wine cellars, houston style
everything you need to know to savor your wines or build your collection

By: Thomas M. Ciesla
Originally published in Houston House & Home Magazine; December, 2002. Article has been reformatted for online publishing

The wine cellar -- a place that conjures up images of rows and rows of dusty bottles quietly slumbering ina a dimly lit subterranean rrom. For more than 40 centuries, wine has united civilizations and enjoyed celebratice status in art, literature, and myth and legend, in addition to being honored by such writers as Plato, Socrates, Horace and Plinth, The Elder.

Wine cellaring – as we know it today -- became practical with the marraige of the sturdy glass bottle with the cork stopper. Since then, wine cellars have traditionally been located wholly or partially underground, usually beneath buildings. Here in Houston, however, life on the coastal plain has forced wine lovers to redefine the wine cellar by creating above ground "cellars" to store their wines.

Blending just the right amount of creativity, old-world craftsmanship and modern technology, Houstonians have been able to create functional cellars without losing any of the Old World romance.

A wine cellar is more than just a cool hiding place for wine, a wine cellar is a symbiotic environment uniting the best of the design and engineering worlds.

Cellars have two design aspects that require considerable forethought: the aesthetic and the functional. Some wine lovers prefer a private enclave that focuses on function over flashy finishes. Others view their wine cellars as an entertainment facility, replete with marble, inlaid wood, etched glass doors and medieval-sized dining tables.

A wine cellar design should address six basic issues: temperature, humidity, darkness, vibration, cleanliness and angle of storage. Temperature is, by far, the most important factor in a wine cellar, with 41-64 degrees F being an acceptable range, and 55-58 degrees F the ideal. More important than the actual temperature, however, is the rapidity of fluctuations. If your cellar slowly varies from 55 degrees F in the winter to 68 degrees F in the summer, no great harm is done, (though theoretically your wine will age twice as fast at the upper temperature). If this fluctuation occurs daily, or weekly, the wine will expand and contract in the bottle, affecting the integrity of the cork and eventually allowing the wine to “weep” around the cork, as evidenced by a sticky deposit around the capsule.

Cork life is also affected by humidity. A relative humidity of 50-80 percent is acceptable, with 70 percent being the ideal. Excess humidity will rot labels and cardboard boxes. Insufficient humidity will allow corks to dry out and allow air to enter the bottle. This combination of cool temperatures and high humidity within a wine cellar demands that special attention be paid to condensation control by installing proper vapor barrier protection, using water resistant gypsum board (green board), and sealing all concrete and masonry surfaces. If recessed light fixtures are used, only fixtures that allow proper sealing against moisture penetration should be selected.

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Wine rooms add charm to a home. Temperature control is important. Fluctuations in temperature cause wine to "weep" around the cork. (photo by: Beryl Striewski)
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