A Wet Wine Cellar?

We live in an old house with an unfinished stone cellar that maintains a year-round temperature of about 50 degrees. It has a concrete floor. I’d like to make part of it into a wine cellar, but it gets pretty damp down there after heavy rains. Is the damp a problem?
— Alex M. Silver, New Rochelle

Up to 70 percent moisture is okay as far as the wine is concerned, says Adam Soto of Signature Wine Cellars in Purchase. “But damp is a breeding ground for mold, so that will affect your labels. And you can’t put wooden wine racks directly on the floor if there’s water or excessive moisture.” Soto uses redwood, walnut, and mahogany lumber for his wine racks, both of which work well in a cool, moist place, but any hardwood will rot if it’s constantly soggy.

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If the floor stays dry and your cellar is just mistily damp after it rains, a dehumidifier will probably do the trick, Soto says. For anything wetter, you’d ideally have a company that specializes in such things waterproof the walls, insulate, and add a vapor seal. Water collecting on the floor means you’d need to add a drainage system.

“A lot of the older homes in Westchester have this problem,” Soto notes. “If you’re looking to maintain that old look, with the stone walls, it’s not an ideal environment for a wine room.” Plus all that waterproofing-drainage stuff sounds very complicated.

Temperature control is actually much more important than the damp, says Soto, who adds that unless your cellar is 20 feet below ground, the temperature is not steady, even though it may feel always cool. “It’s fluctuation in temperature that damages wine, not necessarily the temperature itself,” he says. “The optimum temperature is 55 degrees. Wine will mature—and hence spoil—faster if your temperature is 60 degrees, and at 45 degrees it won’t mature at all.”

One option is to install a self-contained wine room within your cellar, Soto says. “You could frame a space with rigid foam insulation and moisture-resistant Sheetrock, like in a bathroom, and install a proper cooling system.” A low-end system costs around $1,500. “They’re not very reliable, though, kind of like a window air conditioner.” And the reliable ones? “They start at about five thousand dollars for a quality commercial unit that’s quiet and efficient.” That size will keep around 1,000 cubic feet—, which is a space roughly 12 feet by 10 feet with an eight-foot ceiling—at a constant temperature, “like a walk-in cooler,” Soto says. “Basically, you’re trying to replicate a cave underground.” (Isn’t it odd that a stone cellar seems so much like a cave underground and yet has so many deficiencies? But I digress.)

Another thought, if you want to get carried away: add a tasting room next to the wine room, but with a temperature that humans enjoy. “Wine rooms look romantic, but 55 degrees is fairly chilly,” Soto notes. “If you have a separate tasting room, then you can enjoy your wine and cheese or what have you.”

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Soto and his partner, Stephanie Bronzo, who formed their company in 2004, have designed and installed wine rooms in all the tonier parts of Westchester, as well as in Fairfield County and the Hamptons. Next month they’re off to Paradise Island in the Bahamas to do one. They give free in-home consultations. Call 1-888-245-9674 or check www.signaturecellar.com.

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