Building a Wine Cellar on the Cheap

Do-it-yourself solutions may not look fancy but can work
Jul 6, 2011

My first wine cellar was a lame attempt no matter how you looked at it; I was young and my discretionary income bought 10 minutes on a parking meter. But I had the wine bug and had it bad.

Loitering in wine shops became a favorite hobby. I’d buy a good $10 or $20 bottle on the weekends and occasionally splurge. I still remember the day I bought a Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape 1989 for $45 and worried how I’d explain it when I got home.

Like many new collectors, I avoided explaining it and stashed it in the closet when the wife wasn’t looking. Since she didn’t ask, I wasn’t technically lying, right? I couldn’t help it, wine was my mistress, and I rationalized everything, like all cheating husbands do.

I’m not alone in the “what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her” school of wine collecting. A few years back, I wrote a story titled “Inside the Mind of a Wine Collector,” and Michael Davis of Chicago auction house Hart Davis Hart told me, “Hiding purchases is not unusual at all.”

Eventually my disjointed assortment of bottles was large enough so I could use the word collection without resorting to a sarcastic tone or air quotes. Since it was now “official,” I started worrying about the storage conditions. The wayward scarves and old sneakers in the back of the bedroom closet made for lousy insulation.

In Northern California, they don’t seem to believe in basements, so I bought a build-it-yourself storage wardrobe. I lined it with an inch of foam insulation and relocated my cellar to a walk-in closet far from any source of heat and ever-shaded by a tall redwood tree.

It wasn’t pretty but it worked. Temperatures inside ran about 55° F in the winter and seldom rose above 65° F in toasty months like July and August.

But summers were cooler then; it rarely cracked 95° F in Sonoma County 20 years ago. As the heat spikes increased in frequency and duration, it was harder to maintain a good temperature. I faked my way through a few summers by using massive amounts of freezer packs during heat spells. Note to impoverished new collectors: It worked better than you might think.

Eventually, after moving my collection twice, I threw up my hands and rented cellar space at a local wine shop. It can be a hassle having it offsite, but it does eliminate those late-night party cellar raids.

My collecting obsession was also waning, and my early dream of a 100-case cellar didn’t really fit my lifestyle. Red meat became mostly for special occasions. I found that I liked California Cabernet Sauvignon at the 8- to 10-year mark, so except for a few Zinfandels, Pinot Noirs, Bordeaux and Italian reds, I didn’t need to age and accumulate a lot of bottles.

My closet holds about a dozen cases, and it’s seldom full anymore. There are so many new wines, exciting stuff from all over the world, that I prefer staying light on my feet winewise.

But if anything, my experience shows that it’s possible to have a modest cellar no matter how much you make or where you live, as long as you’re creative. It won’t be fancy—in fact, it might be downright lame like my first cellar—but visual presentation doesn’t mean much to the wine in the long run.

Do you have a wine cellar, and if so, what was your first cellar like? How has your cellar and collection evolved over the years?

Collecting Storage Cellars

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