An anonymous French proverb posits the following wine hierarchy: Burgundy for kings, champagne for duchesses, claret for gentlemen. It’s unlikely even genteel wine lovers have guests so lofty stopping by, but translated for contemporary life, the precept points to the benefits of having the right wine on hand no matter the pedigree of the guests or the circumstances.
“Having a good wine cellar puts you in a position to run downstairs and grab something at a moment’s notice, or you can be more formal and plan a whole menu of wines to go with dinner,” says Fred Tregaskis, owner of Ridgefield-based Summit Wine Cellars, who has been designing and creating residential and commercial wine cellars for nearly three decades. “The bottom line is have fun, enjoy it,” Tregaskis says of fine wine. “Share it with your friends and family — a wine cellar is a conduit for that.”
Serendipity put Tregaskis on his journey designing wine cellars from Maine to California, and Bangalore to Buenos Aires, sometimes for folks so famous he’s not allowed to share their names. It started when he was asked to recommend someone to design and build a 28,000-bottle wine cellar for the acclaimed Lespinasse Restaurant at the former St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan. With a college degree in fine arts and experience in design, woodworking and construction, he suggested himself, got that marquee job, and a business was born.
“The wine community is a gregarious, sharing community,” Tregaskis says of his experiences with the wine trade. “As a fellow wine person, you get greeted as part of a fraternity, and people are looking for an excuse to share their bounty. When you have the wine cellar, you become a host in the fraternity of wine lovers. You become a patron of that sharing philosophy.”
Like many true wine lovers, Tregaskis says “he’s not a snob.” One day his wine adventure might involve “drinking history” as part of a jacket-and-tie tasting of 100-year-old red Bordeaux wines (aka claret) in New York, and a week later he might be on a fly-fishing trip in Ontario with his brother, drinking wine that comes in a cardboard box out of tin cups.
Whether a wine lover is a snob or not, creating a wine cellar in your home isn’t inexpensive, with most residential projects ranging from $25,000 to $45,000. The average cellar Tregaskis designs, and has fabricated at a dedicated manufacturing facility in Connecticut, holds 1,250 to 1,500 bottles. Many factors go into the cost, with labor the greatest expense. The price per bottle can go down quickly at a certain point because of cost economies once the labor is out of the way. A 1,000-bottle cellar, for example, might cost about the same as a 500-bottle cellar.
Materials chosen and how much room preparation has to be done are other principal cost determinants. Consider the room itself that will become the wine cellar, Tregaskis explains. What is the scope of the electrical work that needs to be done? What about the amount of insulation necessary, the vapor barrier, and the details of the room’s finished surfaces?
Climate control is another major cost, as there are many options for providing proper temperature and humidity levels to keep wine safe. To maintain integrity and allow wine to grow deeper in flavor and intensity as it ages, a collection should be stored at roughly 55 degrees Fahrenheit, with the relative humidity ranging from 55 to 70 percent. Less, and corks dry out, allowing oxygen into the bottle, spoiling the wine. Too much humidity attracts mold or mildew.
Finally, the cost varies for the wine-racking system depending on size, materials and finishing touches, and this is where Tregaskis gets to have fun, especially as adventuresome clients increasingly embrace contemporary design materials like metal, glass and innovative lighting — all hallmarks of a contemporary cellar Tregaskis created for a client in Ridgefield. That design includes Plexiglas, brushed stainless wine racking, and gray oak cabinetry that complements natural concrete floor and walls. Recessed low-voltage LED lighting creates a dramatic effect.
Other clients prefer timeless designs inspired by the European wine cave tradition, and an increasingly popular third stream involves a blending of traditional and contemporary design and materials that Tregaskis calls “transitional” — say, mixing metal with wood in the design.
How to be wine wise
Think quality control: Avoid exposing wines to ultraviolet (UV) light, which causes a chemical reaction that destroys the tannins in wine, leading to premature aging and oxidation. Vibration may also cause unwanted chemical reactions in wine. Don’t forget security (locks and motion detectors) to help prevent theft, pilfering and accidental breakage.
Don’t neglect insurance: Home insurance policies don’t typically cover collections of wine, which can be damaged from extended power outages and catastrophic events like earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes. Seek out specialty insurers that offer tailored coverage for wine collections and wine cellars.
What type of wine cellar do you want? Wine Spectator describes four principal types of wine collections — The “Balanced Cellar” involves a mixture of vintages, prices and drinking windows; the “Instant-Gratification Cellar” focuses exclusively on fine wines that are ready to drink right away; the “Tasting Cellar” is constructed as a learning tool; and the “Investment Cellar” focuses on profit potential.
Collect wines with a strategy: Ben Wallace, owner of Cellaraiders, a fine and rare wine broker that sources and stocks older wines, warns against buying wines you’ve never tried based on critics’ reviews. Instead, try an “off-vintage” example of a wine that’s ready to drink. If you like it, then buy the wine in volume from age-worthy vintages. Go to wine tastings, and try everything to help discover what you like best. And stage your cellar by buying wines for different drinking windows.
Keep track of inventory: Catalogue and index the wines in your cellar to keep track of the collection. Bottle tags are a great tool. Use a “cellar book” to document the bottles going in or out of the cellar, and make notes in the journal as you drink wines to create a database of observations that will help determine when wines are optimal to enjoy.