The Wine Cellar


Anyone can appreciate wine, and anyone can have a private wine cellar, large or small, plain or fancy. What are the requirements for a wine cellar? How can you add one to your home? What should you put in it? In central Virginia, where vineyards and winemakers are making a strong showing, what local wines are winning praise from experts and the wine-drinking public?

Wine is a natural product made from grapes and as such is sensitive to the conditions under which it is stored. It should be protected from heat, sunlight, vibration, and fluctuations in temperature and humidity. The ideal temperature is in the range of 45 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit. For all these reasons, a cellar is the perfect place to store wine, if it is dry. A cellar is dark and free of noise and vibration, unless like mine it is near a railroad! The temperature of the ground remains constant at about 55° year round, so it provides the right conditions with no heating or cooling. Here in Virginia, where ground moisture and air humidity can be high, a portable dehumidifier can stabilize humidity through the seasons.
If you do not have a basement, or if your storage needs are small, you can buy a self-contained wine cellar, which resembles a refrigerator or other home appliance. Companies that sell these include Danby, Haier, KitchenAid, Summit, Viking and Vinotemp. Featuring glass doors that let you see what is stored inside, home wine cellars come in sizes ranging from a dozen bottles to a few hundred. All they require is a reliable source of electricity and the same ventilation as a refrigerator.
Whether in a basement or under a stair or somewhere on the first floor, a wine cellar can be custom built. Generally of wood, but sometimes of wrought iron or some other metal, this type of storage takes the form of racks or pigeonholes, arranged orthogonally or on the diagonal, with variations for different sizes of bottles. If you are skilled at woodworking and enthusiastic for home improvement projects, you can build your own wine cellar. On the other hand, if the project is large and complex, you can hire a professional builder, carpenter or designer.
Robert Harlee, since 1986 the owner of Market Street Wineshop with two locations in Charlottesville, says the standard guide is How and Why to Build a Wine Cellar, by Richard M. Gold, 4th edition, 2008. Harlee has helped customers design their cellars and he mentions Wine Cellar Innovations, a Cincinnati company that sells racks. Gold’s book addresses the do-it-yourselfer, with instructions and drawings for an insulated wine cellar with passive air cooling. Another guide is Tony Aspler’s Cellar Book: How to Design, Build, Stock and Manage Your Wine Cellar Wherever You Live, by Tony Aspler, 2009. A wine columnist for the Toronto Star, Aspler lives in a condo, which explains the long title.
Self-education is the rule in wine. In addition to magazines like Wine Spectator, two writers deserve mention. Robert M. Parker, Jr. puts out a newsletter called the Wine Advocate and has published several books, especially on French wines. Jay McInerney, best known for his novel Bright Lights, Big City, was a wine columnist for House & Garden magazine for years, and since 2010 for the Wall Street Journal. Two book collections of his columns are Bacchus and Me, 2000, and A Hedonist in the Cellar: Adventures in Wine, 2006.
John Cargile, of Heartwood Corporation in Charlottesville, has built eleven wine cellars for his custom residential clients, and helped design some of these. “We use untreated wood, redwood or cedar, and we do precision cutting in our cabinet shop. For insulation, we use closed cell foam, a soy-based product. The spaces are often tight, so it’s hard to get good photos, but our clients do care about how their wine racks look.”
With a few exceptions, wine bottles are best stored on their side, with the wine in contact with the cork. If the cork dries out, it will shrink and let air in the bottle. Over time, the wine will evaporate, but worse, the oxidation of the wine will alter its flavor and eventually convert it to vinegar. The exceptions are wines that are stored in something other than a bottle, such as a cask; bottles sealed in some other way, such as a screw cap, perfectly acceptable for some wines; and champagne and sparkling wines. This last group produces carbon dioxide (those tiny bubbles) which forms a protective layer in the bottle neck when stored upright.
A wall of wine storage resembles a wall of books and a wine cellar can have the look of a library. When woods like mahogany and oak are used with architectural details and custom cabinetry, it can be as sumptuous as the library of a great house. A collection of rare and expensive wines might merit this type of treatment. A wine cellar that forms part of an entertainment space, such as a billiards room or home theater, might also go in for the grand gesture.
On any scale, a built-in wine cellar ought to have a counter or table of some kind to make it easier to examine a bottle and uncork it. A small sink is handy, if plumbing can be managed. And while you’re at it, a place to keep a few glasses, tools, napkins and related gear would be convenient, especially if your cellar is remote from the kitchen. You don’t want to run up and down stairs for every little thing. A wine cellar that includes space for a few people to sit, drink, compare notes, and perhaps even link arms in song is yet another possibility. Lastly, the lighting should allow you to read labels, at a minimum. Lighting can also be used for dramatic effect, to showcase the collection.
Some organization is needed; a system that tells you what you have and where it is. Noted Virginia winemaker Gabriele Rausse allegedly owns cases of wine that he never drinks, because he is not sure what is in them. Retailers often group their wines by country—France, Italy, Germany, Australia—and by region—Bordeaux, Chianti, Rhineland. In the United States, we usually refer to wines by the variety of grape pressed to make them, while in Europe, with centuries of wine-making and local reputations, the region and the particular vineyard is the basis of naming wines.
Some wine cellars, then, have labels attached to the racks. A connoisseur who has multiple years from the same vineyard might also keep track of the sequence, called a “vertical.” Another way to organize a collection is by broad categories—red, white, rosé, sparkling, and brandy. You can buy wine by the bottle or by the case, a wooden box that contains twelve bottles. Some people store the cases, instead of removing each bottle. You will want to sample a wine before buying it in bulk, and there are many ways to do this.
Blenheim Vineyards, like many local wineries, is open to the public for private tastings of its own wines, in a spacious, barn-like upstairs room with a spectacular view of southern Albemarle County. Blenheim ages its wines downstairs in great oak barrels for a year or more and then bottles them. The day before my visit, they bottled the 2010 crop, which was exceptionally good due to a hot, dry autumn. On a cellar tour, by appointment with winemaker Kirsty Harmon, you can taste wine from the barrel, to see how the flavor changes during the aging process. Owned by singer-songwriter Dave Matthews, who designs the bottle labels, Blenheim started in 2001. 
Marcia Strait, one of the tasting room hosts, will let you savor quietly, or tell you as much as you want to know. “Blenheim now has ten acres in grapevines, buys more grapes locally, and produces about 5,000 cases a year, which makes it a medium-size winery. Generally, we have up to eight varieties, but the whites have sold out. We distribute to local shops, but most of our sales are direct to the customer, in the tasting room or online.”
Strait claims not to be an expert, but she offers advice. “Some wines are ready to drink when released, and some benefit from aging. The ones that you want to keep, full-bodied red wines, contain tannins which mellow over time. White wines are less tannic and may lose flavor if you keep them too long. The Virginia varieties that do well, and that any local cellar should have, are Viognier, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.”
Bill Davies grew up in California, on a Napa Valley vineyard originally planted in the 1800s and revived by his parents. A stone outbuilding became a rough-hewn wine cellar, with wood shelves and pallets. The barn door could be left open for outdoor parties. Davies worked in sales and wholesaling, first in California, and then in New York and Florida. He acquired wines through trade rather than purchase, so it was an eclectic list. He recently embarked on a retail adventure with a small shop called The Farm, next to the Belmont Bridge at 205 Monticello Road. The shop carries about 75 wines, mostly from California and Virginia. “My home wine cellar is smaller, since I moved a few times. Now I have the shop instead. Some friends have large cellars, 50 or more cases, including some expensive wines. It can be a nice gesture to invite a friend into your cellar, to help choose a wine to drink with dinner.”
Tastings, at 502 East Market Street, under the downtown parking garage, is a combination of restaurant and wine shop. Started in 1990 by Bill Curtis, Tastings offers just that—tastings of wines, especially ones just in. Curtis says that 60 to 70 percent of his business is selling wine by the case, with many repeat customers. “Are you building a cellar as a long-term investment,” he asks, “or to drink? How much entertaining do you do? Professor friends of mine have a small, well-chosen stock. At the other end of the scale, some people flaunt it with cases of rare Burgundy. Or they buy for a party or reception.” 
With Doug Little, Curtis started the Wine Club of Charlottesville in 1981 as a social way to learn about wine. The club meets in Tastings, pairing wine with food. Winemakers, vineyards and importers may present their products, and the shop features Virginia wines. Tapped as a judge in state competitions, Curtis singles out Barboursville Vineyards as “world class.” He says: “The industry has come a long way since 1975, and the experiments in viticulture continue. The Pinot Noir grape does poorly in this climate—too warm and damp—but Viognier has been a great success.”