Home & Garden

Transforming basements into wine cellars

The countertops in Spence and Renata Patterson’s wine cellar in Chevy Chase, Md., are made from wine barrels.
The countertops in Spence and Renata Patterson’s wine cellar in Chevy Chase, Md., are made from wine barrels. Washington Post

When Madelyn Smith moved to her newly built house in McLean, Va., she knew she couldn’t replicate the antique, all-brick wine cellar tucked under a staircase in her previous home, but she needed specialized storage for the approximately 50 cases of wine she and her husband had purchased.

“We buy in bulk for entertaining, and we had gotten used to having a special place to keep it,” she says.

Like most people who want a wine cellar, Smith opted to convert a storage room on the lower level to accommodate their wine. Smith and her interior designer, Marika Meyer, owner of Marika Meyer Interiors in Bethesda, Md., wanted to incorporate a wood storage cabinet with interior lighting that Smith already owned into the wine cellar.

“We have an open-floor-plan home now, and that means there’s not a lot of solid wall space for things like our wood storage cabinet, so it was a great solution to put it in the bonus room as the starting point for the wine cellar,” Smith said.

Meyer said the rest of the house has bluestone on the exterior and on the fireplace hearths and mantels, so they brought that material into the wine room in the form of stone pillars to connect it to the rest of the house.

“We had a wall of glass custom-built at the front of the room to expand the sense of space and to make it visible off the billiards room,” Meyer said.

Whether you are a wine connoisseur who buys wine to store for years, or entertain often and need space to keep a few cases for a year or two, the most cost-effective place for wine storage is a basement.

“The best place for a wine cellar is not only in the basement but at the front of the house, which is usually the area of the basement that’s the deepest underground,” said Jim Rill, principal of Rill Architects in Bethesda. “You need a cool, insulated space with its own cooling system and ventilation system, almost like a heat pump that only cools the air.”

Rill said the cooling system doesn’t need to be used as often and doesn’t have to work as hard if the wine cellar is in a dark, cool space.

“The ideal temperature is 55 to 58 degrees, so the closer you can get to that, the less you have to spend for cooling,” said Doug Roberts, an architect with GTM Architects in Bethesda.

Wine cellars can be retrofitted into an existing home, but it’s easiest to design one for a custom home or newly built home, Roberts said.

“We start by asking the buyers how serious they are about wine collecting,” he said. “Someone who’s more of an amateur and not a hard-core collector may be satisfied with a wine refrigerator someplace or a basement bar. The more serious collectors want a walk-in cellar with wall-mounted wine racks and climate and humidity controls to protect the wine.”

Roberts said you can either connect the cellar to the home’s air-handling system or buy a self-contained system. According to the website Wine Enthusiast, cooling units range from $1,000 to nearly $5,000, depending on the method of installation and the size of the room. Roberts recommends putting the wine cellar near a mechanical closet if possible in case the cooling system needs to run through the wall or needs a drainage area.

Meyer said buyers who don’t plan to store their wine for more than a couple of years can opt for less costly storage systems.

“I’m working with one client to redo a butler’s pantry so he can store 1,000 bottles of wine underneath a counter,” she said. “We’ve turned the counter into a wine tasting space.”

Storage racks

In addition to climate control, wine cellars need appropriate storage racks, which can range from costly custom-designed racks to mass market racks.

“We opted to order inexpensive wine racks online so we could spend more money on the masonry and stone in our wine cellar,” said Smith.

Mike Johnson, senior designer with Lori Graham Designs in Washington, worked with Spence and Renata Patterson, homeowners in Chevy Chase, Md., on their $27,700 wine cellar, which holds about 1,000 bottles.

“We never thought of ourselves as ‘wine cellar people,’ but when we renovated our home, we had the opportunity to outfit one of the basement rooms that at the time looked like a medieval dungeon into a fantastic wine storage and entertainment space,” Spence said. “One of the more interesting challenges of renovating a home built in 1916 is that you get to renovate around some amazing thick and indestructible foundation walls.”

The 100-year-old massive rock walls provide the backdrop for the Pattersons’ cellar. The wine racks were custom-designed from old wine barrels with visible labels. A counter-height shelf that resembles butcher block but is also made from recycled wine casks wraps around their wine room and leads to an island where they can hold wine tastings with friends.

“You can actually feel the curve of the barrels if you run your hand over it,” Spence said.

Meyer worked with Smith to design her wine cellar so that her inexpensive storage looks custom-designed.

“If you start with prefabricated storage shelves and then build around them, it feels as if the storage was designed just for that space,” Meyer said.

Meyer designed custom storage shelves for one wall of a dining room for clients who are red wine connoisseurs yet don’t store their wine for more than a year or two.

“The dining room is almost like a tasting room for wine, and the storage looks like a piece of modern art,” Meyer said. “That’s a much more affordable way to enjoy wine without building a wine cellar.”

Custom design

Smith opted to keep her wine room large so that when her children are older she can add a table and chairs in the wine room for entertaining.

“We added a lighting plan for the space, including sconces and ceiling lights in each stone alcove, and chose a light-gray paint for a modern look,” Smith said. “Right now the billiards room is a playroom with space for building forts and for Thomas the Tank Engine, but someday we’ll formalize the whole area and the wine room will be ready for that phase.”

Johnson’s design for the Pattersons included retaining the stone wall on one side of their basement and putting in a slate floor to help keep the space cool.

“We added a tongue-in-groove wood-beamed ceiling and tongue-in-groove wood on two of the walls and stained it to match the color of the wine barrels that make up the storage racks and counters,” Johnson said. “The Pattersons wanted a room with a modern feel yet where they could comfortably entertain, so we put in industrial-looking stools and an Asian-inspired slatted light fixture on the ceiling.”

Underneath the island is space for wine glasses and other accessories as well as display cabinets for magnums of wine. The room has a glass door to allow the wine to be visible yet protected with climate and humidity control.

“We love to entertain in the wine room, especially since it’s a bit hidden,” Spence said. “We like the space during extremes. On a hot August day, we can retreat down to the cellar and you’d never know it’s 100 degrees outside. In the winter, it’s a cozy place to open a big bottle of red with friends.”

One of Rill’s clients opted to convert a home theater room to a wine room designed for entertaining and storage.

“It’s designed to look like it was carved out of a mountain, with stone walls, stone floors and stone niches,” Rill said. “The center island was built out of a couple of pieces of wood with the bark still on it for a rustic look.”

The wine room holds about 4,000 bottles of wine on custom-designed angled shelves so that the labels can be displayed but the cork never gets dry, Rill said.

“The room curves like a bay window and has decorative doors that make you feel like you’re going into a castle,” he said. “There’s room to sit and taste wine in the room, or you can take bottles to the bar that’s nearby.”

Rill estimates that the cost of this wine room was more than $100,000 because of the quality of the materials used, along with the installation of climate and humidity control systems.

Homeowners who opt for a wine room and have traditional tastes tend to want a room with primarily stone and wood, said Roberts, while those who want something a little more modern add glass and metal to the space.

“One way to make the wine cellar the focal point of your lower level is to put it behind a bar with panels of glass and a glass door so you and your guests can see inside to the stone walls and wine racks even when the door is closed,” he said.

Roberts said more and more customers are requesting a wine room, particularly in larger homes with 5,000 to 7,000 finished square feet, since those homes have an abundance of storage.

“In smaller homes, it works well to tuck a wine storage space under the stairs with racks and an interesting light fixture,” he said. “Most customers want wine storage above all, and they aren’t necessarily looking for a wine tasting space.”