Protecting Your Wine Collection

Wine Spectator Editors

Most collectible wines fulfill their youthful promise only after being carefully stored under optimum conditions for many years. Indeed, creating proper storage conditions for your bottles is yet another indication that you've evolved into a true collector.

When looking to store your collection—whether it's a beginner's stake of 250 bottles or a lifetime supply numbering in the thousands—there are two standard options: a free-standing refrigeration unit or a built-in cellar. The choice you make will depend on your financial resources, the space you have available and your goals as a collector.

Will a free-standing refrigeration unit suffice?

The fastest and easiest way to proper wine storage is the free-standing refrigeration unit. Available in many different models and sizes, storage units are produced by a wide range of manufacturers. But regardless of brand, capacity or design, all free-standing units perform the same function.

The benefits of a free-standing unit include convenience and low maintenance. It can be placed almost anywhere in your house or apartment, and once you plug it in and program the desired temperature, there's little for you to do other than fill it with wine.

The cost of a 250-bottle unit is about $2,000. Before you buy one, however, make sure you have enough space; at that capacity, it will be almost 6-feet high and more than 2 feet both wide and deep.

Clearly, a free-standing unit is more utilitarian than a walk-in cellar, and it will fill the bill for storing your wines. However, it leaves no room for growth.

When it’s time to upgrade to a built-in cellar

If you have the space to build and the desire to grow and show your collection, a proper wine cellar is the better choice. Any enclosed space in your house can be converted into a cellar; it could be the tiny closet where you keep your golf clubs or it could be the extra bedroom. It is, however, a significant commitment.

You can hire a contractor to design and build the cellar, or, if you have a knack for home improvement and have been looking for a new project to undertake, you can build it yourself. The cost of installing a cellar will vary dramatically depending upon the quality of the materials you use. Some of these decisions will be merely decorative while others could ultimately affect your cellar's contents.

More important than the aesthetic qualities of your cellar is the performance of its components. The walls must be insulated and include vapor barriers; ceiling, floor and doors must provide tight seals. A small climate-control unit, which will regulate the temperature and humidity for approximately 150 cubic feet, will cost about $600 to $800. A more sophisticated unit that can manage condensation on its own will not require a drainage line. These units top $1,000.

The bottom line

If doing it yourself, you should be able to build a cellar (especially if you're converting a small closet) for less than $2,000. But be warned: it is not an exercise to be taken lightly. Not only is there the challenge of controlling temperature with an eye to the ideal mean of 55˚ F, but you also have to be careful that the relative humidity remains in the range of 70 percent. Too dry (below 60 percent relative humidity) and the wine will slowly evaporate from the bottles; at above 80 percent humidity, mold will form on the labels, bottles, and cellar walls.

Whatever the shape and size of your collection, it is essential to store your wines properly. Whether you buy a no-frills stand-alone unit or build an ornate basement lair, the future of your collection depends upon the cellar's performance. 

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Excerpted from Wine Spectator