For centuries—and before women were lauded for such things—it was a hallmark of a civilized man if it could be said of him, “He kept a good cellar.” Today, wine is nearly a fetish in the Wood River Valley and an optimistic industry throughout Idaho. Neophyte tasters as well as more sophisticated oenophiles gather at a growing number of wine bars in the Valley to learn about the complexities of this ancient beverage, or simply to enjoy the fruits of the winemaker’s labors.
In a wine lover’s perfect world, the wine cellar would be designed first, before the rest of the house is conceptualized. That’s a pipe dream for the vast majority of us, but there are many ways to improve upon just tucking a few bottles into the back of the kitchen refrigerator. Whether you’ve purchased a case directly from a vineyard along Idaho’s wine trail or secured the winning bid at a top auction such as the Sun Valley Center’s premier summer event, safekeeping your selections will ensure the protection of your investment, humble or grand, for years of enjoyment.
A spare bedroom or hall closet might be commandeered, or even a basement with its unique temperature advantages. But don’t be discouraged if the square footage in your home is already at a premium. There are surprisingly small and affordable options.
In limited space, storage for a modest collection might best be provided by a dishwasher-sized unit that fits under the kitchen counter (although smaller storage appliances, about the size of a microwave oven, are available). A freestanding refrigeration unit capable of storing about 250 bottles costs about $2,000 initially, and occupies the space of a small regular refrigerator. The advantage of such a unit—plug it in, program the temperature, fill it up—is in its convenience and easy maintenance. The main disadvantage of this minimal investment, of course, is the lack of room for expansion.
While truly budget-minded kits are marketed for converting a regular refrigerator into a suitable wine-storage unit, to guarantee that your collection will be in prime condition over long periods of time, most experts advise more specialized solutions. Wine corks need to stay moist, so the storage atmosphere should be maintained at the lowest possible stable temperature and at ideal humidity. Bottles also need to be protected from vibration, and although ultraviolet filters are built into the bottle glass, darkness is desirable. Ultraviolet damage can result in wines that are described as “light-struck,” having the smell and taste of wet cardboard (not an attribute you’d want to experience at a tasting).
A closet is a convenient option if aesthetics are not a high priority. With a capacity of about 250 bottles, a closet (about 3’ x 8’ x 3’) can provide quite a few options for racks or bins. This solution does, however, carry a fairly high price tag per square foot in remodeling costs.
In a full wine cellar (even in a spare room above ground), bottles can be artfully displayed, their beauty evocative of pleasures to come. Some of the most elegant cellars even have room for dining facilities.
Once you find an appropriate space to dedicate to your wine collection, what are the design concerns? In the planning stages, budget is probably the most important aspect. Spend too little and you fail to spend wisely, since upgrades for expanded space and replacement systems (for temperature, humidity, etc.) can quickly add up. Choices made now will affect your purchasing and enjoyment of wines for decades to come. Research your options in terms of price and applicable space, and then invest in as much flexibility as you can manage. This is not the time to test the old adage about “stepping over a dollar to save a penny.”
Insulation to promote temperature maintenance is another consideration. In general, the optimal storage temperature for wine is 55 degrees. There are exceptions for specialized varietals, however. Asti Spumanti, Champagne and other sparkling wines are ideally stored at temperatures from 41 to 45 degrees. (Warmth makes white wines taste dull.) Sauternes are best maintained at about 52 degrees. Vintage Port thrives in warmer climes, with temperatures as high as 66 degrees recommended for long-term storage.
Minimum-maximum thermometers provide data for daily monitoring. Most storage scenarios (except freestanding units) require heating/cooling separate from the whole-house system, which rarely has the flexibility and response time needed for consistent temperature control. For automatic temperature maintenance, $600 to $800 will purchase a system to service about 150 cubic feet of storage space.
A gauge to monitor humidity, the second major concern, is an important safeguard for your collection. Experts advise that 70 percent is ideal: if humidity drops below that, even by 10 percent, wines slowly evaporate right in the bottle! At higher humidity, around 80 percent, mold begins to form on the room walls, labels, and bottles. To help control humidity, vapor barriers must be installed in a closet remodel, along with tight seals for the ceiling, floor, and door. This aspect of construction should be carefully considered as suitable spaces are evaluated in your home.
Myriad types of shelves, racks, and bins can be sized to fit almost any layout. Consider bottle shapes and quantities when laying out the space in your final plan. Magnums require specialized racking, as do many Burgundies.
Standing redwood racks will run between $250 and $500 for about 150 cubic feet, depending on quality and source. Bins are less expensive and may actually provide more control for variables such as vibration or breakage. That said, racks seem to magnify the bounty, presenting your vintages in a way that makes full visual use of the graceful bottles, artistic labels, and glowing contents.
Even after you have made the investment to maintain a collection at optimal temperature and humidity, a few situations should be anticipated in order to ward off serious losses. A power interruption of even a few hours can destroy your careful plans for temperature and humidity control. Backup power supplies are recommended for the serious collector, and most commercial storage will include this safeguard.
Floods in low-lying locations, and particularly in a “real” cellar, below grade, can be quite problematic. Wine Spectator recently related the sad tale of home improvement guru Bob Vila, who built a home high on a hill but discovered water pooling in his wine cellar nonetheless. To avoid this scenario, drainage patterns must be taken into account on any building site.
Earthquakes have been known to rattle bottles right off the shelf, so the proper design of bins or racks can be crucial. While Idaho is not known for tremors, we do experience them. Some wine racks are designed with a slight lip or back tilt, making bottles less likely to migrate to the floor in minor seismic activity.
Security systems may be put in place to ward off marauders. These electronic devices are available in a wide range of prices, and for the serious, committed collector, Internet monitoring can be accessed from around the world. Systems may track temperature and humidity alone, or provide video links for real-time visual surveillance.
Once the technicalities have been considered, the purely sensual aspect of living with a wine collection can be entered into fully. A casual survey of local wine bars offers insight into storage styles, which range from the sublime traditional experience of descending through diminished lighting to a chilly, secret place stacked with bottles, to convivial and artful combinations of racks, shelves, bins, and tables.
If you already have a collection and you’re moving into a new home or your storage retrofit isn’t completed yet, several local storage facilities are available to safeguard your cases in the meantime. Storageplus of north Hailey, Town Refrigeration in Hailey, and Sun Valley Wine Company in Ketchum can provide both space and peace of mind.
Wine is art that tantalizes all the senses, often highlighting or inspiring memorable social events. And wine, like anything collectible, cultivates devoted and passionate followers who are dedicated to protecting their treasures. Learn more by visiting any local wine purveyor, attending the annual Sun Valley Center for the Arts Wine Auction, or traveling Idaho’s relatively unknown wine trail.
Freelancer Faus Geiger owns Sandhill Farm at Corral, Idaho, with husband Bill Corlett. Faus hopes to discover an earth-sheltered natural wine cave on her acreage, but for now, Sandhill Farm grows chemical-free produce and offers birdwatching brunches featuring regional wines.