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Building a Wine Cellar on the Cheap

Do-it-yourself solutions may not look fancy but can work
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jul 6, 2011 11:00am ET

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?

William C Strickler
DC Suburbs —  July 6, 2011 1:39pm ET
Uninsulated, unheated genuine "cellar" under a 120 year old house. Combination of double deep wire racking and 4" drainage tube "racking" for fat bottomed bottles.

After a couple years of watching the temp rise to 70-74 degrees in the summer (but winter temps at a nice 58 degrees), I bought a 14K btu portable A/C unit vented through the boarded up coal chute. Never rises above 64 and a bottle probe rarely exceeds 62.

Unfortunately, it does not protect me from the inevitable "late-night party cellar raids."
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  July 6, 2011 2:20pm ET
I think everyone who gets into wine faces the "cellar dilemma". In the early years, I tried everything from closets, to a 50 bottle home unit, to a wine storage facility. But what I came to realize is that storing wine for the long term was a waste of money (for me).

While I have virtually all the space I could ever need at our winery, I rarely have more than 5-6 cases of wine at anytime that I'm drinking. I think it comes down to your comment:

"There are so many new wines, exciting stuff from all over the world, that I prefer staying light on my feet winewise."

There's never a lack of great wine to replace what I've consumed. And those special bottles that I want to save for years and years? I think I'm better off buying them already aged. Even though it will cost more, you get the benefit of hindsight, which lets you pick up the true winners, and not gamble on how a wine will age. Also, the costs associated with doing the storing yourself often outweigh any premium you'd pay.

My advice to any newbie would be to buy a 50 bottle home unit, and don't grow past that. Avoid the "trap" most of us fell into. Stay light on your feet and explore new wines and wine regions. There's a world of great wine out there!!

Joe Dekeyser
Waukesha, WI —  July 6, 2011 3:39pm ET
I live in that part of the world that favors basements so its a bit easier. A former owner of our house must have been a bibliophile and the rock solid built-in book shelves in a nice alcove he left behind hold a few hundred nice bottles in passively stable temperature and humidity. I do have a small table top fountain circulating water near the wine and a tray of water at the forced air vent 15 feet away. Drapes do for limiting air circulation and the room's 3 small windows are covered to keep things reasonably dark. Today the temperature is 67F (a little high in my mind but its been 90 for most of the week) and the humidity is 65%.
Brian Seel
Naperville, IL —  July 6, 2011 4:38pm ET
I've got some IKEA wine racks in the corner of a dark storage room in the basement and a thermometer stuck to the wall, same 55-65 degree range.

But just as I've gotten to 50 bottles, I've realized that I don't really forsee every buying cases of a single wine.

I'd rather pick-up a couple of bottles here or there of something. And with the proliferation of wine sites and retailers sending me daily emails with 5+ year-old cabernets, I may not even need to age anything myself.

My wife and I have consumed an average of 3 bottles a month over the past 18 months, so it hardly warrants a several hundred or thousand bottle cellar. Wine isn't for collecting, it is for drinking, so no point having more on hand than we can drink.
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  July 6, 2011 4:58pm ET
Thanks for the comments all. I'm from the Midwest and as a wine lover I sure miss a good, cool basement. Although there's always a place for large, well stocked wine cellars, Brian you offer good advice.
Mark Thomas Maclean-blevins
Westminster, MD —  July 6, 2011 5:07pm ET
Our home has a concrete exterior stairwell that was covered years ago for a rear addition to the home - completely underground, completely concrete and with an insulated ceiling, about 400 cu. ft., it makes a perfect cellar. However, mid-Atlantic summers do take their toll - hence, I installed a cooling unit that keeps the cellar at 54F and 65%RH.

Our cellar is stocked with wines that our local merchants can't get or won't keep - stuff that rarely makes it here to the east coast – Siduri, Cliff Lede, Madrigal and the like (I do need some Loring though). The cellar is 90% drinkable now (Pinot Noir and Syrah), with a few cases of nice California Cab and Bordeaux thrown in and laid down for good measure.

As for late night party-raids – I practice my raid techniques often – practice does make perfect!
Robert Busch
Charlotte, NC —  July 6, 2011 9:26pm ET
1,300 bottle cellar on the 2nd level of the house in Charlotte,NC! We built the cellar in unfinished space off the bonus room. Support comes from 1st floor horizontal main beam. Unfortunately my builder didn't understand what a true vapor barrier is. After condensation issues, we blew in closed cell insulation. No problem with temp variations, sitting at 60 degrees. Split air system does the trick. Only problem is I have filled it up,now no money for kids college :)
James Peterson
San Antonio, Texas —  July 6, 2011 10:52pm ET
I bought several cases of 2000 Bordeaux, along with several six-packs of 1997 Brunello when I lived in Germany from 2000-2003. I had a real cellar there, but I bought a 550 bottle Vinotemp to keep it all safe when we got back to the States. It's worked well ever since. It's a purely functional model, and it sits in a little work room off the garage. I sort of whittle away at that base collection, and throw in a few new collectibles now and then. I think my case buying days are over. A few bottles here and there seems to work just fine. I hover around 400 bottles probably.
Kelly Carter
Colorado —  July 6, 2011 11:03pm ET
We just finished a wine cellar in our basement. The interior enclosure is about 9' long, 6' wide, and about 7' 4" tall. The framing was 6" x 6" redwoods, with R-19 insulation in the walls, and about R-25 in the ceiling (completely covered with a 6 mil vapor barrier on the walls and ceiling). The entire cellar exterior was covered with foam foil board (additional R-6 sides and R-13 ceiling) and will soon be covered with redwood exterior tongue and groove.

So far things are great. The Breezeaire we have cooling cycles on, but it cools rapidly and stays a constant 55 degrees for the interior. We wetted the redwood racks before placing them in the cellar, and even though we are very dry in Colorado, the combination of the cool air seems to be maintaining good humidity.

We used curved corner racks that look great but probably cost us some storage space. The tile floor helps keep the double deep racks stable, and with two double deep magnum racks, the total storage is almost 970 bottles, and we did not need to sacrifice a huge amount of floor space in the basement.

The individual racks really help circulate the 55 degree air, and things seem to be working well so far. This was a do-it-yourself project, so we were relieved when it was finished. The weekend project took about 9-10 weeks.

We are really enjoying the convenience of having a basement and the cellar to pull out wines even in the middle of 95+ degree summers. We are really glad we made the investment.
Allan Pannizzo
Long Island, NY —  July 7, 2011 3:51pm ET
I went from under the stairs in my basement to a nice 100 bottle closed unit. Then I built an insulated 12x12 room with a cooling unit. I did not build it properly, so I had to completely rebuild it again! It is now properly insulated and keeps the 500 bottle collection at 57 degrees with 60 percent humidity. I think I am done!
Brandon Redman
Seattle, WA —  July 7, 2011 5:31pm ET
For awhile, I had about three cases of wine in a corner of my dad's cellar, which he so graciously offered up (joking that "rent" of a bottle here and there was required). But, eventually, I moved my wine into an offsite storage facility. The temp and humidity are perfect, and it's actually a good governor of too-quickly comsuming bottles too early or quickly. Thanks, Dad, for your patience!
Allan Martineau
Ottawa Canada —  July 7, 2011 9:33pm ET
Here are my two cents from north of the 49th. After collecting over 150 bottles of wine in a friend's cellar I recently bit the bullet and have begun building my "real" cellar, which when complete will hold a modest 600 bottles. My advice to anyone considering doing this is to research research research and find a local (don't buy equipment on line) supplier who actually installs and builds cellars. My local supplier provided a wealth of information (tips/ traps) to building my cellar.
Good luck to you all and happy cellaring
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  July 7, 2011 11:38pm ET
Some great stories and advice. Thanks for sharing. I hope our readers can take away a few tips.
Michael Henderson
Martinez, CA —  July 8, 2011 12:20am ET
Stay light is great advice. Having got the bug Early I bought lots of wine. Have about 600 bottles currently. Problem is my tastes have changed and many of those wines are no longer my favorites. Lesson learned. Drink my wines young and enjoy my friend's old expensive wines!
Jim Mcclure
DFW, Texas —  July 8, 2011 9:34am ET
Living in north Texas, I realized early on that I needed to get away from the counter-top style racks I started with if I was going to store anything decent for any period of time. My first cellar was a Danby 32 bottle unit from Best Buy. It had two temperature zones which seemed like a nice idea at the time. Soon though, that was for my better bottles and my overflow betters and shorter term were back in the counter-tops and I shuffled things in the available space. So I got a second matching Danby, but it wasn't long before that was outgrown. Next, I got a "500" bottle (realistically closer to 400 bottles) built-your-own cabinet from a catalog, which lasted a few years. It has since been outgrown by about 100 bottles

When I began process of building a home earlier this year, wine storage was never far from my mind. Working with my contractor and a local cellar company, Vineyard Wine Cellars, I'm building one of the extra bedrooms as a den/tasting room, and making the closet a fully insulated and temperature controlled wine cellar with about 500 rack capacity plus loose/case storage for about 2 feet above. I'm already pushing racked capacity, but space/cost/practicality prohibited going much bigger and I figure I can keep some short term stuff outside the cellar to make room for the better stuff, so I've managed to come full circle there :-)
Matthew Terry
CT —  July 8, 2011 1:09pm ET
The late night cellar raids are part of the fun of having a cellar/collection!
Peter Steinke
Woodinville, —  July 9, 2011 1:57am ET
My cellar has evolved from a few wooden crates in the crawlspace under the house (basements are rare in the Northwest) to a 300 bottle unit. When that filled up, another 300 bottle unit has become it's constant companion. About 500 bottles works well for me. We also like 5 to 12 years of bottle age so we are finishing up some great '97s now. My purchasing has slowed to replenish the cellar with about the same volume of "aging" bottles as we drink a year but more quantity of "every day" bottles.
The style of wine represented has broadened in regions and varietals. The early emphasis was heavy on Washington and California Cab and Merlot. Still love it but buy less and dabble more in trying others: Oregon Pinot, Brunello, Aussie Shiraz, Rhones, German Riesling, Sparkling, etc. It's fun to have variety!
And if you want to avoid late night party raids HIDE THE KEY! ;)
Jamie Sherman
Sacramento —  July 19, 2011 12:28pm ET
I feel like I am undergoing a wine philosophy shift similar to as you said "staying light on your feet". I built about a 500 bottle utility cellar but then filled it with trophy/cult wines. Unfortunately, either their aren't enough "special occasions" or I'm just too nervous to open these wines at the wrong time that they have built up to fill my cellar. Now I have a serious inventory control problem as wine keeps showing up. This year I dropped many culties and decided there are lots of special occasionss -- like Thursday. Hopefully, this will help clear some cellar space. Anyone up for a late night cellar raid?
Ted Keyser
Dripping Springs, Tx —  July 23, 2011 4:08pm ET
Amen Jamie ~ hear ya on Thursdays ! When I saw more boxes on the floor than in our 200 bottle frig I knew I needed therapy. We cxl'd all the directs except Bounty Hunter (dig the variety) and a few high end Pinot's we couldn't get otherwise.
Anthony Turse
Bound Brook,New Jersey, USA  —  July 28, 2011 6:33am ET
I started laying down wine in or about 2001. I have about 600-800 bottles at any given time predominately big Italian Reds most need time. In a small room (10X7) in my basement, concrete ceiling, 2 concrete outside walls and a foam insulated door, I started adding inexpensive modular wooden wine racks about 100 bottles worth at a time. Removing a small basement window, a 5000 btu, widow unit air conditioner modified and connected to a device called wine-stat, My 56 degree cellar is humidified with a large pot of water. It works Great!
Bent Varming
Viborg Denmark Europe —  July 28, 2011 10:41am ET
First Thank you for your farytale of the very first virgin wine interest and storying bott. and cases , Mr Fish.
As a collector of wine the very difficult problem always will be the space of storying , because the ability of drinking the wine are much less as the interest of finding and bying the right bottles .
The knowledge of all aspects in the wine world are alsovery importent , because you often in the beginning will buy the "wrong" bottles , as you later on will avoid
I/We, still maried after all these collecting years ,
have to move to a house with a good basement :
Dark and tolerable tp. variation through the year .
Here in Denmark we are lucky to have some of the very best and variable conditions for bying wines as in GB, but opposite our nabours in Norway and Sweden .

With Best regards

Bent Varming MD.

Allan Gottlieb
Camarillo, CA USA —  July 28, 2011 11:35am ET
I started right out of college with an old fashioned oak 1930's? ice box that I found at an antique shop in Berkeley. Fairly well insulated with two large and two small compartments that held maybe 60 or so bottles. I put in some wooden shelves and taped a small thermometer to an inside tin wall. Worked OK and was a nice piece of furniture. Tried to keep it near full of BV Cabernet --Napa and Rutherford, couldn't afford Georges de Latour.
Fast forward 40 years and recently I converted an existing 9' by 5-1/2' downstairs closet into a small outer room full of wine memorabilia and a new door into the 6' by 5-1/2' by 7' tall wine cellar. I added insulation and a WhisperKool 3000 XLT which keeps the wine inside the bottles at 55 degrees. Made all the racking out of redwood from Lowe's based on designs found in ads in the back pages of Wine Spectator. Made corner racking for 16 double magnums separated by a small tasting table with a stand up wine opener with stemware hang down storage above and racking for Drink Soon bottles above that and below the table is case storage for wooden sixpack trophy wines. Along the two side walls is mostly individual and case bins for standard bottles and magnums and Champagne. A mistake was a vertical row for 375ml bottles which remains empty. More cases sit atop the racks. This little cellar holds the equivalent of 800+ 750ml bottles. White wines to drink soon are kept in a separate 50 bottle unit outside the wine cellar and kept at 46 degrees. Alas, the cellar is about full. Cost only about $3500 to build including adding one wall and door and rerouting electrical. Biggest cost was the cooling unit.
John A Dietrich
Calgary, Alberta, Canada —  July 28, 2011 7:47pm ET
I started out stashing my growing collection under the basement stairs but access was challenging and tempature while generally cool fluctuated during summer heat spikes. When renovating our home during 2009 & 2010 we discovered full concrete foundation walls on three sides below a main floor sun room. The passive wine cellar idea was born and following research on passive cellar construction we cut a doorway through the main basement foundation wall, handmixed and poured a concrete floor in the newly discovered cellar area and then completed an extensive insulation of the room walls and ceiling. Custom 500+ redwood wine racking was ordered from Roshill Wine Cellars and a tricky assembly followed. We currently cellar 400+ bottles in a passive temperature range of 53F winter to 60F summer and maintain 80% humidity using the rudimentary but effective towel wick in water. La Mouline, Beaucastel CNP and my other lovlies are in good hands and I enjoy the ability to go to cellar and consider the perfect wine for the night! My passion for collecting is still stong.
Curt Dahl
Watchung NJ —  July 28, 2011 8:45pm ET
As a professional wine cellar builder www.josephandcurtis.com I feel I have to mention how many people decide to build a "wine cellar" without a proper vapor barrier,insulation,proper sheet rock, a cooling unit without humidity and very often overlooked an under sized cooling unit. Having been a equity trader for over 20 years before becoming a wine cellar builder I built my own cellar in 2000. Cheap racks,no cooling,solid block walls etc etc. I came to realize in NJ and similar climats how much moisture the block adds into the cellar in the summer time..I would always have 70%+ humidity..main reason there was no vapor barrier or insulation (2lb closed cell being the best) So I did what most do re-do the room the proper way...but please make sure you do size your room and include glass,what type of R value you have, and how hot the lighting is...it will truly save you money by not having to replace burned out units.
Clifford Einstein
Los Angeles, California, USA —  July 29, 2011 12:50pm ET
I started putting a few bottles in shelves around the house. Eventually I converted our kids toy closet, under the stairs, into my first "wine cellar" holding about 250 bottles, three bottles deep and very hard to access.

As the quality of our wines increased I realized I had to store them at a proper temperature so I added a compressor under the house and a remote heat exchange unit in the closet. This kept things cold, but the humidity was all over the place, the temp varied too greatly and the number of bottles I could store was limiting.

I then bought a mail order do-it-yourself wooden "cellar" which I built in a day in a playroom adjacent to our kids' bedrooms. The next morning I asked the kids if they minded the noise and they said it was like sleeping next to an idling Greyhound Bus.

We disassembled the cellar and sent it back.

Finally I got the idea of a "wine wall". Working with a contractor we bought redwood components and a VINOTHEQUE cooling unit from WINERACKSAMERICA and created a two foot deep racking system on a wall with a dropped ceiling, 7 feet high x 7 feet wide. It's lined in stained redwood with a granite floor and the cooling unit sits under the house so the noise is virtually non-existant.

The front is all glass with access through two large full-height glass doors that have silicone edge seals. The lighting is supplied through LED flush ceiling fixtures, and they remain permanently cold with no UV to damage the wine.

A remote control unit in an adjacent wall adjust the temp to a constant 55-56 and the humidity is properly controlled through the unit.

I can now store about 400 bottles in ideal cellaring conditions, and having pursued this wonderful hobby for about 40 years we devote the space to serious Bordeaux, Burgundy, cult Cabs and Pinot Noirs from California plus a few really good White Burgundies and Chardonnays and a few late harvest treasures.

Best of all is how accessible it is and how good it looks just gazing through the glass and thinking of what's next to drink. 400 bottles forces selection and quality and is easily enough storage to keep us current with lots of exciting choices.

Think about a "wine wall". It looks wonderfully different and really works in a contemporary home with limited space.

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