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Are you storing your wine properly? Here’s what it can cost—and save—you

January is the month most commonly devoted to the making—and breaking—of resolutions. Mine was to improve my wine storage.

My current storage conditions consist of two large wine racks for everyday wines in a (perpetually cool) basement and a large wine refrigerator for the fancier stuff. Wine-storage professionals refer to that fridge as a “free-standing cellar”—one of many facts I learned recently in conversations with pros as well as impassioned amateurs who had built their own cellars.

The wide world of wine cellars, I learned, is divided into two basic categories: passive and active. The former type is a non-climate-controlled space where bottles are stored—usually a basement but sometimes a closet, garage or beneath a staircase. In an active cellar, whether a wine fridge like mine or an entire room, the temperature and humidity level are controlled by a specially designed cooling unit.

This 1922 home has recently been renovated with an underground wine cellar. (Credit: Acocella Photography for Brian Milton/Compass)

While many wine drinkers might turn the job of building a cellar over to a pro, some opt for DIY. Although not at all handy, I considered the idea. Would it be possible to construct my own cellar? I watched YouTube videos and browsed various websites, including WineBerserkers, whose chat forum is frequented by serious oenophiles.


The WineBerserkers site featured a discussion titled “Self made cellars,” where quite a few “Berserkers” had posted photos and details of their efforts. One Berserker had built an unglamorous but completely functional passive wine cellar in an unfinished corner of his home’s basement. It looked like something my husband and I might be able to replicate—or so I thought.

“I only had 150 bottles, but I was looking to expand to 1,000 bottles one day,” said the Pittsburgh-based collector when I reached him by phone. He built both his 10-by-10-foot wine room and his wine racks. (It helps that he has a workshop in his basement.) 

Bottles of champagne are seen in the cellar of the Bollinger champagne House during the traditional Champagne wine harvest in Ay, France, September 23, 2016. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier (REUTERS/Benoit Tessier)

“The racks were easy. I built them like ladders,” he said. His only expenditures were lumber and insulation, plus a mold-resistant primer and a temperature sensor. (The ideal cellar temperature is 55 degrees Fahrenheit; a variation of a few degrees more or less is not a big deal.) His total cost, $500, certainly sounded reasonable.


A high electricity bill was the impetus for a Berserker from California to build his own cellar. With some 1,700 bottles stored in several wine fridges in his garage and house (and in an off-site storage space too), the California collector decided a passive underground cellar would save him several hundred dollars a month in electricity bills. Never mind that this also necessitated digging a giant hole in the back of his house. Happily, his neighbor lent him a backhoe.

He chronicled his project in photographs on the WineBerserkers site; it even included a tasting-room structure built over the cellar. Although digging a hole in my suburban backyard isn’t an option, I was intrigued enough by the photos to ask a few questions. I learned it took the collector about 14 months working nonstop, almost entirely on his own (except when it came to pouring the cement) and cost about $30,000. 

The Timber Creek Lodge wine cellar. The 16,015-square-foot lodge includes eight bedrooms and 10 bathrooms. (Credit: Jon Kohler & Associates)

He admitted he might have gone a different route had he known at the outset how hard it would be or how much it would cost. On the other hand, it’s helped his electricity bill, and he’s enjoying drinking wine in his new tasting room with family and friends.

According to the cellar professionals I spoke with, the California collector had enough bottles in his collection to justify building a cellar. “If you’re under 500 bottles I’ll tell you not to build a cellar,” said Marshall Tilden III, chief revenue and education officer for Wine Enthusiast, a media and wine accessories company in Westchester, N.Y. “Even at 700-800 bottles it really has to be a passion project,” he added.

Wine Enthusiast sells a wide range of free-standing wine cellars and offers a $195 wine-cellar-design service that advises on optimal size and cooling and racking needs. Mr. Tilden, a wine-cellar consultant for almost 20 years, oversees a team of consultants, most based in the New York area, who field calls from wine collectors thinking they want to build a cellar.


Of the thousands of inquiries the team receives each year, around 60%-70% are from customers who opt for free-standing cellars, aka wine fridges, Mr. Tilden said. A basic large model like mine costs a few thousand dollars, while the EuroCave Revelation L Quad Wine Cellar is a cool $27,980—pricey indeed but still less than the cost of building most wine cellars.

While Mr. Tilden’s company creates wine cellar designs that customers hire a contractor to build, other outfits, such as Philadelphia-based Zipco Wine Cellar Services, both design and build cellars. Most oenophiles come to Zipco after they’ve outgrown their wine refrigerators, said the company’s president, Scot “Zippy” Ziskind. He asks potential clients lots of questions, and he raises the matter of money right away. “I want to see if they understand what it costs to build a cellar,” he said.

Mr. Ziskind also asks would-be clients about the size of their collection (the average is 1,200-1,500 bottles) and the type of wines they collect—large-format bottles, Riesling bottles and Champagne bottles, for example, need different-size racks. He wants to know about frequency of consumption too. “I always ask people how long it took them to acquire 1,000 bottles and how much they drink,” Mr. Ziskind said. If someone drinks a bottle every night, that’s 365 bottles a year in cellar depletion; if they entertain regularly, the number will be higher. Age is a factor, too; the older you are, the less time you have to expand your collection.

A trained mechanical engineer, Mr. Ziskind has been building cellars for 45 years. A basic 10-by-10 cellar typically costs between $30,000 and $50,000, though he’s built cellars costing five times that amount. To ensure a client is serious, Mr. Ziskind first charges $3,000 for a CAD drawing that includes all specs and a budget that includes the costs of building, insulation and cooling, as well as wine racks.

If there is lots of glass—a glass cellar door or wall, for example—the cost will be higher. The cellar design also depends on location. In low-humidity Denver, for example, Mr. Ziskind must increase the humidity inside the cellar, while in humid Florida, he must do the opposite. His professional expertise in refrigeration and engineering is key, said Mr. Ziskind, who not only builds cellars but also amends the work of other builders. “Thirty percent of my work is fixing other people’s mistakes,” he estimated. It can cost just as much to fix a flawed wine cellar as it does to build one in the first place.

I shared what I’d learned about the requirements of building a cellar—active or passive—with my husband, who happens to be in commercial construction. Would he consider building one? “I’d consider it, but I’d rather just buy another wine fridge,” he confessed. “You mean free-standing cellar,” I said.

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