I have struggled with. A decade ago, my original designs did not include lighting at all:  you had to bring in a flashlight. The logic was sound: light creates heat and vibration.  Even with a cooling unit, all it took was forgetting to turn off the lights once.

Plus, the level of ultraviolet could be very high in some times of lighting: incandescent, fluorescent and halogen all were poor choices for wine cellar. Then came along LED lighting, and that solved most problems. They exhausted minimal heat and zero UV radiation were key. Attached to a motion sensor, LED lights are the perfect option for lighting a wine cellar.

That’s it for now! 

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