Photographer: Melissa Sanger/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Joy of Building a Custom Wine Cellar

It's not just about the bottles.

There aren’t actually that many ways to make sure everyone who comes to your house knows you’re rich. They might not know who Basquiat is or have any idea that vase is from the Ming dynasty and not Cost Plus World Market. But when guests see my wine cellar, they know for certain that I’m a horrifying snob.

That wasn’t, however, the main reason I had a wine cellar installed underneath the Los Angeles house I bought last year. I did it because I’m an idiot. We’re living in a time when there’s no need to age wine yourself. You can buy old bottles online or at stores. If you need a range of young wine to match your dinners, you can shove 28 bottles into a $250 wine refrigerator. And if you can’t stop yourself from buying two cases of magnum Bordeaux from the year your son was born so he can drink them 16 years later, you can put them in a locker in a wine storage facility, along with 10 other cases, for $170 a year, like I did while my cellar was being built.

The author's custom racks, constructed out of unfinished alder wood.
The author's custom racks, constructed out of unfinished alder wood.
Photographer: Cassandra Barry

I totally forget what King Lear said “reason not the need” about, but it was probably his wine cellar. So, yes, I spent $18,000 on a room to house the equivalent of adult baseball cards. I know that I could have used that money to buy 30 bottles of 1964 Château Latour, while, instead, I now own zero bottles of 1964 Château Latour. But I love my wine cellar. I look forward to going downstairs before dinner and peacefully deciding on the perfect bottle. And while I vowed to never again place emotion in objects after my parents sold our house and junked all my stuff, I still secretly delight in collecting.

My cellar was the only thing in my restored 1928 house that I was excited to help design. I met with three wine cellar companies, ultimately choosing the guy who suggested double-racking the bottom half but not the top so it didn’t feel claustrophobic. He understood that this wasn’t just about fitting in lots of wine. It was a meditation room.

I pored over sketches, deciding that lighting the display shelf was ostentatious—but using an old wine barrel as a table to rest cases on as I unpacked them was completely reasonable. Lining the ceiling with panels from wooden wine crates seemed like a good idea until I held a couple up and realized it was too teenage basement. Then I hung a black iron chandelier that looks perfect for a wine cellar owned by Dracula. This was a man cave for men who hate man caves.

I painted the walls chocolate brown before putting the racks up, so the empty slots wouldn’t look so obvious. I devoted 15 percent to magnums, made a space for eight crates, and got little cradles for my 6-liter bottles so I could show them off on the shelf that runs along the edges of the room. And, even though light isn’t good for wine, I put in a UV-protected glass door on the cellar so you could see it all from my home office.

It's an $18,000 man cave for men who hate man caves. 
It's an $18,000 man cave for men who hate man caves. 
Photographer: Cassandra Barry

You can certainly spend a lot more money than I did. My cellar holds only 800 bottles, is 55 square feet, and is in the cheapest, unfinished wood—alder—that the company offered. Here’s a list of the unchecked items on my proposal: base molding, crown molding, lighted Roman arch, drawers, diamond-shaped bins, liquor cabinets, stemware racks, curved corner racking, “cascade,” and “peninsula.” Christine Hawley, a cellar designer in New York who’s married to the chief executive officer of the wine shop Sherry-Lehmann, says her average cost is $500,000 and includes items such as the terra cotta wall relief of Bacchus for David Koch’s Aspen, Colo., home. I felt pretty good that my wine cellar sounded classier than Koch’s.

But as much as I enjoyed designing my small cellar, I really loved setting up my own private store. I shunted the New World bottles to the area near the cooling unit and gave France more space than it’s had since it sold the Louisiana Purchase. I decided, as cool as they looked, there would be no more than two dead soldiers on the display rack, because the purpose of a refrigerated room is to house bottles that still have wine in them.

Every other room in my house has a necessary purpose: cooking, working, sleeping, TV-ing. But this is the fun room, the irrational exuberance room, the room that has no chance of recouping its value when we sell the house. I’m only slightly less ashamed of it than I’m proud of it. But at least it’s causing me to throw a lot more dinner parties. Not because I have all this wine to serve, but because I need people to show my cellar to.

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