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How to Build a Wine Cellar

Home/How to Build a Wine Cellar
How to Build a Wine Cellar 2017-04-18T08:43:32-05:00

At Evolutions Cellars, we are experts in creating the perfect wine storage system for your business.  We have experience in many different types of environments, spaces and decor.  Here are some of the details that we take into account when we design your custom wine racking.

We also consider the electrical wiring. This includes wiring for lighting, the cooling system, and possibly a humidifier. It’s convenient for lighting controls to be located inside and out of the cellar doors. The remote controller for your cooling system (if it comes with one) should be located with the light controls. Most have a digital read-out that shows the current temperature. It’s handy to have that located where you can easily monitor it.

Lighting plays a major role in the enjoyment of the cellar, whether in a technical role (making it easier to find a specific bottle), or aesthetic (highlighting your collection). What type of light you use depends on what you are trying to accomplish. In lighting a wine cellar the two things you want to avoid are UV radiation and excessive heat. Certain flourescent lights produce UV radiation, while halogen and incandescent bulbs create heat. Xenon bulbs aren’t as hot as halogen bulbs, but are hotter than Light Emitting Diodes (LED’s). LED’s have come a long way in the last few years, and are available as replacement bulbs in many standard halogen and incandescent fixtures, as well as flexible strip and rope lights. While they are typically more expensive, they create almost no heat and last a very long time – upwards of 20,000 hours. If you are mixing LED lighting with another type, such as incandescent, make sure you order the LED’s to match the color (“warm” or “cool”) of the incandescent bulbs. Typically you will have ceiling lighting in the form of track lights, chandeliers, or recessed lights, as well as rack lighting that that illuminates a specific row or area, such as an arch or shelf. Rope light and small, under cabinet lights are the norm here. If you opt for incandescent rope light, the larger diameter (1/2″) “rope” tends to run a little cooler than it’s smaller (3/8″) counterpart. Ceiling mounted lighting should be located to highlight the racking, make sure it is not covered by it! Recessed ceiling or “can” lighting should be thermally sealed. Consider using a timer or motion-sensor equiped switch to prevent inadvertently leaving the lights on. Dimmers are also an option here. Just make sure the type of light you choose is “dimmable”.  We can help select the perfect lighting for your wine racking.

To create the ideal environment of 55 – 60 Fahrenheit with 50-70% relative humidity, the room needs to be insulated and have a vapor barrier on the warm side of the insulation. That’s before the insulation goes in if you are using plastic sheeting. The vapor barrier is critical in preventing mold in the walls. Insulation is rated by it’s thermal resistance (or “R-Value”). The higher the number, the the greater the insulating properties. Most cooling system manufacturers recommend minimum R-Value of R-11 in the walls, and R-19 in the ceiling. Depending on where your business is located and whether any of the cellar walls share an exterior wall, those minimums can change. The key word here is “minimum”. Do you really want the minimum protection for your collection? If the floor of the cellar is not ground level concrete, it needs to be insulated as well. Consider how much space is available for insulation when looking at different types. For example, fiberglass batting has an R-Value of 3.25 per inch, while spray in closed-cell polyurethane is double that at R-7 per inch. In a typical 2×4 framed wall, the fiberglass gives a total R-Value of R-11, while the polyurethane yeilds R-24. A vapor barrier will be needed with the fiberglass (usually 6 mil plastic sheeting). The nature of closed-cell polyurethane inhibits moisture transfer, negating the need for an additional barrier. There are many other types of insulation materials available. Talk with your local suppliers for their recommendations about the types that work best for your area. The better the insulation, the lower your cooling costs, and the longer your cooling system will last. When it does fail, it will probably be when you can least afford it not to work (the system is working it’s hardest during the hottest time of the year). High R-Value insulation will help maintain the temperature while you are waiting for the repairs to be completed. One last note on cooling … your wine acts as a thermal reservoir to help maintain the temperature. The more wine (fluid) in the room, the less the cooling system has to cycle. If you don’t have enough wine to fill your cellar at least 50%, bottled water, or any type of liquid works just as well.

The door is usually the weakest link in the thermal barrier. Wood doors are poor insulators. Foam filled wood (hollow core), or metal doors are better than solid wood. With glass, a dual or triple pane insert with UV blocking film is the preferred way to show off your collection (and get up to an U-9 insulation value). Older, single pane inserts don’t insulate well. Condensation can form on single pane glass, it is virtually eliminated with multiple pane glass. Regardless of style, an exterior grade door is recommended. Minimize the thermal loss by making sure the seal between the door, doorframe, and floor is tight. Check the seal by standing in the cellar with the lights off and look for any light around the door. Many door manufacturers offer a retracting sweep that creates the door/floor seal. Aftermarket sweeps are available when a door company doesn’t offer one. The last thing you want is someone tripping over an unexpected threshold. A flat, smooth transition into the cellar will help with the seal.

Before you button up those walls, it’s time to address the cooling system. The most common cooling systems can be categorized as through the wall, ducted, and split-systems (water cooled systems that generate large amounts of heated water are normally only used in commercial applications).

Through the wall systems are single component units as simple as a self-contained enclosure that is installed in the wall with one side cooling, and the other side exchanging the heat. The bulk of the unit sits inside the cellar from about 11″ to 18″ deep (with a 2″x4″ framed wall), and the larger systems can handle rooms as large as 2000 cubic feet. That’s cubic feet, not square feet. Multiply the depth of the room by the width and again by the ceiling height. Most manufacturers specify mounting close to the ceiling, while some designs allow for locating the unit over the door. The down side of a through the wall system is they can take up valuable rack space, tend to be noisier than other systems, and the exhaust space can get warm. These systems are capable of dropping the temperature by about 25 degrees from the ambient air on the exhaust side. That means it cannot be warmer than about 80 degrees outside of your cellar if your cellar target is 55 degrees, including the heat that is introduced by the cooling unit. It also underscores the importance of venting inside a climate-controlled room that has good ventilation itself. Like the air conditioning in your car, it works better when it’s not hot outside.

Ducted systems are much like central air conditioning, with both the the incoming cool air and the warmer “return” air transported to and from the cooling system through ductwork. The cooling system itself can be a single component unit (similar to through the wall), or a split system, with the evaporator or “air handler” separate from the compressor. Like the through the wall system, the single component ducted units are located indoors, in a climate controlled space. The space the unit is located usually cannot be warmer than 90 degrees. Ducted split systems are designed so the noisy compressor can be located far away from the cellar, even outside. Both types have the advantage of being quiet, and offer the option of having the vents in the floor or ceiling, which frees up valuable rack space. Single cabinet ducted systems cost between $3500 and $7000. Installation is pretty straightforward, and if you’re handy, you won’t necessarily require hiring a HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning) contractor.

Non-ducted split systems normally have the evaporator mounted in the wall or ceiling. While advances in fan design have made these units quieter than before, they make more noise than their ducted counterparts. The evaporator is joined to the compressor with copper fluid lines, allowing the noisy compressor to be located up to 100′ away, often with the othe mechanical equipment, or on the roof. A qualified low-temp specialist must install these systems. Make sure the system is designed for the environment the compressor is located. Some are designed for use in areas that see 125 degree temperatures; others are modified through the wall systems that cannot be used above 80 degrees. Many use proprietary components, so consideration should be given to how easily (and quickly) you can get replacement parts. Research the type of controller that is used for temperature control. They range from a simple pressure switch, to a combination of a pump-down controller/thermostat switch. As you would expect, cost is often the determining factor in what a manufacturer supplies. The more expensive ones are less likely to create a problem with seasonal temperature fluctuations that can require annual adjustments, or even damage the compressor.

Regardless of the system, there is a condensation tray on the underside of the evaporator so plan for a drain tube. A humidifier is a good place for that if you can’t tap into your plumbing. In areas of high humidity, an overflow pump should be installed. This will allow any excess condensation to be pumped out of the cellar. Sizing the cooling system is important to minimize how much condensation is generated. Condensation forms on the coils in the evaporator that contains the refrigerant and eventually drips off into the tray, where it is evacuated through the drain. Locate the tubing where you can easily clear any blockages. The dust that is so appealing on older bottles will collect on the coils and get flushed into the tubing which could create a blockage. Periodically cleaning the coils will help. Obviously, you want to avoid drying out your cellar (remember, your target is 50% to 70% relative humidity). One of the ways a cellar system limits loss is by using short “cycle” times to prevent excess condensation from developing. The system has to be big enough to get the job done in the time allowed.

Now that you have the electrical, cooling, insulation, door(s) and flooring done, it’s time to close up the walls and install the racking. Take a minute and note where the studs are in the walls – you’ll be glad you did when it’s time to secure the racking. If you are using drywall, choose the type used in bathrooms, called “green board”. Other wall coverings like tongue-and-groove wood siding, cement board, brick, or plaster are also appropriate, but should be chosen for their aesthetic properties, as they offer no physical advantage and can cost considerably more. If you are painting the walls and ceiling, use a low VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) paint, or a paint that has very little odor. You are almost ready to install the racking, and if it is wood any odor in the cellar will be absorbed in there forever. There is an exchange of air through natural cork, so over time these odors could migrate into your wine. If you find any off-putting smells in the room, hang a bag or two of odor absorbing material like volcanic ash in the room for a few days, available from most home improvement stores.

The variety of different types of bottle storage is overwhelming. While wood racking is the most common, metal, stone, clay, even concrete are finding their way into cellars. Is there a particular “look” that appeals to you? You might like a classic design with redwood racking, or a minimalist style with chrome-plated metal racks. Style is just one consideration. There are many factors that go into the function of the racking you’ll need: a collection consisting of mostly individual bottles versus cases, one with multiple “verticals” of favorite wineries, the number of large-format bottles, a place to decant your wine and allow it to “breathe” without allowing it to get too warm. All are considerations for your choice. The truth is, most cellars are a combination of the above, if not today, then tomorrow. As an interest in wine evolves, so too does a palate, and what is collected. This may be an area where you seek professional advice. Most racking companies offer design services in exchange for your business. Some can provide a virtual tour of your cellar for a modest fee. If you have a hard time visualizing the finished project from 2-dimensional images this might be a worthwhile investment.

Racking can be broadly categorized as individual bottle storage, case or bulk storage, and specialty storage. Individual bottle racks hold a single bottle. Sounds simple, right? The problem is that different bottles have different specifications. Traditionally, Bordeaux (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot..) and Riesling type bottles are 3″ in diameter. Burgundy (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir) bottles are 3 3/8″. Champagne bottles are 3 5/8″. Many wineries are using odd shapes so their product will stand out from the crowd. Some of these odd shapes bottles have equally odd dimensions that make it difficult to store them anyplace other than individual bottle racking. Most manufacturers indicate the maximum bottle size for their racks; if they don’t, a phone call is in order. Racking depth is another factor to consider. 9″ deep racking will support a bottle just as well as 13″ deep racking. It also costs less, although you are more likely to bump into the bottles that are sticking out with the more shallow racking. If you have the room, double-deep racking is a great way to increase your storage capacity, although it makes it more difficult to manage your collection.

Bulk storage comes in the form of diamond bins, cubes, and shelves. Diamond bins are usually sized for nine (3×3) or sixteen (4×4) bottles. They are great for the relatively straight-sided Bordeaux type bottles, but the tapered Burgundy and Riesling bottles don’t fit as neatly. Diamond bins are a good place for the odd Magnum or half-bottle, although if you collect those sizes dedicated racking is in order. Cubes can be any size, but like shelves, they should be wide enough to accept wooden wine boxes, normally 24″ to 26″ wide. Cubes can often be “converted” to diamond bins. Shelves should be adjustable because of the various height of cases in which wine is sold today.

Specialty storage includes everything from display arches to recessed “shadow” boxes. Quarter round display shelves are often used at the entry to the cellar to ease the transiyion to the racking. Old wine barrels are made into everything from tasting tables to wall art. The wooden tabletop in an arch or tasting table should be sealed to prevent staining. Sealed stone and tile make good tabletops, as do many metals, such as copper. Left unsealed, metal tops can develop an interesting patina as the oxidize.

Most wooden rack manufacturers recommend against staining or finishing their racking for two reasons. First, the unsealed wood acts as a resovoir for the moisture in the room. When the air is exchanged from opening the door the wood will either release or absorb excess moisture, quickly bringing the environment back to the proper humidity. The second reason has to do with the odor that many stains and finishes discharge for long periods of time. If you must have a stained finish, use water based products. They are less likely to have an odor and prevent the wood from rapidly absorbing and releasing moisture.

Wood racks are available in a wide variety of species, including Redwood, Mahogany, Oak, and Pine, to name the most common. Within each species are levels of quality, expressed by the absence of defects such as knots or variations in color. The more defect-free the material, the more costly it is. Beware of generic terms like “Premium” and “Ultimate”; they are meaningless, except how they relate to another product in that manufacturer’s line. Is it free of knots (clear)? How deep is it? What about color variations? Is it “all heartwood”, or a combination of sapwood and heartwood? Whichever you choose, the racking should be smooth (no splinters), and should be “milled”, not sanded. Sanded woods become “fuzzy” when exposed to high humidity. An informed cellar owner is less likely to be surprised in a bad way.

The most interesting cellars integrate several types of storage, mixing in diamond bins with individual storage or magnum storage under an arch. Let us help you design the perfect wine racking system for your business today.  You’ll be glad you did!