Cellar Dweller

You don’t need a museum-level installation to store wine

If you’re thinking about starting a wine cellar and stocking it with a few fine California cabernets, French burgundies, and German or Australian dry rieslings, there are several things to consider.

A starter cellar can be done without a huge expense — unlike those testosterone show pieces that approach museum-level quality design and cost more than the wines they house.

Before buying the first nail and two-by-four, the most important question is: Are you really going to keep any of the wines you are now buying long enough to warrant the expense of making a room for them?

If the object is to store fine old wines and new wines that will age for 20 or 30 years, the answer may be yes. But if you expect to drink your wines for, say, three to five years, and if the wines will be gone in five to eight years, your need may be much simpler.

The basic purpose is to keep wine in a stable condition so it will mature slowly and not spoil. Fine wood, Italian stone, and such have nothing to do with wine. That’s about status and ego.

The key is finding an area — in a basement or elsewhere — with a steady temperature and higher humidity year-round, no sunlight, and no vibration from such things as washing machines, furnaces, and refrigerators. If such a space doesn’t exist, you need to create it. Get as close as you can to a year-round temperature of 55 degrees and 75 percent humidity or more. That level allows corks to remain moist and expanded. Less humidity could cause them to shrink, and air will slowly seep into the bottles. The temperature is considered ideal for wine to age.

An adequate wine room can be made from commercial racks, do-it-yourself shelving available online, or building contractor materials.

One of the best inexpensive cellars I’ve ever seen was made from using damaged or rejected terra cotta chimney liners as wine tubes. The liners were set into a wood framing; the face was trimmed in sheetrock, and the unit was finished with a stucco look. The total cost was less than $2,000 for a 400-bottle unit.

Most collectors have built their initial stoage starting with even less — one step above cardboard boxes in the basement.

Another cheap, smart, and temporary wine storage unit can be made with rectangular rough cinderblock pipes, about 3 feet by 2 feet. They hold about 15 or 20 bottles each and retain moisture and coolness. Because of their size and weight, they don’t require the support of wood framing … just stack them.

A man who used the pipes contends he gets a 5-degree variation, from 60 to 65 degrees, from the coldest winter day to the hottest of summer. Not perfect, but reasonably good because he’s not keeping 1920s and 1930s burgundies.

The problem is finding a construction yard that has the blocks — and they are heavy to move. A unit that holds 300 bottles costs about $1,500.

The unit he made rests up against a cool north-side wall, providing the base for what could become a framed-up room with its own cooling unit. For now, he has a pretty good little wine cellar. A little ugly, perhaps, but who cares if what you really want is to be sure that you are storing your wine well.