Exploring the Vaults

St. Louis, c. 1871; Two men inspecting bottles of wine in the wine cellar. Drawing is entitled "Exploring the Vaults."

Wine lovers all have the same thought at some point (probably while enjoying a glass… err, bottle of wine).

“We should totally build a wine cellar.”

The idea is fabulous; who wouldn’t want a room dedicated to fine bottles of sauvignon blanc and sangiovese? It’s so much easier than constantly making runs to the liquor store. The problem comes when wine lovers jump in with two feet and don’t take the time to plan before buying Two-Buck Chuck in bulk.

We asked a few wine experts to weigh in on the five most common mistakes to avoid as you build your collection.

Picking the Wrong Location

Choosing the spot to build your wine cellar is as simple as carving out a little corner in the basement, right? Wrong. The placement will determine the success of your budding wine empire. Pick the wrong spot and you’ll waste hundreds – or even thousands – on wine that spoils before you even pop the cork.

At the very least it should be in a dark, cool location below ground without any access to light, says Jim Duane, winemaker at Seavey Vineyard in the Napa Valley and creator of Inside Winemaking.

“It’s OK to have lights in the cellar for when it’s in use, but otherwise keeping it dark is ideal,” adds Duane. “Direct sunlight is the worst and can degrade a wine, especially aromatic whites.”

And don’t forget about the door. It should seal airtight every time.

Ignoring Proper Cooling and Humidity Levels

Don’t obsess about the temperature of the cellar, according to Duane. What you should worry about is temperature fluctuations. “As a cellar gets hot and cold the gas in the wine expands and contracts, pushing and pulling on the cork” he says. Ideally, 55 degrees Fahrenheit is the sweet spot, thought 60 or even 65 degrees is fine as long as it stays within the range.

As for how you get it there? Location is the main factor, but having the right insulation, cooling and duct system is just as vital to keeping the temperature and humidity levels right. The cellar should stay around 55 to 75 percent humidity at all times, especially when aging wines for the long haul.

“This added moisture absorbs into the corks, expanding them like a wet sponge, giving them the best seal possible,” says Yashar Shayan, certified sommelier and founder of ImpulseWine. “The tight seal keeps excess oxygen out of the bottle, saving the wines from spoiling.”

Humidity levels of less than 50 percent dry out the corks, causing loss of liquid (the horror!). On flip side, levels higher than 70 percent can cause mold and degradation to the labels and glue.

Consider building your cellar with cedar – it promotes proper humidity levels. Also, don’t forget to insulate the floor if it’s not concrete.

Stacking Bottles Upright

This is a huge no-no, according to Bob Golbahar with 2020 Wines. There’s a reason why wine racks are built to keep bottles on their sides.

“There needs to be wine contact with the cork to keep it moist or it will dry up and fall apart, rendering the wine usually undrinkable,” Golbahar says. After all, who wants to drink wine with a bunch of dried-up cork in it? ”Then you have to filter it through a coffee filter and that beats up the wine. It also removes too much sediment, which adds a nice texture.”

Improper Organization

Any good wine collection will have “everyday” wines, along with more fancy stuff reserved for special occasions. For that, Duane recommends creating a wine space that has different levels of access – one area for every day wines and another for showpiece bottles.

“I learned this the hard way after I came home and found my wife unknowingly drinking (and cooking with) a very fancy bottle on a Tuesday night,” he says. “I had forgotten to move the bottle to the VIP section of my cellar.”

Keep a good inventory of what you have, too. Many people think that older wine is better, but most vintages are meant to be consumed within a few years so they don’t oxidize and lose their character.

Your inventory system could be as simple as a spreadsheet, or use an app like Cellar Tracker to keep track of things like name, vintage, place and estimated drinking window.

And if you have a huge collection?

“An expert can help you organize it better, let you know what you have, and let you know what to do

with your wine, says Elizabeth Schneider, a certified sommelier and the brains behind Wine for Normal People. “I make a drinking plan for people with large collections sometimes and help them organize their wines that need to be consumed right away.”


Finally, be honest with yourself about the amount of space you need before you start building. Sure, you might intend to have a huge collection, but chances are you won’t fill it and you’ll waste money on building expenses and spoiled wine.

“The only people that need large cellars -- more than 500 bottles -- are collectors who may be planning to hold wine to sell it,” adds Schneider. “Otherwise, you're constantly going to be racing against time to drink wine before it loses its luster.”


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