Wine Talk

Snooth User: Gantt Hickman

Turning a closet into a wine cellar?

Posted by Gantt Hickman, Oct 29, 2009.

What is the best route to take in turning a closet into a wine cellar. I have a hall closet that will probably only hold about a 100 bottles or so when outfitted.

Is there a small cooling unit to put in there?
What would the best racking system be?



Reply by GregT, Oct 29, 2009.

I would think about whether that's a good idea for a few reasons.

If it's a hallway closet, that means the surrounding area is probably your living area and it's going to be heated, no? So you will need a cooler in the closet that has to be vented somewhere. Then you have a cool room inside a warm one so you have to really insulate the hell out of the walls, door, and ceiling, and maybe floor, because otherwise you'll get condensation. If your house is not air conditioned in the summer or if you turn off the AC during the day, the house can get up to 80F or more and your wine room should stay under 60 and even cooler if you can make it so. If you get condensation, you'll get mold and that might not be healthy for you to live with.

All that is possible to address. Restaurants, etc., have pantries that are kept cool. But they're either stand-alone walk in coolers or they're constructed in place with super insulation all around. But in your case, you're only talking about 100 bottles. By the time you get your build-out finished and your racks and you get a cooler, I think you'd be far better off if you would just buy a wine fridge that holds 100 or 150 bottles. Cost-wise, you'll come out way ahead in terms of what you spend per bottle for storage and your unit will be specifically made for wine. The cheapest cooling unit for your closet space will probably be more than a 100 bottle fridge.

If you're going to store a few hundred bottles, say 600+, it starts becoming more cost-effective to make a room. But with lower numbers it's really simpler and quicker to get a unit. If you're going to keep it in the closet or in the basement where you don't really care what it looks like, you can get some fairly inexpensive units that are perfectly acceptable. They are shipped in pieces and you put together yourself. The shelving is metal racking, so you can fit many more bottles into a given space than you can with wood racks, and they seem to hold up fairly well. I have a friend who has three or four of them in his basement. He keeps them at 53F and he's had them for years and he keeps pretty top-end wine in pristine condition.

As far as racking goes - the wood racks that all the custom built cellars have are very nice looking, but inefficient in terms of space. Bins are far more efficient but they are difficult to work with because you always seem to want the bottle on the bottom. Even worse, they're horrid for Rhone shaped bottles, which are clumsy and don't stack well at all. If you figure a Burgundy bottle is about 3 1/2 inches in diameter, you need a space about 4 inches per bottle. Remember wood expands and contracts slightly and you want to be able to take the bottle out. So if the wood itself is 1/2 inch, then you need a 4 inch square for each bottle. That means for every foot of space vertical or horizontal, you get three bottles if your racks are made from wood with individual slots for each bottle. Bins are FAR more efficient for a given space, but they have the disadvantage that I mentioned.

I ended up building a walk-in wine cellar when I overfilled my 250 bottle fridge and the 100 bottle supplement I bought, but it's in the basement and I really had no space constraints and it's insulated all around, including the door, to R60 in the ceiling and R40 walls and door.

Best of luck.

Reply by Gantt Hickman, Oct 29, 2009.

Great Info... thanks!

Reply by dmcker, Oct 29, 2009.

Well exposited, Greg. Any tales to tell about building your own walk-in cellar?

Reply by GregT, Oct 29, 2009.

Not really. I built the room pretty quickly but spent more time thinking about shelving and figuring the space needed for bins, for shelves, for racks, etc., vs what I could store on them.

I got all kinds of measurements for bottles and put up bins on one side. Loaded them up and within a couple of days started to hate them. So for the other side of the room I decided to build shelves. I had plenty of wood around so it didn't seem like a big problem. Then found that some Beaujolais, some Turley zins, and some Pax syrah and some Hungarian wines are just too fat to fit in any "standard" spacing regime. So I used 5/8 plywood, ripped it into 10 foot shelves about 9 inches wide, and cut little spacers of about 3 3/4 inch, and put them in. The idea was that I'd lay out four or five bottles, put a spacer, etc. Didn't work out as well as I'd hoped. The bottles are just too variable in size

Then I loaded those up and damned if once again there wasn't a problem. The weirder shapes, like Tokaji-aszu or some of the extra long bottles from Tokaj or Italy roll around too. And Port and Madeira.

So you really don't win no matter what you do.

And somewhere during this process I got a DVT and got stuck in the hospital for a week.

But I looked at people's blogs and talked to people who build these things and they're just too complicated and dumb IMO. The best insulation is extruded polystyrene. It has an R value of 10 per inch. Fiberglass isn't nearly as good. So if you buy a 2 inch piece you have an R value of 20 and if you double that you get 40 which is pretty decent. You get them already sized to 24 inches, so just use steel studs. Lay in the insulation, pop in the next stud, and so on and you've built the cellar room in a day. They aren't load bearing walls so 24 inches is just fine with minimal work. Your ceiling should be insulated better because in a basement you are under a heated room, so I doubled the insulation but essentially did the same thing there. And because I was nervous about possible water in the basement, I used cement board along the floor inside and out, rather than something like drywall. Doesn't look so nice but it's covered with bottles anyway. And here's a trick because it's full of holes -- get a good mildew resistant paint, mix it with drywall mud, and paint your cement board with that. It's easier than doing a skim coat and you smooth out all the roughness.

But I was only looking for something functional, not something to show off carpentry skills. I did that in the rest of the house. A wine cellar is just a refrigerator and I don't have some fetish where I like to go and look at my "collection" which is just haphazard wines that I like to drink. You can build it in a weekend. The hard part is building and hanging the door and the racking.

Had I been a little smarter, i would have made it a tad bigger. My thinking was that I could get drywall in 10 foot lengths and cement board in five foot lengths, so I made it ten by five so I didn't have to cut anything. That plan didn't work out either.

And when building a door, if you hinge the outside, the arc the door makes needs to be considered. For a regular door it isn't such a big deal. But if your door is six inches thick, like mine is, your're basically swinging a box. You need more clearance because the inside of the door scribes an arc with a different radius than the outside of the door. So you have to make your opening much wider than the door and then you're stuck trying to seal that. The solution is to angle the closing part of the door, but I hadn't figured that out when I built it.

Reply by dmcker, Oct 29, 2009.

Quite a bit of practical information here.

Your "I would have made it a tad bigger" plaint seems to be a universal. Everyone I know, from owners of thousands-of-bottles cellars to people who just bought their first wine fridge, says they wish they had more capacity.

Reply by GregT, Oct 30, 2009.

It's true. I'm not near capacity - I can put a couple thousand bottles in there. But I decided on the measurements only because I thought I would do a little less work. Turns out that the effort saved is so insignificant it shouldn't have entered into my calculations. I think this is fine for my own wine, but I need to keep samples, etc., and for those purposes I could use more space. Anyhow I'm going to help a friend build one this winter. It's kind of fun and I'll learn a little more for my next cellar.

Probably the most important thing I learned was how to trick an air conditioner into becoming a wine cooler. Window ACs only go down to 65F or so, but you can get them lower. You need to have a larger compressor and evaporator coil and you need to trick the thermostat. But the smallest size window AC available is larger than any wine cellar you'll likely build and you can save a lot of money. In the US, a small AC is $90. Buy two in case the first one burns out. If you buy a Whisperkool or Breezeaire you spend over $900. You can buy a lot of wine for the price difference. Guys who hunt get big ACs and use them for meat lockers. The idea is exactly the same for all refrigerators but the designers figure that wine people have more money to spend than other people.

Reply by schellbe, Oct 31, 2009.


Do you have any experience with evaporative coolers? The compressor type air conditioners knock the humidity too low in the West. I might consider adding a basement window unit to my passive cellar (66 degrees in the summer, 55 in winter). Our central air bounces the temp from 58 to 68 in the basement, so I don't use it in the wine cellar (separate room).

Reply by dmcker, Oct 31, 2009.

Yeah, I was going to ask about how you deal with humidity issues, too.

Reply by GregT, Oct 31, 2009.

I don't really know about that - I assume you mean a swamp cooler? We have exactly the opposite problem out here - I'm dumping out a bucket of water every few weeks in the summer.

But you may want to re-think the idea of knocking a window in. Not sure where you are in the West but my mother in law is in Reno. The night/day swings are pretty serious in the summer. Even tho the thermal mass of the wine adjusts more slowly than the ambient air, you'll still be swinging the temps day in and day out.

There is a lot of thought about humidity and I'm NOT any kind of an expert on the issue, but maybe we worry a little much. Again, I don't know for sure but the fact that everyone worries about humidity doesn't necessarily mean that they should.

In any event, if you have a cement floor, you can more easily increase the dampness with the wicking action of a piece of cloth. Just sit a bucket of water on a cinder block and hang a towel over the edge of the bucket onto the block. Those blocks hold a lot of water and you may be able to increase your humidity adequately that way. I can tell you that if you have the situation we do out here - i.e. lots of humidity, you will get mold. I haven't had any on the walls but on some open bottles of madeira and port I got some.

Reply by dmcker, Oct 31, 2009.

In Japan, which has more than plenty of humidity for more than half the year, airconditioning units definitely dry the air too much. And even in a proper cellar where no machinery is needed the winters here get dry enough that it is a concern. Thus my question. My understanding has been that corks can dry if the humidity is too low, even when the bottles are lying on their side. I've heard other rationales but usually after too many bottles, too late at night for me to regurgitate them clearly here right now.

I guess you don't follow the timehonored custom of dumping winebottle dregs onto the brick or other flooring of the cellar? ;-) Somehow the yeasty smell has always seemed to me an integral part of the cellar environment...

Reply by dmcker, Oct 31, 2009.

From multiple sources:

--"55-75% is the ideal humidity range for stable wine aging. Humidity levels of 80% or higher will cause mold to form and rot the labels. Lower levels will draw wine out of the bottle and be replaced with oxygen rich air."
--"Humidity levels should range between 60% and 75% relative humidity to keep corks from drying out and to prevent air from entering the bottle damaging the wine through oxidation."
--"Humidity DOES matter when storing and aging wine over long periods of time. The ideal range for humidity is 50 to 70 percent. Not enough humidity, and the outside of the cork could dry out and shrink, leading to ullage and possible oxidation of your wine. Too much humidity, and the wine bottle labels might get moldy and/or peel off."


So I guess if you're only storing screwtops then you don't need to worry about low humidity, just high.

But why would you be storing only screwtops, anyway?

Reply by schellbe, Nov 1, 2009.


Casper, WY is much like Reno. The windows are already there, but the swamp cooler would create an opening and perhaps exacerbate the outside influence (temp extremes). Given what you have said, the benefit of added summertime cooling may be negated by greater exposure to diurnal temperature swings (34 deg F in summer).

I'll stick with what I have and accept 66 degree sumertime temperatures. I can continue to run my humidifier. My 86 and 89 Bordeaux seem okay.

Thanks for the advice.

Reply by GregT, Nov 1, 2009.

If you can pick it up, one of the most complete books on wine cellars is by Richard Gold. You can get it from Amazon or someplace. The building advice isn't all that great but he does a wonderful job of synthesizing the current wisdom regarding cooling, temperature swings, and racking, among other things. One of the things he points out is that the idea of temp swings being gradual or quick is irrelevant - it is the fact of the swing, not the speed of it, that makes the difference, which is exactly contrary to popular opinion. Anyhow, I'm really jealous of my friends in San Francisco who just keep the wine in their "subterranean" garage. Or my uncle in Napa who simply chopped a cellar out of the mountain rock that his house was built on. Neither worries about humidity or temperatures since they're fairly constant. Sounds like you have a similar situation. Best of luck.

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