Your wine collection is growing, and you’ve got some great bottles that are not yet ready to drink, so you’re considering a wine cellar to store them all. No matter where you live in San Francisco, you have easy access to lots of good wine.
The idea of a wine cellar can be daunting- what all is involved in a wine cellar? Can I do it by myself or do I need professionals to help build it? How much will it cost? Those are some questions that come to mind as you start to consider whether you will actually build a wine cellar.
The term wine cellar is applied broadly to different things. We’ll be focusing here on wine cellars, or more broadly, wine rooms. Wine cellars, or wine rooms, can be installed almost anywhere in the house. So we’ll be talking about wine cellars that are not necessarily underground. Some also refer to the wine cellar as a “wine vault,” perhaps because there’s some precious stuff saved in there.
You should be able to get a better understanding of what a wine cellar might entail from the articles below. We’ll be looking at residential wine cellars. However, keep in mind that the same San Francisco wine room builders who offer home wine cellar design services also often offer commercial wine room building services.
Why Are There so Many Kinds of Wine Cellars in San Francisco?
Some companies sell what they call stand-alone wine cellars, which are typically big cabinet-like structures that store wine. These structures are also called wine refrigerators. Wine refrigerators, also called wine coolers, come in many sizes, holding anything from a few bottles to dozens of bottles. A wine chiller is a smaller device that is used to bring a bottle of wine to the correct drinking temperature. There is sometimes some confusion or overlap, since wine refrigerators may also hold wines at certain temperatures – chilling them, in effect.
As you shop in San Francisco, whether in the Sunset District, the Richmond District, Bernal Heights, the Mission District, or the Tenderloin, you’ll find plenty to consider. We’ll take a quick look at wine refrigerators, even though they are not our main focus.
There are two primary technologies for wine refrigerators. Compressor-based technology uses a method similar to that used in a kitchen refrigerator. Liquid changes to gas and back again, and this is combined with evaporation to produce cool-to-cold air. The other technology is thermoelectric in which a hot and a cold element exist, with the heat being transferred away from the cold side.
Thermoelectric wine refrigerators generally use less energy and have fewer moving parts. However, they can be less than efficient when the temperature is more than 80 degrees, and they cool only to about 50 degrees. They can also be less efficient at handling large numbers of bottles.
Compressor-based wine coolers typically can chill a larger number of bottles. Compressor-based wine coolers or wine refrigerators are sometimes criticized for having vibrations due to the moving parts. There have been no scientific studies to prove the point, but it’s something of a commonplace that fewer vibrations are better for your wine, since there’s less chance of disturbing the sediment and more chance of keeping the wine as clear as possible. Top-line compressor-based products will often offer vibration-suppression technology.
Wine chilling systems must provide more humidity than normal kitchen refrigerators. Wine must be stored with a relative humidity of about 55% to 75%, while the standard refrigerator has a relative humidity of about 20%. The humidity is required to keep the cork moist. If the cork dries out, it contracts and allows oxygen into the wine, along with any smells that might be around. For this reason, some even recommend that you only use a wine chiller to bring your wine to the correct temperature – so that you don’t place your wine in a standard refrigerator at all.
How Can I Tell the Difference?
A wine refrigerator or a wine cooler is a place to keep wines handy for drinking. Wines should not be stored in a wine refrigerator for more than a year.
A wine cellar is designed to be a place where wines can age over time.
Some manufacturers sell free-standing or standalone wine refrigerators and call them wine cellars. If you are contemplating a standalone wine cellar or buying a kit that lets you assemble a standalone wine cellar, be sure to ask if the wine cellar is designed for long-term wine storage. Wine refrigerators do fail. This failure is significant because one of the keys to storing and aging wine is ensuring that temperature does not fluctuate significantly. Wine stored in a failed wine refrigerator is at risk of changing temperatures drastically before you can replace the storage. It’s important to note that many wine refrigerators have warranties that last only a year. Some have slightly longer warranties that cover certain parts for up to five years. Be sure to ask any vendor of standalone wine cellars about how long their warranties last, known failure rates, and whether wine can be successfully stored for the long term.
Building an Actual Wine Cellar in San Francisco
So, you are going to build an actual walk-in wine cellar. Just to be clear, your wine cellar is a room anywhere in your house – not necessarily the basement or underground.
Wine needs cool and moist conditions, so look for the place in your house that is already the most cool and moist. Find such a space will also help reduce energy costs. Also take into account where you will be venting your wine cellar. We’ll discuss chilling systems in a bit, but every wine cellar chilling system needs a place to vent hot air. If the exhaust is going into another room in your house, then that room will need both a fan and a vent of its own so that it can move air around the room and out of the house.
Wine cellar designs can be found online or you can work with stores to create a design.You can find do-it-yourself wine cellar building kits or you can look for wine cellar plans. Custom wine cellar plans are available from a number of vendors. Many vendors will work with you on designs as part of the process of preparing a quote for you. As you design your room, you’ll have to decide what you want it to do for you.
Are you looking only for a place to store wine or do you want to be social in the space, to host tastings, for example? Size your wine cellar depending on the size of the collection you have and how big you want to build that collection. Often, if you can build a bit bigger than you first think, you’ll have a better fit over the long run. But don’t think you need huge spaces – wine aficionados have built wine cellars in apartments.
Building Out an Actual Wine Cellar in San Francisco
You’ll need some basic knowledge to build your wine cellar or supervise the people who build it. Whether you do the work yourself or hire someone, of course you should start with the proper permits for your local city or area. Your construction will also need to comply with state, national, and federal building codes.
A wine cellar will have much higher humidity than the rest of your house, so the construction must take the additional humidity into account to avoid mold growing or any rot setting in. For this reason, the vapor barrier and insulation are particularly important. Typically, you have a choice of insulation methods. One method of insulation consists of the combination of a 6 mil vapor barrier and insulation batting. The other method is spray foam insulation.
When using the vapor barrier and fiberglass batting method, you’ll have to wrap the wall studs and joists in the vapor barrier. Be sure you check the codes for the proper application of the vapor barrier – sometimes codes require that the barrier be placed on a certain side of the wine cellar, often what is called the warm, or exterior, side of the cellar. When placing the batting, be sure there are no air pockets. As you wrap the studs and ceiling joists, you’ll want to leave sufficient vapor barrier material at the corners so you can overlap and tape the corners off. Fill any holes in the joists or studs with sealant rated for fire protection. This will reduce air movement. Spray foam is more expensive, but if you use a closed cell, non-shrinking spray foam, then there is no risk of a vapor barrier being punctured by a nail, screw, or other implement as electrical or other lines are placed in the wine cellar.
Make sure the proper utility lines are present or plan to install them – you will definitely need electricity and perhaps water lines. You may also need to install lines to allow condensation to drain out, a water line so that any devices you install can keep the area humid. Depending on the type and complexity of the cooling unit you choose, you may also need line voltage, ducting, and control wires, for example to manage alarms. You should carefully check with your wine chilling company to see what kind of supply lines and drain lines are needed. For many more complicated things, such as ducting, it’s often mandatory that licensed heating, air conditioning, and ventilation personnel install them.
Wine cellar construction is a bit different from standard construction. Often the walls and ceiling are covered with green board, which is water-resistant drywall. This kind of drywall is used normally in kitchens and bathrooms, or any place with the potential for high humidity. It’s specifically recommended that you use screws to attach the drywall. Also, make sure the green board goes all the way down to the floor. More standard construction sometimes leaves gaps on the assumption they will be covered by molding.
In a wine cellar, the molding goes on the front of the wine racks, so the drywall must go all the way down to the ground. Obviously, this means that you should not place molding against the drywall, as this will prevent the racks from sitting flush with the wall. Again, when painting the drywall, be sure the paint extends all the way down to the floor – you don’t want to see any gaps if that particular area doesn’t happen to be covered by a wine rack.
Alternatively, you may choose to install tongue and groove material on your walls and ceiling. Use screws to install marine-grade plywood on the walls or ceiling. The tongue and groove material is then attached to the marine plywood. The tongue and groove material may be designed to complement your choices of wood, lacquer, or stain used on your wine racks. Wine cellar ceilings can also incorporate many sophisticated looks, such as raised panels. These don’t directly affect the insulation quality in the wine cellar but are design options available.
Humidity can affect your choice of floor and floor covering. Rugs and carpets are not likely to withstand humidity well. Vinyl does not last very long in high humidity because the mastic holding it to the under floor will never completely dry and the vinyl can buckle and move. Common floorings are tiles, cork, or hardwood. Some wine cellar builders even offer reclaimed wood from wine barrels as an option. You can have a concrete floor, as long as it is sealed. Within the constraints placed by humidity, your choice of finishing materials is dictated by your design sense.
Your wine cellar door can be elaborately decorated or simple, glass or wood, but it must be an exterior grade door, not an interior one. Use weather-stripping to seal three sides of the door and install a threshold and door sweep at the bottom of the door. These steps are required to seal in the coolness and humidity you are trying to achieve in your wine cellar. Doors are offered in several materials, including wood and glass. Glass doors should be thermopaned, again to support the conditions in the wine cellar and prevent condensation.
Keeping Your San Francisco Wine Cellar Chilled
Your wine cellar needs to keep your wine between 55-58 degrees, and you’ll need a wine cooling unit to maintain the temperature. Some units also have the capacity to monitor and manage the humidity in the cellar, so if you don’t have other ways to regulate the humidity, ask about such units.
Some cooling units can only regulate temperatures relative to the surrounding atmosphere. This is important because if you live in very hot climates or you are venting to a room that does not cool off, then the unit will not be able to reach the desired temperature, will run continually and will risk freezing or premature collapse.
For example, some units can only reduce the temperature by 30 degrees. Suppose you set such a wine cooling unit to 55 degrees. If you vent into a room with no air movement and no venting, that room’s temperature can rise. If it rises past 85 degrees, the cooling unit will not be able to reduce the temperature in the cellar to 55 degrees and will keep on running. Be sure to check for this kind of relative temperature behavior when you choose your unit, keeping in mind the conditions in your home.
You will find three main types of cooling units. The self-contained or through-the-wall unit sits, as you might expect, in the wall of your wine cellar. It is one of the easiest to install and does not require help from professional heating, air conditioning and ventilation (HVAC) professionals. It pulls hotter air from the wine cellar and exhausts it into another room or area close to the wine cellar. It’s important that the area that the through-the-wall cooler exhausts into has its own way of moving air through the room and venting the air out. Otherwise heat will build up in the exhaust area.
Some through-the-wall units can exhaust outside, but you should ask carefully whether the unit supports this function. Also consider how hot the outside is. If the outside rises well above the temperature you want to keep in the cellar, you may run into the relative heat limitation discussed previously. If the through-the-wall cooler is outside, it must be protected from rain and sun. Some choose not to use a through-the-wall system because they are comparatively noisy and may not match the décor of the wine cellar they are in.
The second type of cooling unit is a ducted unit, which requires air ducts installed in the house or added with the cooling unit to pull in and exhaust air. You’ll need an inflow duct to send cool air to the wine cellar and an exhaust duct to direct the hot air outside. There are limitations on how far the ducting can extend, so be sure to check if the ducts you have or install are close enough. Some prefer a ducted system because noise can be greatly reduced depending on installation, and the ducts themselves can be hidden, rather than having a presence in the room. When you buy a ducted system, be sure you know how many feet of ducting the system supports –for example, can the ducting be no longer than 25 feet to ensure proper functioning?
The third kind of cooling unit is a split system, which requires a licensed professional to install it. In a split system, the evaporator part of the system is placed in the cellar, or nearby. The condenser part of the system, which is the noisy part of the system and the part that needs to dissipate the heat, is placed away from the cellar.
No matter which kind of cooling unit you decide on, your dealer should be able to show you the unit’s specifications. You’ll need to know its cooling volume – you’ll need greater cooling capacity for more bottles and more space. You will also probably want to check into the decibel measurements of the noise that the unit generates. You’ll want to look for reliable units. Remember that one of the ultimate goals of your wine cellar is to store wines so they can age with as little temperature fluctuation as possible.
Adding Décor to Your San Francisco Wine Cellar
Once the construction decisions are made, you can decide on furnishings, which center around lighting and racking.
Racking, or wine racks, are wine storage containers that hold each bottle in its own niche. You’ll probably be able to choose between metal or wire racks and wood racks. Wood racks – often mahogany or pine – are preferred because they don’t tend to scratch the wine bottles or mar the labels the way metal racks can. Also, metal can bend over time. Individual racking for each bottle is recommended over bin racking. In a bin, the bottles rest on each other, again raising the possibility of scratching or tearing the label.
Choosing the right size rack is also important, since bottles come in different sizes and styles. Much wine comes in Bordeaux-shaped bottles, but Pinot Noir and other varietals also come in longer bottles. Universal racking can cover this contingency, but it takes more space. Also, consider how many big bottles you want to store. Do you want to keep a jeroboam of champagne or two? Oversized bottles are fun and gaining in popularity. In addition, you might have special bottles you want to show off, in which case display shelves can allow you to set off a particular bottle or two.
Lighting options are pretty much unlimited in a wine cellar. Some believe that UV lighting might affect wine adversely over the long term, so some advise that it not be used in a wine cellar. There’s no proof one way or the other, but don’t be surprised to encounter this advice. If you are going for can lighting, be sure the cans are thermally fused – also called IC rated cans. Sellers also commonly offer back lighting for racks and spotlights for end displays. You’ll want to check that the electrical power in the wine cellar can support all the lighting you decide to incorporate.
If you are using the cellar as a tasting room, you might want to include a table and chairs. You might want to install a fountain if you need additional humidity beyond that provided by any systems you install. Tiles, mirrors, and other decorative objects are available, so your décor can be as elaborate as you like. Remember that the air is extra moist if you choose furniture to go in your wine cellar. You can even install windows, though again, thermopanes would be needed to keep the humidity in the right state.
You can go green in your wine cellar construction as well as in other areas. In the wine cellar, this typically means using paints on the walls and ceilings that are water-based and do not have volatile organic compounds (VOCs) Similarly, any stains or lacquers used on woods would not contain VOCs. In your timeline for building your cellar, remember to include time to air out the cellar after any painting or staining or similar activity. Not only do you not enjoy the fumes, but you also don’t want them getting into your wine at all.
If you want to computerize your cellar, you can find software programs to manage your collection. Typically, they let you enter data about a bottle such as date of purchase, number of bottles, and the like. Tasting notes and the ability to scan the label are often included. Some come with databases of material that can supply additional information about your bottle. Some allow you to create bar code labels for each of your bottles.
What If a Wine Cellar is Too Much for Me?
You can find wine storage facilities that will store your wine for a fee. The storage facilities should be temperature and humidity controlled. You should also look for secure access – you and storage facility personnel should be the only ones who can access your wine.
Some facilities will pick up wine for you, sometimes for a fee. The fee may be waived for large loads. Storage is often in cardboard boxes with dividers keeping the wine bottles separate. Fees may be by case or by pallet. You may have to share a pallet if you don’t store enough wine yourself.
Ask the facility about picking – do you get to pick your own wine when you want? Or do employees pick for you? Some of the storage facilities also buy and sell wine.
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