- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Michael Lee of Leesburg, Va., has brought the charm of Tuscany to his basement. Because the sunroom in his home wasn’t being used, he and his wife, Jennifer, decided to transform the space into a wine cellar.

The area, which replaced their free-standing wine cooler, has glass walls and a mahogany door with horizontal racking. It holds about 5,000 bottles. They plan on adding other enhancements, such as a tasting room outside the cellar and stained-glass windows.

Although wine cellars commonly are associated with medieval castles and large estates, the rooms can be installed and maintained in almost any home. The setups can range from simple to extravagant. Each accomplishes the same purpose, however: preserving a treasure that grows better with time.

The construction of the space ensures that the wine will be stored properly, says David Spon, owner of Wine Cellar Concepts in McLean. If a wine is stored well, it develops character that can be brought out when it is decanted. Mr. Spon specializes in designing high-end wine cellars for a minimum of 2,500 bottles, with price tags of at least $50,000.

After meeting with a client to get an understanding of the intended use for the room, he develops a plan. Then he builds the shell for the room, creating the most complete vapor barrier possible, which helps maintain a humidity level between 55 percent and 75 percent. The proper humidity keeps mold from forming on the wine bottles’ labels. It also keeps the corks moist.

Choosing a proper cooling system is also important. Although there are many possibilities, a ducted system with humidification and dehumidification options usually is best, Mr. Spon says. The equipment should keep the area at about 55 degrees Fahrenheit at all times. Preventing temperature swings helps the wine age at a normal rate.

Further, racks and cabinetry should store the bottles horizontally so the wine is always in contact with the cork. If a client wants to store bottles on an angle for display purposes, Mr. Spon advises, it should be a small angle. Otherwise, the corks might dry out and drop into the wine.

Laminate woods, such as plywood, shouldn’t be used in a wine cellar because the higher humidity can make the glue melt. Soft woods, such as redwood and cedar, work better in the environment because they are naturally accustomed to the humidity and temperatures associated with a wine cellar.

“I think of it as the ultimate guy’s room,” Mr. Spon says. “I have a handful of women clients, … but it’s like ‘his’ fort. … As a kid, you collected frogs or baseball cards; now you collect wine.”

Although hiring a builder may be convenient, George Lyon of Northwest decided to build his own wine cellar in the basement of his 1905 town house. The area is about 6 feet by 8 feet and stores 900 bottles of wine. It took him about a year to complete.

During construction, Mr. Lyon included insulation, an airproof door and redwood racking. He also installed a window air conditioner instead of a traditional cooling system. Even though his wine cellar may not have all the amenities of a professionally built chamber, he is pleased with the results.

“I didn’t want to spend $10,000 on the wine cellar,” he says. “That’s why I constructed it myself. I ordered the racking over the Internet. I intentionally sacrificed over the cooling, but it has tile flooring and crown molding.”

A nice wine cellar can be built for less than $5,000, says Gray Mosby, wine buyer and manager of Sutton Place Gourmet in McLean. He recently appeared on “Build Your Own Wine Cellar” on the Do It Yourself Network, and he built a 660-bottle cellar in his Arlington town house.

“It doesn’t have to be only for the elite,” he says. “I didn’t realize until I did this that I could do it myself and it didn’t have to be that expensive.”

Even a closet can be converted into a cool chamber with the appropriate materials, Mr. Mosby says. However, it’s important to use thermally fused light fixtures that don’t create heat, which could cause condensation in a cool room.

“I’ve seen cellars that were nothing more than glorified refrigerators, where people were just sticking white wine in it,” he says. “You can have a purely utilitarian cellar, or you can show it off as a room in your house and like how it looks.”

Then there are those people who center their entire homes around wine cellars. Ted Julio of Timonium, Md., who owns Della Notte Restaurant in Baltimore, has a 600-square-foot wine cellar that holds about 4,000 bottles in the basement of his house. However, he has decided to build a new home to create a more beautiful chamber that will include a tasting room.

Other features that can be added to a wine cellar include murals, sculpted tiles, hand-painted floors, paneled ceilings, woodcarvings, specialized tabletops, etched mirrors and frescoes. Motifs involving wine, such as vineyards and grapes, are popular.

“You want wines in your home so you can go downstairs and pull bottles from the rack and enjoy them with dinner,” Mr. Julio says. “It shouldn’t be cherished as a relic.”

Aside from building the cellar, the most difficult aspect may be choosing the best wines to store in it, says Charlie Adler of Northwest. Mr. Adler is president of Taste DC, a wine-and-food special-event company.

“I’m a big fan of age-worthy red wines,” he says. “I also love champagnes and dessert wines. Anything that is made well. … I get a lot of sincere pleasure from good wine. I like to share my pleasure with friends. … Even if it goes up in value, most of the investment goes in my mouth.”

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