Designing a Wine Cellar
By Lana Johnson
Valentini’s Custom Wine Cellars is an experienced, nationally recognized wine cellar design/consulting/construction corporation. They have been specializing in custom wine cellars since 1997, from concept design to building and installation. I caught up with Owner/Designer Kathleen Valentini to learn more about her unique wine cellar designs and her passion for treating wine with the respect it deserves.
Q: Why have a wine cellar?
A: Many people think a wine cellar is always underground. The truth is our wine “cellars” are actually any given room within a home. We can turn a bedroom, a portion of the garage, a den or spare room, etc. into a beautiful, functional wine cellar – all of these are climate controlled for proper temperature and humidity.
Wine is a living organism, and like all living things it requires a specific type of environment in order to age properly. Aging is a term for the biochemical change that happens within the wine. Whether that change is better or worse relies on the storage conditions. There are four main factors to consider when planning your cellar: temperature, humidity, darkness and lack of vibration. Stability is the key. (And please, no external odors.)
The temperature should remain constant, ensuring the wine will age slowly and predictably, while protecting fragile elements such as the fruitiness. Experts vary in their recommendations – usually from 55 to 60 degrees. The cooler the temperature, the slower the aging process. I recommend 55 degrees F. Refrigeration is needed to maintain both temperature and humidity levels; the later should be between 50 and 70 percent. The corks need the dampness in order to stay wet and keep the wine properly sealed. Always lay the bottles down (slanted is okay) to keep the cork wet. I tell clients, after they’ve finished with their wine bottles, save them, turn the cork around and re-cork the empty ones, cutting the cork off at the top of the bottle. Put them back in the racks, as this helps keep the room cooler, placing less strain on the compression system. A refrigerated cellar is called an active cellar, while a natural one is called passive. A passive cellar lets the coolness of the underground cool down the wine without refrigeration (this works great in Europe). Unfortunately, it doesn’t work here in the U.S. as we have too many fluctuations in temperature. New Zealand has been using screw caps for a while now, ensuring there won’t be a bad bottle of wine due to a cracked or dried-out cork. Because of the shortage of cork, we will be seeing a lot more of screw tops.
The last two elements are darkness and stillness. Wine should be kept from direct sunlight, because ultraviolet radiation destroys its color and flavor. The ideal wine cellar should be softly lit, when occupied by the wine enthusiast, otherwise left completely dark. I prefer chandeliers with a maximum wattage of 75 on a dimmer switch. That and some rope lighting provide plenty of light. Vibration can, at least temporarily, rob wines of flavor and will actually “cook” the wine turning into vinegar. If you live in a small space and you’re not going to drink your favorite vintages immediately, invest in an inexpensive wine cabinet. Or keep them in your regular refrigerator; the wine won’t age, but it will be protected and ready to drink after decanting and letting it breathe. (See sidebar for suggested wine temperatures).
Q: What were some of the most interesting and/or challenging wine cellars you’ve designed?
A: I designed a commercial wine cellar originally for MGM. That didn’t come to fruition, however, I am going to be building and installing this design in a Newport Beach resident’s home. It is comprised of two connecting rooms with a bridge over the connected entrance; each room measures 14 feet by 12 feet. In the first room, where the entrance to the cellar is, wine racks are around the periphery and also cascade down, like a waterfall. The adjoining room is surrounded by racks as well, with VIP lockers, accessible by lock and key. These lockers are perfect for the owner’s finest vintages, or they can store their friends’ prized bottles. The rooms’ curved corners are molded to true radius. I used Clear All Heart Redwood, which resists mold and mildew. Without the use of toxic stain, redwood will naturally darken beautifully as it ages.
I also constructed a wine room for a “Street of Dreams” project in a home in St. George, Utah. The cellar located behind the tasting bar has an exterior glass door which is maintained at 55 degrees. The tasting bar and table is a trend these days to sit and enjoy your wine outside of the cold cellar. In the photo above, notice the beautiful stonework giving the area a “Tuscany” look where all can view the client’s fine wine collection through the glass door. This creates a wonderful social gathering place to enjoy and talk about the wines you’ve cellared.
Another cellar that was fun to do was in a home in Hillsborough, up near San Francisco. We actually built it in an exterior porch. It had a cement floor. We built it out with proper cellar specifications, put tile down and added a great carved wooden door.
Q: What’s entailed in customizing a wine cellar? Who constitutes your team of professionals? Do you ever incorporate an owner’s own treasures or family heirlooms into the design?
A: I consult with the client to find out what their likes are, the space that’s available for construction and their budget. We can pretty much customize anything to their specifications. I design and oversee the project. My team consists of a quality contractor handling demolition, re-construction, wiring, refrigeration, new sealed flooring (I love slate!) and also installation of the racking. Quality woodworking and taking the greatest care with the finishing work is crucial. All my team members are hands on. We also provide state-of-the-art cellar management equipment that keeps track of your inventory and the varietals you purchased. It can inform you when the optimal time is to drink the wines and keeps track of your tasting notes, among other things. I always emphasize that creating a cellar is similar to building a refrigerator; it has to be completely airtight. You use a vapor barrier, proper insulation and greenboard in to prevent mold or mildew (similar to what they put in when building a shower), then tape and texture, and finally paint the walls and ceiling. I always recommend a dark color of paint. You must also have an exterior grade door with weather stripping and a threshold, so no air can escape. I don’t recommend glass or windows in the cellar, but it’s fine to have glass in the entrance door, so your guests can peek in. The glass should be double thermopane.
If an owner wants to incorporate an antique or heirloom in their cellar, is has to be able to withstand relative humidity up to 70 percent. Most woods will warp, so I don’t suggest this.
If a cellar is for a new build or a remodel out of state, we provide step-by-step instructions, and our refrigeration experts are in constant communication with the contractors and refrigeration technicians on the other end to ensure all specifications are met.
If you’re going to spend money on a wine collection, which is an investment, make sure you work with professionals who specialize in wine cellars and are experienced.
Q: As President of Women for WineSense, Southern California Chapter, what is your role and what information do you try to impart? Do you hold wine events?
A: We are just formulating our new chapter and very excited about it. This is a nationwide organization that is run by women who love wine, but men are also welcome to join. I teach a lot of the basics, and we bring in guest speakers such as winemakers when we get together bi-monthly. We also hold winemaker dinners and events. I would love to invite anyone who might be interested in joining me as an event chair or joining our membership to visit www.womenforwinesense.org.
Q: What are your favorite varietals?
A: During the summer, I love Sauvignon Blanc, one that is fruit forward, reminiscent of Granny Smith apples and grapefruit, crisp and fresh; I also adore Pinot Noir from Oregon or Australian Shiraz (like a California Syrah grape).