To determine the size for his cellar, Tom Votel did some simple math: Two bottles a day times 365 days a year equals space for less than 750 wines. A "drink up" sensibility runs through the collection, in the converted lower-level kitchenette of his home in the St. Paul suburb of Sunfish Lake, Minn.
"I wanted wine around me that I like and can enjoy with other people without getting too into the library, antiquarian aspect of wine collecting," Votel says. "Our cellar was made intentionally small and practical. It was designed as a drinking cellar."
On that count, the space succeeds with aplomb. The open design trades clinical glass panels and vaultlike aesthetics for an accessible, welcoming appearance, enabling an easy flow from serving station to sitting area to patios. Climate-controlled cabinets and an ingenious air-vent system moderate temperatures across the room, keeping Chardonnays racked on the left cooler than Cabernets on the right.
"Before I built the cellar, I was keeping my wine in the coolest and darkest place I could in our basement," Votel recalls. "No controls at all. I was getting frustrated by having wine spoil."
When an empty nest gave him and his wife, Barb, the chance to renovate, Votel envisioned a compact cellar accessed at room temperature. But accomplishing this was no simple task.
Some early resistance came from Barb. "My wife said, 'I'm imagining this like a 7-Eleven: I walk in, grab a carton of chocolate milk out of the fridge,'" Votel recalls with a laugh. "I told her, 'Yeah, but here you have beautiful cabinetry.' At first it was a little bit of a challenge to get people to understand."
TreHus, the Minneapolis-based architecture firm the Votels contracted, had constructed several traditional home wine cellars, but never anything like Votel's horseshoe-shaped storage-and-serving hybrid facing out on a room for family gatherings and social events. "They were up for the challenge," Votel says of TreHus. "It ended up being beautiful."
To regulate temperature in the unenclosed space, a plan was hatched to circulate cool air through each cabinet via a series of vents. Wood species was carefully considered. Reclaimed barn-wood accents and a sink crafted from a wine barrel contribute a warm charm. A 100-plus-year-old Swedish carpenter's workbench, sourced by Martha O'Hara Interiors, functions as a characterful pouring and serving platform.
Votel developed his interest in wine in what he calls a "natural progression beyond beer boredom," rounding out his education with trips to Napa, Sonoma and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. An upcoming visit to Italy will provide tasting opportunities in Montalcino and Amalfi.
The notion of wine as a complex agricultural product resonates especially with Votel; his firm, occupational-safety product manufacturer Ergodyne, supplies equipment to vineyard workers.
"When you go out to Napa and Sonoma, you're going into these grand producers, but at the end of the day, they're farmers," he says. "I found it mystical and interesting, the complexity and struggle of farming. It adds an unusual element to wine that you don't have with other spirits."
His collection focuses on elite U.S. and French producers: Napa Cabernets from Paul Hobbs, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars and Joseph Phelps; Pinot Noir from Sonoma's Williams Selyem, Oregon's Domaine Serene and Burgundy's Domaine Faiveley. Holdings of esteemed Bandol house Domaine Tempier and various Châteauneuf estates, as well as ready-to-drink rosés and whites, round out the cellar. A 1982 Château Margaux commemorating the couple's marriage is his oldest and most prized wine.
A game receptivity to new regions and styles undergirds Votel's tasting and buying habits. "At this point I have no favorite wine," he says. "I like them all." Chuck Kanski, the proprietor of Solo Vino wineshop in St. Paul, helps him explore the new and unfamiliar.
Votel also acquires bottles through charitable auctions, such as Wine Fest, an annual event benefiting pediatric research at the University of Minnesota. And his cellar intersects with philanthropy in another way: He and Barb offer tastings in their home as a lot at charity auctions. What better way to work on that two-bottle-a-day estimate?
"As VW says: Drivers wanted," says Votel. "Our motto is: Drinkers wanted."
What's in Tom and Barb Votel's Cellar?
Cellar capacity: 750 bottles
Focus of collection: California and France
Oldest wine: 1982 Château Margaux
Favorite wines: California: Caymus, Paul Hobbs, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Joseph Phelps; Oregon: Domaine Serene; France: Domaine Faiveley, Domaine Tempier
Wine region visited: Napa, Sonoma, Châteauneuf-du-Pape
Designer: TreHus, Minneapolis, Minn.
Key design features: Climate-controlled cabinets; custom sink made from wine barrel; serving table made from 100-plus-year-old Swedish carpenter's workbench
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