Stellar Cellar – Considerations when contemplating a wine cellar

Most people make room in their homes for the collections they love, but when one’s collection numbers well over one thousand pieces, it demands a special and spacious storehouse. For Paul Jones, a wine collector for 25 years, a large basement bedroom supplied the dimensions he needed to store and enjoy his ever-expanding collection of fine wines.

When Paul and his wife, Pat, moved to Burr Ridge from Augusta, Georgia, two and a half years ago, they finally found the space to build the wine cellar of his dreams.

“In other homes, we always ran out of space,” recalls Paul. “I built wine storage areas myself. I converted closets with shelving and cooling units, but there was never enough room. From day one when we saw this house, we identified a basement bedroom for the wine cellar.”

The couple worked with LaGrange-based designer Mary Susan Bicicchi, of Interiors by Mary Susan, Inc., and her design team to convert the 365-square foot, L-shaped bedroom into a wine cellar and tasting room. Although Mary Susan had decorated the other rooms in the couple’s home in traditional style, her vision for the wine cellar area was a relaxed, old-world environment.

“We wanted the room to be a complete wine experience, not a place where the host just goes downstairs to retrieve a bottle,” says Mary Susan. “My clients enjoyed planning the space and personalizing it to reflect their lives.”

The personal touches are why Pat enjoys the wine cellar. “I didn’t think I would like having a large wine cellar at first, but it is a fun thing,” she admits. “When we entertain, the tasting room is one of my favorite gathering places.”

The octagonal tasting room, combining stone floors and stucco and faux-stone walls, reflects the relaxed sophistication of a centuries-old French chateau. Four swivel chairs upholstered in grapevine tapestry fabric surround a glass cocktail table, outfitted with a gnarly grapevine base. Other appointments include a marble side table, ceramic lamp with a hand-painted wine bottle base, and still life by English artist Raymond Campbell. A wrought-iron baker’s table displays many of Paul’s wine books.

Part of the enjoyment of this hobby, explains Paul, is that you learn a great deal about wine producing regions and the history and culture of the country.

“I have a little bit of everything, but more reds than whites aging in the cellar,” admits Paul. “I collect Rioja, Spanish red wine and French red wines for investment purposes. I am developing more interest in Chianti and becoming more educated in it. With the cellar’s size, I have room to grow.”

When designing the wine cellar, Mary Susan partnered with Chicago space planner and interior designer Vera Tausk, who has built wine cellars throughout the city and suburbs. Vera views the tasting room’s antiquated character as a taste of what lies beyond.

“It is unusual to walk into a new house and see this old-looking room,” says Vera. “The decor gives the impression that the wines are old as well and very good. And, of course, they are.”

Although the 155-square-foot cellar holds 2,150 bottles, Paul presently stores approximately 1,200 bottles on its racks and shelves. In addition to the wine racks lining the walls, there is an area for decanting aged red wine, a cigar case, and open shelving to store wine cases.

Vera, a wine collector herself for 25 years, works closely with serious collectors like Paul when designing a cellar’s functional and decorative features.

“While technical requirements for a wine cellar are general, each person wants it their own way to reflect their tastes, ” Vera explains. “That is why it is important that clients talk with the designer a long time about what they want.”

According to Vera, a person’s collecting behavior influences design as much as the wines. When creating a custom environment, she considers the client’s preferred ratio of red wines to white wines, wine-collecting history and style, current stock and future stock of wines, and whether they collect wine by the bottle, case, or by both methods. She also determines whether the cellar will function beyond wine storage and be used for entertaining guests. All these variables impact construction costs.

“Admittedly, custom wine cellars can be pretty pricey, but for most wine connoisseurs, it is a small price to pay for giving their wines longer life and preserved taste in an admirable ambiance,” explains Vera. “True aficionados who create wine cellars in their homes to accommodate red and white wines in custom redwood racking at temperature-controlled environments will pay about $125 to $150 per square foot in construction costs.”

A vented cooling unit, much like an air conditioner, blows a steady stream of cool air, keeping the cellar at a constant temperature, which fluctuates between 56 and 58 degrees. Because bottles, contents, and corks expand and contract, oscillating temperatures erode taste and flatten color. Proper moisture levels keep the cork from drying out and leaking the bottles’ contents. By maintaining a stable temperature, wine quality is preserved and enhanced with age.

Paul’s cellar has custom-made redwood wine racks with curved corners, which maximize every inch of space in the airtight room. While other materials such as pine, oak, walnut, or metal may be used for racks, redwood and cedar are ideal because of their natural resistance to mold.

“Some people get intimidated by wine and the rituals surrounding it. But, they should not because it is really simple,” says Paul. “Anyone can swirl and sip. Judge a wine by the first instant you taste it. How it tastes to you is what really matters. Forget about what all the experts say. Just take a deep breath and enjoy yourself.”

Paul derives pleasure from both his hobby and his distinctive hobby room.

“It is a special place in our home,” says Paul. “It is standard procedure, especially for our first-time guests, that we take a small tour of the house and end it in the wine cellar. We sit in the comfortable chairs and do a little sampling. I think they enjoy it, and I know we do.”

Kit Bernardi

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