Untapped Treasures: Impressive Wine Cellars

by Iyna Bort Caruso

Wine cellars aren’t rooms. They’re destinations. Less than three percent of affluent homes in the U.S. have wine cellars, but don’t call them status symbols. Cellars are the bastions of wine enthusiasts who love the ritual of it.  The selection, the uncorking, that first sip of the bottle.

“The great thing about having a wine cellar is that you don’t have to make up your mind which bottle of wine to pull out until you get into the cellar,” says Jamie Ritchie, president and CEO of Americas and Asia for Sotheby’s Wine. The weather outside, the food being served, even the kind of day it’s been all influence the decision. “If you had a difficult day, you want a safe bet. You want something reassuringly good. If you had a fantastic day, you’re happy to take the risk on something you’re less sure about,” he says.

For the serious collector, no mere rack or wine refrigerator can deliver that experience.

Galileo once described wine as sunlight, held together by water. Wine lovers agree, which is why they go to great lengths to protect their collection by creating the perfect environment.

Ideal conditions for long-term quality aging are consistent temperatures, between 52-55 degrees Fahrenheit with 40-70 percent humidity and proper air flow for full maturation, according to Chris Bender, owner of Paul Wyatt Designs, a custom wine cellar firm in Park City, Utah. “We’re trying to re-create the environment of a cave, which is what early wine makers used to store their wines for maturation. It takes more than just trying to convert a home office or a closet into the ideal wine cellar.”

Bender says the process to build a custom wine cellar takes about three to six months from concept to completion. He tells clients a good rule of thumb for budgeting is to estimate the size of the planned wine collection and then figure $15 per bottle for a basic cellar to around $30 per bottle for a more opulent one.

Aesthetics are the finishing touches on today’s wine cellars. It’s how oenophiles create their fantasies. Exotic woods and stonework, rolling ladders, waterfall racking, overhead bridges and sleek display lighting are among the splurges. Wine tasting tables are not uncommon. Many go further. Bender is building a wine cellar that incorporates a cigar room.

An extraordinary wine cellar says a lot about its owner, says Ginger Martin of Sotheby’s International Realty Wine-Country Brokerage in Sonoma, Calif. “It suggests a lifestyle with an appreciation for the finer things.” In some regions, they’re not just a nice-to-have. They’re a requisite. “With so many fabulous, world-renowned wineries just minutes away, having a proper place to store your favorite varietals is priceless. A wine cellar is just an absolute must,” Martin says.

No matter how elaborate the cellar, the philosophy for stocking it is  simple: Buy wines you like. Don’t go strictly by reviews. From there, Sotheby’s Ritchie says, it’s all about variety and balance: reds, whites and champagnes. Everyday wines, special occasion wines and wines that benefit from aging. And within each category, consider a variety of regions, styles, price points and maturity dates. “You don’t want all young wines. You don’t want all mature wines. You want a balance so that over a 10, 15, 20-year period the young wines will mature, but they won’t mature at the same time,” he says.

You would expect someone whose family is synonymous with legendary winemaking to have a statement-making wine cellar and Michael Mondavi’s is just that. Mondavi co-founded the Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley with his father and now heads up Michael Mondavi Family Estate, a boutique winery in Napa’sCarneros winemaking region, with his son, Rob.

His is a 900-square-foot cellar built of native redwood, the material once used in the region for fermenting the wine. Mondavi says, “I wanted to have that tieback to the heritage of Napa Valley and its historic wine making materials.” The cellar also features a bit of whimsy, a pool table that can be converted into a dining table for 10.  Mondavi guesses his collection is somewhere in the 350-case range, but says the real answer is “more than I can drink in my lifetime. But I’m working on it.”

The cellar houses selections of his own wines, of course, including special bottlings never made available for general distribution, well as imports from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany, Piedmont, Rioja, the Rhine and Mosel. The cellar is organized mostly by varietal with separate aisles strictly for 1971 and 1976 vintages–the years of his children’s births.

“The pleasure is in sharing wine with friends, family and associates and not just drinking it yourself,” says Mondavi. “Wine is meant to complement the flavor of the food–and complement the enjoyment of friendship and conversation.”