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Buying a Standalone Wine Cellar
© Copyright 1999 by Mike Bassman. All rights reserved.
Many thanks to Mike Bassman, who wrote this outstanding article based on contributions and suggestions from members of the Wine Lovers' Discussion Group. It is published here with Mike's permission and our applause.
You start out buying a bottle of wine for dinner, then a case to work through, and before you know it you’re starting to collect ‘em. Once you’re holding wines for more than a few months, you start worrying about storage temperature, your neuroses spurred on by dire predictions in those magazines you’ve subscribed to. They tell you that you need a renaissance chateau with cellars laboriously carved out of the rock below, thus maintaining the constant temperature and high humidity to age wines correctly. Or else that big investment on a $15 Bordeaux will go right down the drain, instead of turning into a magical elixir that’ll elicit major wood. Still, they must be kidding. You hold fast against the tides of rampant conspicuous consumption for a year or five, until the thought of baking your precious slumbering babies drives you batty.
What to do? If you’re in a house, maybe you’ve got an actual cellar that is cool enough or that you can cool. If not, though, you start thinking about self-contained refrigerated storage cabinets, the kind they advertise in the back of the Wine Spectator and its ilk. Here’s the collected wisdom of the WLDG as regards these units, which helped me find my way to delightfully chilled cellar nirvana. Jeff Cuppett, who contributed the core information in this document, warns that
"This is going to be long, so you might want to refill your glass"
The biggest thing you need to ask yourself is how many bottles you think you’ll store ... then double it. Trust me on this. This is the universal feeling of all the respondents. Personally, I got the biggest unit that I could afford, fit in the space we had, and would pass spousal esthetic scrutiny. People here frequently settled on cellars in the 400 bottle range, and yes, fill it to capacity faster than you’d think.
The other things you need to think about are:
Seems like many of the cellars ship with Breezaire or a house brand (Vinotemp has their own, Vinothèque does too [WhisperKool]). The Breezeaires are a block of unattractive sheet metal, with just a screw to adjust temperature, but no one has complained about reliability. The WhisperKool is quieter than the Breezaire – I’ve heard ‘em both side by side. Anecdotally, there’s no question that much less vibration than is emitted by these units compared to an ordinary fridge. I’ve already discussed the BTU upgrade option for higher-heat environments. Mats Lindstedt brings up a couple of interesting questions:
- Alternatives: Can’t I just use a refrigerator? What about air-conditioning the spare room? How about warehouse storage instead?The truth is, most of these wine cellars are nothing but dressed up fridges which, instead of allowing built-up condensation to evaporate actually recycles it back into the interior of the container - thus the "humidity" aspect is preserved. Common arguments against ordinary refrigerators are: that they aren’t made to work at such high temperatures (i.e. 55 degrees), have too much vibration, not enough humidity, and don’t store bottles efficiently (existing racks don’t fit bottles well). A few people have converted refrigerators by modifying the thermostat or using temperature control gadgets made for home beer brewers, like those found at http://www.midwestsupplies.com or http://www.homebrewsupply.com.
If you have a free room or sufficient space to spare, you really should try to build a real cellar - it will be cheaper and laid out to your specification. Of course, you need to be handy in a big way. If this is you, you’re reading the wrong document. See Robin’s compilation of cellar building tips at http://www.wineloverspage.com/cellar.shtml.
One can also make a convincing argument for storing your wines outside the home, citing limited storage space, the tendency to run out of capacity, and cost. Both Robert and Les have a small unit at home and warehouse storage for the rest:
Robert Callahan- "I outgrew the thing before it even arrived. Thus I’ve been storing wines commercially for the same period."
Les Shih - "I picked a tiny little ‘grotto’ from Marvel which allows me to store wines that I consume on a daily basis and also as a ‘parking space’ for wines that will eventually go into a local storage warehouse".
The rest of us ended up buying the units specifically made for the purpose of wine storage, admittedly paying a huge premium over the common refrigerator.
- Will it fit? These things are big mothers. Make sure you check your building’s door openings/service elevators (height/width/depth) and the ones in your apartment - before you go out and buy yourself an item that just won’t fit through the doors. This can be trickier than it appears. I had measured my front door, elevator, hallways, and apartment door over and over again, and still had a problem. The smallest dimension of these units is the depth, typically 29" to 32", which can be too big to get in your front door. To get the necessary clearance, we had a locksmith remove our door the day of delivery and re-hang it after it arrived. Everything counts: a doorbell on the inside of the frame, protruding hinges - all these need to be taken into account. An elevator door might be big enough to fit the unit through, but how about the height and depth of the elevator cab? Remember - these units can weigh 500 pounds empty, so they’re not highly maneuverable (e.g., "it fits if it’s angled in at a precise 43 degree angle"). The moving companies that deliver these units are not as capable as the salesman would have you believe. I hadn’t considered that the distance between the elevator door and the hallway wall was less than the height (over 7’) of the cellar. Thus, when they tried to roll the cellar out of the elevator on a hand truck, they hit the wall and weren’t able make a turn since the back of the cellar was still in the elevator. They were ready to give up and go home ("sorry, just doesn’t fit") when I suggested that they tip the unit forwards out of the elevator ("oh yeah, that might work, waddya know"). For this reason, I’d make sure that you’re around when they deliver it, and have a packet of antacids handy.
- Where are you going to put it? Does it need to be very quiet due to its location? If you’re going to put it in the garage or another spot that endures high temperatures, you’ll want the BTU upgrade on the compressor and an insulation upgrade. If your space is already air-conditioned or stays relatively cool (e.g. basement), you can skip this. Are you putting it in a place where you will hear it all the time? Have them turn it on and off for you in the store to hear it for yourself. The noise is perhaps more than a refrigerator but less than a room air-conditioner. The noise does vary depending on which cooling unit is in your cellar. There’s no mistaking when mine is on, but it’s in a far corner and not distracting. If the noise is too much for you, you might want to consider one of the quieter models. Vinothèque QT is the quietest model I saw (and heard), but it’s very pricey.
- Do you care what it looks like? Do you want to be able to look inside it without opening the doors? Are you displaying the unit or not? The fancier furniture models are more expensive. Way. The plain models are cheaper. Most offer a standard furniture quality finish or you can do it yourself. The addition of windowed doors is expensive (think $1,000+), especially the really fancy doors. Looks better with windowed doors, though – it visually breaks a monolithic surface into components and lightens the look. You do lose cooling through the doors since their R-value is lower. Oh yes – you’re stuck with oak. Unless you go custom, which adds thousands, you can choose a finish (some even in painted colors), but the wood is always oak. If you don’t like the distinctive graininess of oak, you pick a finish that minimizes it, which is what I did.
I was originally thinking of getting the plainest unit possible for as little as possible - think of the wine that can be bought for the difference between low-end and high-end units, after all. However, the spare room we were thinking of hiding it in wasn’t really going to work, so it had to be on display in the end. That dictated spending the extra money for windows and finish. The difference in display quality between the various brands is striking. It was something of a downer to see how ugly these could be, so much so as to make us consider buying a plain unit and seeing if local carpentry places could build a nice armoire around it. Also, get a load of some of the delightfully hideous options you can get: SFJoe suggests the window doors in the shape of champagne glasses, I prefer the remarkably garish nouveau-riche "Napoleon His & Hers" unit with separate compartments for wine and fur.
- What kind of bottles do you want to cellar? High capacity cellars store bottles two deep, so one row is hidden from view. To squeeze the most capacity out of these cellars, the racking is designed to hold only standard Bordeaux bottles well. Some Burgundy bottles slide in fine, but others can be a tight label-scratching squeeze. You probably will not be able to store two long German or Alsace bottles front to back, instead needing to match one shorter bottle with one longer. Some fancy California brands are also going with taller bottles. Interestingly, not all the slots on all the rows are exactly the same size. You’ll find that you may have difficulty with fatter or longer bottles in some rows but not others. It relates to slots/rows that are near rack mounting, adjoin the handles or door seals, and so on. Keep this in mind when you’re planning the organization of bottles within your cellar. For instance, I had to move quite a few bottles when I found that a case of fat Burgundy bottles wouldn’t fit in the center rows just above and below where the racking attaches to the cabinet. Some manufacturers offer different racking configurations that you can custom order. It’s expensive. You’ll have to use the open space over the racks to store odd size items like magnums, half bottles, or Champagne
- Cooling Unit
(The Vinothèque literature claims that their QT series backplane cooling system maintains more even temperatures throughout.)
- Do they guarantee constant temperatures? Is the temperature the same throughout the unit (not higher on the top and lower near the bottom - some units have air circulation to accomplish this).
(The Eurocave literature claims that "Continuous natural aeration causes condensation to form on the metal walls (exclusive to EuroCave), ensuring the hygrometry necessary to conserving your corks, and therefore your wines." Hygrometry, eh? They really are Euros.)
- Is the humidity controlled or is it "random". The humidity in my unit fluctuates between 50% and 90% without anything extra to keep it up. So humidity shouldn’t be a problem, unless you live in a really dry area. John Sprow notes: "... I also needed some of that [bulk storage] space for a water bin as I needed to add humidity since Colorado is SO dry".
(Gee, they all contend that they minimize it. Les Shih recommends: "if you live in a Pre-War (or a loft) building I would put neoprene pads underneath your unit in order to avoid vibration (prewar buildings rarely have pads underneath the hardwood floors) which might disturb your neighbors below...just call up Metropolitan Lumber and ask for neoprene pads for flooring underlayment. These tend to be the cheapest available and thicker in dimension, however you could also try asking for neoprene sheets for roofing if they don’t have the kind for flooring."
- What do they say about vibration?
More than you think. Peter Hirdt writes: "You're likely to spend a lot more than you expect for the number of bottles you intend to store. In the end, that may mean you'll get a smaller unit than you really wanted. I originally figured on 500 to 700 bottles, looked in I.W.A. I found the cheapest price on that size unit (Vinotemp, of course), and figured that was it. Once I saw a Vinotemp, I wasn't interested - cheaply made. That bumped up the price significantly, as did shipping." This seems to be a not-uncommon experience.
- Will your floor support the weight? Something you really need to consider if the unit is going upstairs or on an unsupported landing is the weight of the unit. These things are big! Jeff Cuppett warns: "Mine is the size of two refrigerators side-by-side. Empty it weighs nearly 500 pounds. Given that each wine bottle weighs approximately 2 pounds, 450 bottles weighs 900 pounds for a total weight of 1400 pounds". Peter Hirdt writes: "This shouldn't be a problem in most locations - I mention it only because my basement floor is on a platform. Had it not been for my brother-in-law, I’d have been in a jam. He came up with a solution: We placed the unit on a 3' x 4' piece of 3/4-inch plywood, thereby distributing the weight over 12 square feet."
- What’s the story on capacity? All manufacturers inflate the stated capacity. Read carefully how the storage is divided up into individual rack and bulk space. My unit, a "500", actually holds 440 in the racks. Some of the units’ capacity is even more grossly overstated.
- Who makes and sells them? Vinothèque is the top of the line. Costs a lot and may be worth it to you. Quiet, pretty, custom racking options. They use thinner racking than the redwood found in many of the other units - this allows you to stuff same capacity in slimmer, better looking units as others' bigger, squatter boxes. I started out looking for cheaper units and ended up here, due to looks and size. No complaints heard, much positive feedback.
Le Cache is middle of the road, tending towards upper. The boxes are attractive, and have a weighty, solid feel. They use Breezaire compressors. Jeff Cuppett is happy with one OEM-ed by IWA (more on OEMs later): "An IWA Classic 450. IWA OEMs this unit from Le Cache. It’s a little cheaper than the Le Cache equivalent. Holds 450 bottles (more or less) most of it individual racking. One temp zone. No digital thermometer or controls. Simple set screw for adjusting the temp (which was preset to 56 and seems to hold that temp very nicely). 5 year warranty on the cabinet, 3 years on the compressor."
Eurocave (www.eurocave.com) is cut from a different mold, in that it’s made from plastic and metal. It’s attractive, despite how that sounds, but modern, not in the ersatz ‘Louis-the-tasteless’ armoire style that all the others seem to be emulating. Smaller capacity units (holds about 200), although they are now selling two units side by side (not sure if they’re integrated, sharing power and refrigeration). Robert Callahan says: "I bought a Eurocave ten years ago. I’ve moved it on a shoestring budget four times since, I’ve never done any maintenance on it (aside from swabbing out the inside and outside – but nothing mechanical like changing a filter). I’ve overloaded it. The thing has always worked without complaint, and very well. I hear my experience isn’t common, but I’m quite pleased."
Vinocraft is middle of the road. Without a strong brand identity, this unit is generally relabeled or OEM-ed by dealers. It appears well built but is Really Not Attractive. Even their fancier finishing touches looked like cheap rococco junk. It was something of a downer to see how ugly these were, so much so as to make us consider buying a plain unit and seeing if local carpentry places could build a nice armoire around it. One respondent is perfectly content with his, no negatives heard regarding quality.
Vinotemp (www.vinotemp.com) is the low end of all the wood-encased units. Highly variable comments:
John Sprow says: "I used to own a Vinotemp which always worked just fine. I think they are mainly the same except for cosmetic differences (doors etc)."
Peter Hirdt says: "Once I saw a Vinotemp, I wasn't interested--cheaply made. There have been several horror stories on the AOL Wine Boards about Vinotemp (Check the folder called Storage/Cellars/Insurance)."
Personally, I thought that the esthetic differences between a Vinotemp and a Vinothèque or Le Cache are quite apparent when you look at them side by side.
Koolspace (www.koolspace.com) is the cheapest. You put it together. Costs less to ship since it is unassembled. Not especially attractive. Not designed to go in a garage or other "severe" environment. The dealers I visited in person highly disparaged the quality of the units, though I’ve received no feedback from owners. They denigrated it over at the Wine Enthusiast, though I note that they still sell it, under the "Nouveau" name.
Le Cache, Vinocraft, Vinotemp, and Koolspace allow their units to be sold under different names by the catalog companies. Sometimes this is a simple relabeling, and at other times these companies are actually building units of different dimensions from their regular product line. In any case, the OEM version is often cheaper than the "name" version. The thing to be aware of, I suppose, is that you’re supported solely by the dealer, not the manufacturer. I personally wouldn’t be that concerned – the dealer and catalog companies I’ve spoken to have all been around a while.
Who are these catalog companies mentioned? Primarily IWA (International Wine Accessories, out of Dallas), Wine Enthusiast (www.wineenthusiast.com) and K&L (www.klwines.com), whose main business is wine. There are others – J. Robinson & Sons (www.robinsonandsons.com) has started a catalog operation under the rubric "Wine & All That Jazz". Jeff Cuppett notes that "the staff at K&L and IWA were very helpful to me in deciding what to buy… the Wine Enthusiast website is pretty useful too." K&L was recommended by several other people as well, though it should be noted that they focus on Vinothèque.
The way I went about my research was by calling most of the legit-looking outfits that advertise in the back of Wine Spectator and got catalogs and basic info. I hoped to buy locally rather than mail-order, if the price difference wasn't too great. After visiting three dealers and looking through many catalogs, I bought from a dealer who gave me good answers to some shipping/delivery questions, an excellent price quote the first time around, and perhaps not coincidentally had the make and style of the unit I bought on display. The Enthusiast went through a more sales-y approach with one price in the catalog (high), another in person, and a promise for an even better quote on follow up. Another dealer was super helpful, but they emphasized Vinocraft, which was depressingly ugly. They almost won me over because they worked the hardest to assuage my concerns about getting the unit inside, offering an option for a contractor to break down the unit and re-assemble it inside. The dealer I chose had the winning idea of having our front door removed to get the extra few inches required, a sensible plan that a local locksmith did for us.
- How much do they cost?
The base catalog prices are for an unfinished wooden box. You want it stained and varnished? Add a couple of hundred dollars. You assumed it had a lock, or an interior light? Think again, shell it out. No catalog mentions shipping, and these units are heavy and are delivered from California. It cost me over $400 for delivery to the east coast. When I started thinking of buying these units a few years back, I thought I could get one of the 400-500 bottle units for around $2,000. When push came to shove, I ended up with one of the fancier units for almost exactly twice that, tax and delivery included.
In this on-line era, you might be able to acquire one via internet auctions. A quick scan of Ebay and Yahoo shows Vinotemp auctioning off two units, and a few others from private individuals.
Options you might blow some more cash on:
Expect an extended delivery time. My unit arrived three months after I placed the order (the dealer quoted two months, for what it’s worth). Other people have received their units in as little as six weeks.
- Multiple temperature zones - probably not, right? What’s it worth to pull a fully chilled bottle of Champagne direct from the cellar rather than popping it in the fridge for a few minutes. I can’t see it.
- Some brands come with one kind of wood racking and offer redwood as an option for say, another $400.
- Other crap. Low heat light, casters. How about a hood ornament?
Anecdotally, the experience on this board has been rather good. I have heard of compressors dying and being replaced by the company, but the complaints revolve more around the fact that your wine is exposed to the elements during the time the compressor is being repaired. Les Shih says: "maintenance is rarely a problem with these things - any professional kitchen maintenance crew on the Bowery can handle it". Jeff adds: "The warranty for mine covers the compressor for 3 years and the cabinet for 5 years. They will ship me a replacement compressor if required, although I believe I have to install it, if I understood the literature correctly. For them to install it I have to send it back. After the 3 years is up, if the compressor fails, you should be able to get a refrigerator repairman to look at it and repair it. If not, you’ll end up buying a new compressor. A standard refrigerator compressor will easily last 10 years though so I’m not too concerned."
That’s about the size of it. Though the years of worrying about my storage while gearing up to buy a cellar were annoying, I’m truly pleased to have one now. Good luck.
Many thanks to all who contributed their advice in my quest to buy a cellar. I trust no one is offended by my (light) editing and reposting of their comments.
Other articles of interest:
The Cellar Builder: Wine Lovers' Tips on Housing Your Collection
Using a Refrigerator as a Wine Storage/Staging Unit, by Russ Sprouse.