Media Recognition Period HomesMaking Room for Wine
by Michael Carey
Here we cover the basics of cellar design and wine storage -- and provide contact info on some of the leading designers and suppliers.
This country's romance with wine may have begun when Thomas Jefferson was appointed the Continental Congress' minister plenipotentiary in Europe in 1784 and then minister to the Court of Louis XVI, succeeding Benjamin Franklin. Aside from gaining commercial concessions from the French and negotiating trade treaties, Jefferson collected more than 300 European wines that he shipped back to Monticello.
Over the years, wine's popularity has increased to the extent that in 1999 consumers in the U.S. drank around 550 million gallons. While the vast majority of this wine is from the low end of the market, typically young and cheap, collection and consumption of high-end vintages is also at an all-time high. Simply put, there are now more people buying more, and more-expensive, wine. The question for many of these wine lovers is the same as it was for Thomas Jefferson: how and where to store this often-valuable liquid?
Jefferson's solution, of course, was to design his own cellar, complete with a dumbwaiter that transported bottles up to the dining room. Not all, however, share Jefferson's genius for design, nor do they have the space of a Monticello. Also, while Jefferson's cellar provided close to ideal conditions for the storage of wine, being dark, cool, airy, and still, the typical basement of a contemporary residence will house hot-water systems, heating systems, and the like, and will have very little air flow. Likewise, living areas typically have environments suited more to wine's destruction than its preservation. Creating ideal or even adequate conditions under these circumstances can be difficult and requires a good understanding of the nature of wine.
The Nature of Wine
Organic and biochemical compounds give each individual wine its taste, odor, and color. Over the years these compounds change and new compounds are formed, and this process constitutes the "aging" of the wine. Wine will also generally have between 11% and 13% ethyl alcohol. Experts recommend that wine be protected from three principal elements: light, heat, and air. Light tends to age wine prematurely through photochemical reactions that speed or distort the normal aging processes. For this reason, colored glass is used for most bottles. Light also usually means heat, and because heat accelerates virtually every kind of chemical reaction, it can be a most destructive force on wine.
Any liquid that comes in contact with the atmosphere can absorb oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, etc., and dramatically change its chemical make up. When wine comes in contact with air, generally the oxygen oxidizes the ethyl alcohol, creating acetic acid, a.k.a. vinegar. Wine should therefore be protected against air at all costs (aside, of course, from when it's being drunk). Thus, bottles are usually stored on their sides, in order to keep the cork wet and tight in the neck. If the atmosphere is kept humid, however, the cork will not dry, shrink, or become more porous. The most commonly suggested level of relative humidity for wine storage is around 70%.
Jim Deckebach started Wine Cellar Innovations in 1988 out of his garage. The firm now occupies a 354,000-sq.ft. building in Cincinnati, stocks over 35 standard designs, and builds around 2,000 cellars a year. Wine Cellar Innovations offers easily installed kits as well as custom-design capabilities and a full range of accessories. Their racking is available in a wide variety of wood species, including redwood, red oak, mahogany, and other exotics, as well as pine for their economy lines. This custom cellar shows a good variety of the racking options available from the firm. Individual bottles are racked against the back wall and in the elegantly-curved corners, while fan racks are used at the outsides of the curves and over-sized racks store magnums beneath the countertop. Wine Cellar Innovations is also known for fine decorative detailing, including murals, tiling, and, as seen in the panelled door, hand-carvings.