When somebody brags about his or her wine cellar, do you picture a cold, damp, cobwebby underground space that's so dark you can barely spy bottles by the light of your smartphone? If you answered yes - it's time to get with it.
Today's versions go way beyond basic wine storage. They're now adult playrooms, man caves, personal style statements, and part of the living environment, like splashy paintings on dining room walls.
New-wave cellars often feature tasting tables, comfy chairs, lighting worthy of an art gallery, and space age technology. They even look good without any wine in them.
Take the nearly finished wine wall in the New York apartment of New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony. It's fronted by a series of glass doors, so the trophy bottles inside won't be missed. They especially pop with the help of strategic back lighting to underscore how prized they are.
There are no figures on how many people today are storing wine collections, but global real estate company Knight Frank's current Wealth Report reveals that wine investment by ultra-high-net-worth individuals is up 241 per cent in the past 10 years. (An ultra-high-net-worth individual, or UHNWI, is a person with investable assets of more than US$30 million.) Drinking the stuff, of course, is an increasingly popular passion.
"For luxury homes around the world, a wine cellar is now a given, an essential amenity like a pool, home gym, or screening room," says Zachary Wright, executive director of Christies International Real Estate for Western North America & Asia.
The biggest trend is that cellars have moved up from basements into the main living level, often between kitchen and dining room, explained Evan Goldenberg of Design Build Consultants, whose clients have included many New York chief executive officers.
Joseph Kline, a former financial trader turned designer who co-owns Joseph & Curtis Custom Wine Cellars, points out "the visual is now almost as important as the wine is". Their clients (which include Anthony and musician Kevin Jonas) want cellars to match the style of their furnishings, so many opt for a steel-and-glass contemporary look. Though traditional wooden racks made from black walnut and mahogany are still popular, Kline has also hunted down such exotic woods as jarrah and African wenge.
The challenge is how to square all this visibility with the requirements of storing fine wine: keeping bottles at a constant temperature of about 55 degrees, with humidity of 60 per cent to 70 per cent, and away from sunlight (ultraviolet rays prematurely age wine) on racks that keep the bottles horizontal, so corks don't dry out and let air in.
"New technology has been key," says Jim Cash of Revel Custom Wine Cellars in Lansing, Michigan. Refrigeration is more efficient, for one thing. Back-up systems monitor conditions through electronic sensors that trip alarms, sending texts to the owner if the temperature rises or falls dramatically.
Electro-chromatic smart-glass filters out ultraviolet rays and can go opaque with the click of a switch. LED lighting, which doesn't generate heat that could cook the wine, has revolutionised the way designers create lighting effects.
Not to mention better security through fingerprint entry.
Cash has even patented two rack designs, a wine wheel based on the Lazy-Susan concept and a new revolving tower, that let you see labels without touching the bottles. (He won't reveal client names, but one of them is Richard Branson.)
"Our clients want a place where they can sample wine," says Lucy Savanis, head of private-client design for London interior designer and developer Finchatton. That means having a central tasting table or island and comfortable seating for sharing their passion with guests before or after dinner. Actually, dining in the cellar is passé; the new trend is having the cellar next to the dining area.
"People want the design to integrate with their home," says David Spon. While some designers, such as Kline, say steel and glass is very trendy now, others say that clients increasingly want a blend of the traditional and contemporary, juxtaposing glass and wood, although once-popular redwood is very much a thing of the past.
"Strategic lighting is very hot," says Kline. "People use it to highlight special bottles in their collection like a jewellery display." He sees expanding the colour spectrum of lighting as a new trend. One client in the Hamptons wanted rose-coloured backlighting, another wanted blue.
The visual is now almost as important as the wine is
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"The ability to monitor their cellars remotely is important to most of my clients," says Jim Cash. A wine collection is valuable, so they want to protect it as much as they can, and security has become even more important.
Serious collectors with a large number of bottles are now opting for two cellars, says Goldenberg. They have one below ground for long-term storage and a second, smaller one upstairs for the bottles they're drinking now.
Oh, ah, the price. Designer cellars don't come cheap. David Spon, who says three-quarters of his clients are Wall Streeters, bases his quotes on the number of bottles: for 100 to 600, up to US$46,000; 800 to 1300, up to US$75,000; 1500 to 2,500, up to US$130,000; and 2700 to 4700, up to US$220,000. Some designers charge more.
Goldenberg is now working on a US$500,000 cellar (remember, that doesn't include the wine itself).
Cost also depends on materials and special requests. Lucy Savanis says one client wanted a refrigerated wine lift so he could bring up wines from his cellar at the touch of a button. (It featured panelling fitted with suede in racing green to match the interior of his Aston Martin.)
Kline tells the tale of a Fifth Avenue client's glass box cellar that included a solid glass wall that ended up being way too big to fit in the building's lift. It required removing apartment windows, closing a section of Fifth Avenue to traffic, and using a crane to lift it into the designated space.
Price? Please don't ask.