Label of Elegance
For Buyers Ready to Spend, Wine Cellars Are the Latest in Luxury

By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 1, 2007

Daniel Lahr cherishes his 1,400-bottle wine collection, an eclectic mix of French Bordeaux and Burgundy, northern and southern Rhone, and California cabernets. But, he admits, he hasn't been treating it as well as he could. Rather than store it in a temperature-controlled, insulated room, he has it in a cold, dark corner of his basement.

"It's actually not a bad environment, but it's not ideal," he said. "I spent a lot of money for the wine, and I enjoy aged wine. A lot of stuff I bought I can't drink for eight or 10 years."

So he commissioned Classic Cellar Design of the District to build a 2,600-bottle wine cellar in the basement of his Rockville home. When it is completed, it will have limestone floors, mahogany racks, wrought-iron doors, double-insulated windows and a vineyard mosaic. "We started out thinking we would just build a closet," said Lahr, a 45-year-old orthopedic surgeon. "We figured we would get the basement done and got carried away with it."

The wine cellar has become a must-have amenity for high-end homes, much like the home theater and the gym had been. Wine-cellar builders in the Washington region say business is booming, and a growing number of new-home developers are offering wine cellars as an option. It makes particular sense in this area, with Virginia becoming a force in wine production.

Michael Lerner, president of Meridian Homes of Bethesda, a custom builder, said most houses his company designs and builds these days have an entertainment area for adults, including a wine storage facility.

Gopal Ahluwalia, staff vice president of research for the National Association of Home Builders, said that "in the next few years, you will be seeing wine cellars as a standard feature in upscale homes," which he defined as being 4,000 square feet or larger.

He said much of the demand comes from baby boomers who have collected wine over the years. But younger people who can afford expensive homes want all the upscale features they can get, he said. "I don't know if they drink wine or not, but they do want everything."

Not even the shaky economy and the uncertainty of the housing market have kept owners of upscale homes from building wine cellars. In fact, some believe it will increase the value of their home. "I think it's become a selling feature for new homes and existing homes," said Josh Farrell, a product specialist and wine director of Wine Enthusiast magazine. "If you're reselling your home and it has the swimming pool and it has the wine cellar, obviously that is going to add to the price."

Builders say wine cellars are an extension of the idea that the home is not only a place to live, but also a place to entertain. Much of that entertaining is done in the basement -- or the lower level, as it is commonly referred to now. It used to be that homeowners wouldn't even finish their basements, using them instead to store old clothing or photos. Now basements have movie rooms, bars, pool tables and other adult playthings.

Lawrence Brown, a 40-year-old entrepreneur, and his wife had an 1,800-bottle cellar built in their Potomac home six years ago. They outgrew that.

Now they are expanding it to hold 4,000 bottles. The cellar will be big enough to accommodate a table and chairs for their monthly dinner parties. The basement also has a pool table and a bar.

"My children are getting older," Brown said. "My wife and I entertain more, and the wine cellar has become more of a priority for us, and my collection continues to grow."

An average cellar holds about 1,000 bottles, but some can hold thousands more. Prices, too, vary wildly, from the $10,000s to $100,000 and higher, according to several cellar designers.

One reason that wine cellars have become so prevalent is that as more people drink fine wines, they are learning the value of letting some of them, particularly tannic reds, improve with age.

"A lot of times when wine is released, you don't want to drink it right away," said Tracy McGillivary, a retired lawyer in Bethesda. "You need to wait a few years."

There are sentimental reasons for saving wine as well. McGillivary bought her twin son and daughter each a case of Opus 1 cabernet sauvignon the year they were born, 1994. Her uncle did the same thing for his children. "I thought, if I ever have the space, that would be a great thing to do," she said. "Now I have the space."

For many people, a home wine cellar is also about building and protecting a valuable investment.

If you want your wine to last a long time, here's what the experts recommend: good ventilation and a stable temperature, about 55 degrees; humidity of 50 to 60 percent, though other wine-cellar experts say 75 percent works; a vapor barrier; and proper insulation. For your shelves and racks, you probably want redwood or pine, though mahogany is also aesthetically pleasing. The goal is to avoid rotting, mold and the drying out of the cork.

"Over the last couple of years, the technology for the wine cellars has really been improved," said Steve Goldstein, founder and a co-owner of Classic Cellar Design. "People feel more comfortable" building them, he said.

But they had to learn the hard way. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, many home wine cellars were built improperly, Goldstein said. Ceilings caved in. Vapor barriers accumulated condensation.

"Done properly, wine cellars can be an enjoyable part of the house," he said. "Done improperly, they can really be the Achilles' tendon of the house."

Once they figured out how to install wine cellars, builders of upscale homes started making them bigger and more ornate. Several designers said they can include tasting rooms, cigar-smoking areas, bookshelves, fur rooms, commissioned art and more.

"They're becoming more elaborate, more glamour and glitz," said Tom Smithson, president and owner of Baltic Leisure in Pennsylvania, which has clients in the D.C. area.

But you don't have to own a million-dollar home or take frequent trips to Napa Valley to afford your own wine storage, cellar designers and builders say. After all, wine is a beverage enjoyed by people of all incomes. "It's really for anyone now," said Ben Crawford, a principal of Vintage Wine Rooms in Great Falls.

Indeed, a Gallup poll conducted in July found that though beer is still the beverage of choice for most Americans -- 40 percent said they prefer it -- 34 percent said they would rather have wine. That gap has narrowed in recent years, according to the Gallup News Service.

Crawford said he is seeing more people turn small closets into storage rooms for about 500 bottles. "You can just get some racking and put it in a corner of a room," he said. "You can dedicate a room to it."

Some people have found ways to build it themselves.

Gray Mosby, president of the wine distribution company Brightberry Imports, chronicled his building of a 660-bottle wine cellar in his Arlington townhouse in a show on the Do It Yourself Network. Though the network paid for much of his project, he said, a 50-case, 600-bottle cellar can be built for less than $2,500.

"If you're someone who has a full tool chest who knows how to use everything in it, it's not going to be a problem for you," Mosby said.

Storing wine can be done on an even tighter budget. Small wine refrigerators have become more affordable, said Farrell, the product specialist with Wine Enthusiast. An apartment dweller can fit one in a kitchen.

"That's become a very big business," he said. "It used to be if you wanted something like that in your home, you'd have to spend $1,000 or more. Now they come in all sizes, from six bottles to 25 bottles. They sell so well that it makes sense to carry them in all sizes."

And if you think a wine cellar can only be in a basement, you're wrong.

Vintage Wine Rooms, for example, has proposed building wine lockers in the clubhouse of a condominium community in Virginia, said owner Joe Duffus. Other cellar designers said they have built cellars or storage rooms inside condo units.

Lorne Greene, 37, and his wife, Emily, opted for a smaller storage area on the main level of their Bethesda home, which they are tearing down and rebuilding. Tired of going out and buying whatever wine they needed for an evening of entertaining, they decided they wanted longer-term storage. So they commissioned Meridian Homes to build one for about 250 bottles. That was adequate, they said, because they do not consider themselves wine collectors, though they enjoy drinking it. The area will go between the dining room and the family room; a glass door will make it visible from both rooms.

"For us, what makes sense is something more moderate-size on the main level, someplace to store wine properly and get to easily," Lorne Greene said.

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