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Dear Dr. Vinny,
I've heard that using a window air-conditioning unit as a cooler for a wine cellar is "not an option.” Why? Compared to a through-the-wall wine cooler, they both use a condenser/evaporator refrigeration system and both have isolated inside-air and outside-air systems. A 1,500-BTU wine cooler costs $1,500. A 6,000-BTU window air conditioner costs $190. What's the downside?
—Peter B., Walnut Creek, Calif.
I know some people that have chosen an air conditioner for the purpose of refrigeration in their cellar, but there are some disadvantages that come with the lower cost.
First off, air-conditioning units are typically only set to go down to about 62° F, which is a little off from the ideal 55° F target. Air conditioners also tend to cool in part by drying out the air—there’s a lot of condensation coming out of a window unit. While you’re right that there is sometimes some condensation with cellar-refrigeration units, it’s typically considerably less. After all, cellar-refrigeration units are designed specifically to cool air down to 55° F and keep the humidity around 70 percent. With an air-conditioning unit, you’re probably only going to get down to 62° F, with humidity around 35 percent.
I know that some wine lovers question the necessity of humidity in a wine cellar. I’ve always said that the most important thing about wine storage is a consistent temperature in the 55° F range, but I think it’s a good idea to take light, vibration and humidity into account.
A healthy relative humidity can help keep corks from drying out, and dry corks can compromise the seal and prematurely age wine. If you’re not convinced about that, try leaving a bottle of wine in a refrigerator for a few weeks or months. Refrigerators, like air conditioners, cool by removing humidity, and I’ve had corks crumble in those conditions after a couple weeks. Think about that if you’re thinking about cellaring your wines for years.
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