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Wine Storage Solutions: A Cellar Designer’s Underground Secrets

David Spon reveals his best wine-storage solutions, including a foolproof way to prevent guests from accidentally opening the $1,000 grand cru Bordeaux.

When designer David Spon started designing cellars in the late 1980s, most residential ones held only a few hundred bottles, and his larger commissions were for restaurants. Fast-forward two decades, and his clients are part of the new breed of serious collector, some with 9,000 or more bottles, who let him get creative with his designs. One of his latest projects: 30 cellars in 15 Central Park West, the new New York City building by architect Robert A.M. Stern. Here are some of Spon’s key ideas.

What is the most logical way to organize a wine cellar?

Regardless of size, most people organize by region. In a cellar that I’m working on right now, we are dedicating one room to Bordeaux, one to Burgundy and so on. In each room, the shelves are organized by drinkability. Ready-to-drink wines are stored at waist-to-eye level; wines that require aging go up higher, since they don’t need to be as accessible.

The key is that the storage has to be flexible. Even people with established collections shift their inventory, so I try to incorporate several storage options—for cases and for different sizes, like magnums and half-bottles.

What are your favorite building materials for cellars?

For the shelving, I primarily work with cherry, walnut, white oak (especially quarter-sawn oak) and occasionally white maple. White oak is a clean surface to coat with whatever color stain you want, from a whitewash to a dark brown. For a recent project, I lined the ceiling with wormy chestnut timbers using plank flooring from the 1800s and early 1900s. It was just beautiful. Limestone is probably the most popular flooring, because of the variety of textures available. Plus, it’s very versatile. You can create patterns with different sizes of tiles or use only a single size for a more modern look. Either way, you should always use a sealer on limestone to prevent it from getting stained.

What kind of shelving do you usually install?

Many wineries sell allocations in groups of six, so I build a lot of six-bottle rectangular wooden bins. I’ve shifted to building the bins using joinery, in which the wood is fitted together without nails. It’s more complicated and takes twice as long to make, but it’s beautiful and looks like furniture. I also build a lot of racks to store bottles individually, because most of my clients have wines in a range of quantities and individual racks provide the most flexibility. For example, they might move bottles from a case to individual racks once they start drinking them.

I also often build diamond-shaped bins for holding up to nine bottles. They serve as an architectural accent—visually, it’s very dramatic to look down a long corridor and see diamond bins at the end. I suggest clients store everyday reds or whites in them. When guests who don’t know much about wine come over, the host can tell them to pull from the diamond bins and won’t have to worry that they’ll accidentally grab a prized bottle.

How do clients show off empty trophy bottles?

I usually design display shelves for dead soldiers that are two bottles deep. But when they fill up, the client has to weed some out.

I visited a client recently who has a crazy $3 million–plus collection. He had a bag of empty bottles from a recent dinner, including some 1947 vintages, and he couldn’t bear to throw any of them away. But how many can you really keep around?

What’s the best way to store cases of wine?

Cases come in different sizes, so it’s important to build shelves on movable brackets, so that they’re adjustable. Most wood cases are Bordeaux-size, which is 8 inches high, 14 inches wide and 22 inches deep. But others are bigger. Ann Colgin of Colgin Cellars in Napa Valley, for instance, packs her wine in a six-bottle wood case that’s a little bigger than standard. I’ve been noticing that boutique producers are getting more creative with packaging, putting their wines into unusual bottles that will stand out at a restaurant.

I often build drawer slides—like a kitchen drawer with no sides and just a lip in the front—on low shelves for cases that get moved a lot. Drawer slides aren’t adjustable for different-size cases, though, so recently I’ve started to design only the lowest shelves with drawer slides, which hold regular Bordeaux-size cases, and I make the two shelves above those adjustable.

Why do collectors store bottles in their original cases?

If you look at the auction market, prices for full, unopened cases holding a dozen bottles are greater than what they would be for 12 loose bottles. Think of a toy still in its original packaging from 50 years ago: It’s more valuable because it’s been handled less. So it makes sense to keep the bottles in their original cases until they are ready to drink.

What is the most versatile style of wine storage?

My clients are always asking me, “What should we do with weirdly shaped bottles?” Seven years ago, I started designing coves—shallow horizontal shelves to hold bottles on their sides with the front label on display—that are recessed five inches into the wall. The bottom of the shelf is concave, which allows the bottles to lie flat without rolling. There’s a lot of variation in bottle size, so I build coves that can hold a magnum of Champagne, a regular-size bottle or even a half-bottle. Coves can also display three- and six-liter bottles—trophy bottles with labels that clients like to show off.

What’s the best temperature and humidity for storing wine?

A cellar should be kept at 55 degrees Fahrenheit and 60 to 75 percent humidity. Occasionally, people keep the cellar a tad warmer if they have a lot of young wines and a tad cooler if they have older ones. Wine ages more slowly in lower temperatures.

I’m a big fan of using icynene, a spray-on foam insulation, in cellar walls; it makes a nice, tight room, so it takes less energy to control the temperature. My clients often use sophisticated humidity systems made by companies like Wine Smart and Johnson Controls.

What are the latest trends in cellar design?

I’m building more counters and worktables, so that when clients are unloading wine, they have a place to put it. Seating areas outside or adjacent to the cellar are also in demand. Sometimes clients want tables inside the cellar, but I find that it is uncomfortable to sit in a 55-degree room. People who entertain in their cellars tend to turn the cooling systems off and let the room warm up during parties. From a purist’s standpoint, that’s probably not a good idea—although liquid takes so long to heat that the rising room temperature likely wouldn’t affect the wine that much.

What’s the best way to manage a large collection?

Wine collections are always evolving, just like living things, and managing them is important. Many of my clients use Carte du Vin (carteduvin.com), a California company that selects, buys and electronically organizes collections. Marc Lazar of Cellar Advisors (cellaradvisors.com) has a reputation as a great wine organizer. He sets up an inventory system using bar-code technology. Another client I work with has hired a cellar manager to come to his house every other week to organize and assist with buying.

What are the latest eco-innovations for cellars? I now use only natural finishes, primarily water-soluble stains made by W.D. Lockwood (wdlockwood.com), so you don’t have to breathe in any of the fumes you’d get from oil-based stains. The company has been making the stain since 1895, and it comes in dozens of colors. I also use beeswax and Carnauba wax for finishing. Beeswax is soft and easy to work with, while Carnauba gives more durability and a high gloss.

David Spon Wine Cellar Concepts; 860-443-4500 or davidspon.com.

Published April 2008
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