A DIY Cellar of Stories

Gregory Zupkus took a do-it-yourself approach to his handcrafted home cellar
A DIY Cellar of Stories
The use of black cherry wood transformed the Zupkus' basement into a wine cellar worthy of being a showpiece. (Joe St. Pierre)
From the May 31, 2019, issue

This article originally appeared in the May 31, 2019, issue of Wine Spectator.

Inspiration struck on a walk in the woods. Gregory J. Zupkus, president and CEO of BNE Energy Inc., was surveying the land his firm had purchased for a wind-energy project in northwestern Connecticut with the team’s civil engineer and forester when he noticed his colleagues growing excited. “You’ve got some black cherry trees here,” they told him. “That’s a nice wood.”

A hardwood with a distinctive reddish coloration, black cherry is among the most sought-after timbers for cabinetry. Surrounded by such quality raw material, Zupkus’ mind flashed to the unfinished basement in his home he had set aside for wine storage years before.

“I would tell people, ‘This is going to be my wine cellar,’ ” he recalls. “So I started storing wine down there, with cases here, cases there. But it wasn’t sexy. I went down with a flashlight.”

As trees were cleared from the wind site, Zupkus stood by with a chainsaw, hacking off branches. These he had trucked to a nearby mill, where they were processed into lumber. Over the next five years, he used it to fabricate a 1,500-bottle-capacity wine cellar by hand.

For guidance, Zupkus pored over YouTube tutorials, solicited advice from designers, bought books on cellars and went through the examples with his wife, Connecticut State Representative Lezlye Zupkus. “We basically took the best of different wine cellars,” he says.

The finished space is replete with homespun features. The tasting table comprises two black cherry trees coated in polyurethane to create a smooth, natural-toned finish. Photographs commemorate the family’s trips to Napa, Bordeaux and Mendoza. The cellar’s underground location keeps the temperature naturally between 52˚ F and 56˚ F, perfect for storing wine.

His collection of more than 600 bottles includes Bordeaux standouts such as Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte, Château Pape Clément and a 1966 Château Canon-La Gaffelière. Napa heavy hitters lead the New World selections, with a seven-vintage vertical of Chateau Montelena and a 3-liter bottle of Caymus signed by owner Chuck Wagner.

The same inquisitive spirit that helped Zupkus transform a haul of lumber and a bare basement into a showpiece cellar fuels his thirst for knowledge. “I’m not afraid to ask questions,” he says. Those questions have generated a memoir’s worth of wine stories.

Case in point: At the Nantucket Wine & Food Festival in the early 2000s, Zupkus spotted California wine patriarch Peter Mondavi. “Lezlye and I spoke with him for over an hour,” Zupkus says. “He spoke so quiet you had to lean in to hear him. I thought, ‘Here are all these people racing around [the festival], and here I am talking with Peter Mondavi.’”

On one occasion, Zupkus’ zeal for connecting with vintners came dangerously close to backfiring. He and Lezlye were on a private tour of Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte with owner Daniel Cathiard when Zupkus mentioned that the winery’s white had snagged the top ranking in Wine Spectator’s recently released Bordeaux issue. “He looked upset and he starts speaking French to people. I’m thinking, ‘What did I do?’ Finally he goes, ‘My red wasn’t ranked?’ He didn’t care about the white.” Only after pulling up the high scores garnered by his red on his phone and showing Zupkus did the vindicated Cathiard calm down.

Perhaps no tale better encapsulates Zupkus’ hands-on approach to his passion than Lezlye’s and his first visit to Cast Wines, a small producer in northern Sonoma County. One summer, before setting off for a California wine-country vacation, Zupkus grabbed a handful of fresh tomatoes and herbs from his garden, hoping to pair his homegrown produce with local bottles upon arrival. But there was a problem: Outside food and beverage were banned at every tasting room they tried.

The next day, Zupkus received a tip. Cast gave visitors free rein to picnic on the premises. “We got there and met the owners,” Zupkus says. “We asked if we could have tomatoes and mozzarella while we tasted. The owners said, ‘You brought those from Connecticut?’ We’ve had a great relationship from then on.”

From the wind site to the cellar to the vineyard, Zupkus’ curiosity and can-do attitude have carried him far. He saw the trees for the forest, and took the rest from there.

What's in Gregory and Lezlye Zupkus' Cellar?

Size of collection: 620 bottles

Cellar capacity: 1,500 bottles

Large-format bottles: Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 (3L), signed by winemaker Matt Crafton; Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 (3L), signed by owner Chuck Wagner; Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon 1990 (1.5L), signed by owner Peter Mondavi Jr.

Oldest wine: Château Canon-La Gaffelière 1966

Verticals: Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon 2007–2014, Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte 2014–2015, Château Pape Clément 2014–2015

Wine regions visited: Bordeaux, Mendoza, Napa Valley

Cellar temperature: 52° F–56˚ F

Photo Gallery

Gregory and Lezlye Zupkus Autographed bottles of Charles Krug Gregory Zupkus in his cellar Photos and art on cellar wall

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