How to Design a Wine Cellar
Design around common pitfalls with the expertise of a sommelier and wine educator
Optimally housing and caring for a wine collection requires more than just a pretty room. Whether a household drinks 300 bottles a year or 30, an uninformed design layout can end up having a permanent effect on a home’s overall performance. Often, designers are not aware of the needs of wine collecting, resulting in storage and display that may be aesthetically pleasing, but does not preserve the bottles as they should or address a particular client’s drinking or entertaining style. But while most firms wouldn’t dream of installing a complex AV system on their own, and art consultancy is commonplace, approaching the niche knowledge behind wine collecting without direction often puts designers at a disadvantage.
Especially, says Cameron Mahlstede, lead wine educator and consultant of Mahlstede Wines and former sommelier for Nancy Silverton’s Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles, when there is still a good deal of bravado circulating around the grape-consuming community. He has an important word of advice for designers working with serious oenophiles: Get past the ego. “I don’t walk into my accountant’s office and tell him how to do my taxes,” he says, laughing, “but with people that love and purchase a great deal of wine, they often have a hard time stepping back, especially for established clients proud to be drinking wine longer than I’ve been alive. But that prevents a home from being truly elevated.”
“I can only purchase for someone what they have the space for,” he explains, noting that “it’s much harder for a client to bolster a collection or fortify their long-term goals without the designer/consultant team.” A solid relationship between designer and consultant is an excellent way to finesse the needs of a collector now and into the future. Indeed, after a career working with chefs like Kevin Fink at Michelin-starred and James Beard Award–recognized restaurants, it is that one-on-one conversation that steered Mahlstede to private consultation.
So what, exactly, does that discussion with a designer sound like? “I cede to the designer 100% stylistically, but a consultant will know what makes it functional,” he explains. “I’ve seen absolutely beautiful spaces that don’t line up with the client’s needs, especially those of considerable means that own multiple homes. The designer may have installed them all the same way, but the main house might have different needs than a secondary home.”
Chad McPhail, of Los Angeles–based firm Jamie Bush + Co, consulted Mahlstede on one such house near Lake Tahoe, for a couple who does not consider themselves avid collectors. “It wasn’t that they love wine so much,” McPhail explained. “For them, it was about investment, both in accruing bottles and increasing the resale value of the house. They had no existing collection and we turned the conversation completely over to Cameron.”
In turn, the wine consultant “looked at our rudimentary design for the space and did the math. He advised how many linear feet of shelving and coordinated the cooling system. It came out really slick,” McPhail confirms. “It’s definitely a serious showpiece of the house.” When the same clients began working with McPhail and Jamie Bush for their main residence in the Bay Area, they tapped into Mahlstede’s expertise once again. “I don’t tell a designer, ‘This should be stone or wood or glass,’” Mahlstede says. “My role is to explain what’s best for the wine and the client’s goals and execute that vision together. Spatially, I would advise the craftsperson building it out, ‘I need 1,500 spots for storage and 50 on a showcase.’”
Everything, he explains, comes down to understanding the client’s style. “Say they open four bottles a week for themselves. That’s 200 bottles a year. They throw a dinner party of four to eight people once a month, that’s another 100 bottles. They give wine regularly as gifts—another 50 bottles. That’s 300 to 350 bottles annually, and not at all unusual. But it’s common to have space for less than 1,000 bottles, which makes their ability to turn over very tricky.” This leaves room to buy only mature wines, from auction or consignment, that someone else has collected and cared for. That method is extremely expensive, and leaves no control over how the wine is being treated between different vendors. “You want to be able to buy bottles you plan to drink three to five years from now, or run down to grab something for dinner tonight.”
One of Mahlstede’s calling cards is a proprietary system of managing the space, involving an inventory and a map with coordinates, so a homeowner or their staff never finds themselves searching at a loss, or accidentally opening a bottle they’re intending to save for a few more years. “Of course, it’s also fun to just go rummage around, but it helps to understand what you pull.”
It’s important to understand the process because, as Mahlstede puts it, too small of a space puts a collector into a constant hole where the input can’t match the output, and visually speaking, you want your cellar to look like it’s constantly full of wine. This doesn’t necessarily require more square footage, just planning. “It’s always going to look sad if you pluck a few bottles for dinner and it leaves a gaping hole. But with the proper design, a cellar could be half-empty without looking half-empty.”
For example, if you have a showcase display with all labels in the cellar facing forward, you’d notice every bottle removed. To create the illusion of depth and content, build out those prized spots for viewing, but for bulk storage, focus on horizontal bins with only the capsules (top view of the foil-covered head) showing. You could remove 20 bottles from those bottom bins without showing much. “There’s less space on the eye as you displace bottles.”
Storage requirements for clients can vary greatly. Mahlstede points out, “A client concerned with long-term investment could say, ‘I want to drink this Barolo or Bordeaux when my toddler finishes college.’ They have the time and patience to display the wooden box for 20 years without ever opening it, to save [it] for graduation. You could end up with a $5,000 bottle without having to pay for it.”
As for the showcase spots, even if the turnover is quicker, it’s important to think about aging. As Mahlstede points out, “I’ve never said to a designer, ‘Put that there.’ But I will advise, ‘These are at a 70-degree angle and need to be at 45 degrees to prevent the corks drying out.’ Or, if there’s space, I’ll make suggestions on features for a better drinking experience, such as a tasting counter and glassware, or space for spirits or a sink.”
Glassware, he says, is a key point. “I would rather drink out of a cheap glass that’s the right shape than something luxurious but wrong for the wine. It’s about the exposure of surface area to the air. But it’s easy to get it right.” When it comes down to stocking a client’s cabinet, he breaks down three basic shapes. Big glass bowls are for pinot noir, burgundy, or chardonnay. The elongated, taller red wine glass is for Bordeaux, and for most white wines, rosé, spritzes, and most sparklings. “I love this all-purpose white from Made In,” Mahlstede emphasizes. “They’ve been making cookware for a while and just got into glassware.” And a fancy champagne, he clarifies, should be out of a glass, not a flute.
Finally, climate control is a must, but not complicated. “It’s a quick conversation with the contractor,” Mahlstede says. “Rigid rules turn people off,” he says, “but there’s a comfortable range of guidelines. Humidity somewhere between 50 to 70%, temperature should be 55 to 65 degrees.” (Direct sunlight, as expected, is bad.)
The real pitfall for designers, he shares, is to not ask for expert help. “There’s so much designers can’t even know they don’t know. Avoid the risk of the wrong permanent space and don’t go it alone.”
Source: How to Design a Wine Cellar