Best cellars: Wine storage rises to the occasion

Inside the 1905 Arts and Crafts-style house that Tony Foreman shares with wife Katie and their newborn daughter in Northeast Baltimore, the mood is festive in anticipation of New Year's celebrations. Downstairs in the wine cellar, some 5,000 bottles are just waiting to be opened for toasts.

"It's an awful lot of fun to come down and find your favorite," says the president and wine director of Foreman Wolf, the restaurant group he co-founded with chef Cindy Wolf. Their brand includes five restaurants (with a sixth scheduled to open soon) and two wine stores around Maryland.


"This cellar is not fancy," Foreman says as he enters a small basement room with concrete floors and rough limestone walls. "It's built for storage and not as much for display."

Still, Foreman's cellar — kept cool, humid and insulated to protect its perishable products — is the stuff of a wine connoisseur's dream.


Custom-built wood shelves and bins hold wines from Italy, Spain, South Africa, New Zealand and other spots across the world. Standouts include a pricey red wine produced in the Rhone Valley of France, a rare magnum of Riesling from Austria and golden champagnes.

The wines are carefully stacked and semi-organized, some peeking from recycled packing crates and even old metal wash sinks. Simple hanging light fixtures softly illuminate the liquid gems.

"Each bottle is different," says Foreman, a trained chef and sommelier, who honed his wine expertise in France. "They each hold little surprises."

For the serious oenophile, wine cellars remain a time-honored method of showcasing one's collection. Yet for wine lovers who don't want to go that route, experts say a bevy of options exist for storing those precious pinots and merlots.


Al Spoler, who co-hosts the radio program "Cellar Notes" with Hugh Sisson on WYPR, recalls his first wine cellar in the communal basement of a Bolton Hill apartment he rented years ago. "The landlord let me store wine," he says. "Back then, I had about 80 bottles."

Today, he's graduated to a custom cellar in his 1920s Baltimore rowhouse, which is part of his "man cave." It was built by two contractors who have done other projects around his house.

"It's strictly storage, but it looks nice," Spoler says, describing four large "modified bookshelves," complete with "individual cubbies," that hold about 650 bottles. The cellar has dimmable lights and is carpeted, he adds.

Spoler has a collection of bargain and special-label wines that include several from Maryland vineyards. He pops down to his cellar about twice a week to select something for dinner or special occasions.

"Anyone serious about wine wants to build a cellar at some point," he says, adding that it doesn't have to cost much. "You can pay a lot of money to have a cellar built, but anyone with a basement can pretty much build their own."

A number of companies on the market sell pre-built wine cabinets and similar furniture, but some pros insist there's nothing like the personal touch.

"I do very custom, one-of-a-kind work," says Bill Hergenroeder, a custom woodworker who owns Springwood Construction Inc. in Cockeysville.

He built Foreman's personal cellar, has done work in several of his restaurants and counts other area dining establishments as clients. "Nothing is prefab."

Mark Sanders, vice president of Pyramid Builders in Annapolis, says his staff also takes pride in its custom home projects, which include wine cellars and wine rooms in different parts of the house.

"We have an onsite woodworking shop with carpenters plus other craftsmen," says Sanders. "I'd say we've done four or five of them in the past few years."

Hergenroeder and Sanders said the cost of a wine cellar is open-ended, depending on size and scope.

"They can become quite expensive," Sanders says.

For instance, a posh wine cellar with redwoods and cedars, quarry tile on the floor, a finished ceiling, decorative crown molding around cabinets, plus refrigeration, may run anywhere from $10,000 to $40,000, according to Hergenroeder.

Utilitarian storage is decidedly less. For example, a basic wine cellar capable of holding approximately 400 to 500 bottles "may cost a couple thousand dollars," he says.

"The customer has to decide whether they want something pretty or that has general utility," Hergenroeder says. "It's similar to a custom kitchen."

A recent Gallup poll shows that wine has grown to become nearly on par with beer as Americans' favorite alcoholic drink. Meanwhile, industry experts say that attitudes about individual wine collections are shifting.

"Few people can afford to hold cellars or buy futures," says Carol Wilson, co-owner of Elk Run Vineyards and Winery in the rolling hills of Frederick County.

Wines are produced more proficiently these days, she says, and can be made with vintage characteristics that belie their youth.

"That's not to say an older Bordeaux or Brunello aren't wonderful," says the vintner, whose wines have won national and international awards. "And I, for one, like to meet as many people as I can who have been able to keep cellars, especially as the wines near their prime and need to be tasted by those who can appreciate them."

Yet for people who only imbibe occasionally or don't have space for a cellar, more homes are being built with wine storage features.

"Wine refrigerators in the kitchen are what you really see more of today," said Craig Thomson, an associate broker with Long & Foster Realtors in Canton who has sold properties for three decades. "And it's not uncommon now to have a wet bar on the deck or another room with a wine refrigerator underneath."

Dedicated space for wine storage is in demand in both new and renovated houses, says Nestor Zabala, vice president of Curry Architects Inc., a boutique firm in Towson that has designed commercial projects such as the Silo .5% Wine Bar in Locust Point. In addition to creating wine cellars for restaurants, the team also works with residential clients.

"The under-the-counter wine refrigerator has become very popular," says Zabala. Sizes vary, but they're usually "no smaller than a dishwasher" and might have sleek stainless steel and glass.

"The price may run a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on materials and level of customization," he says.

Zabala adds that his process of designing a kitchen with an under-the-counter wine feature would focus not only on aesthetics but the traffic flow in the room.

"It would be outside the classic triangle where you have the sink, do chopping and store food," he says. "You want to be able to linger and choose a beverage."

There's yet another alternative for wine enthusiasts seeking to preserve their stash: Some restaurants and wineries offer wine lockers, charging a fee for customers to store their favorite wines.

"We have a custom-built wine room on the second floor with 15 oak lockers that we rent out for $300 a year," says Chesley Patterson, manager at La Scala restaurant in Baltimore's Little Italy. "Folks have a key."


The program has been successful, he said. The restaurant has rented out all its lockers and has a small waiting list.


And thanks to tastings every month or two, where locker holders can purchase discounted wines, friendships have formed as they gather to pour, swirl and sip.

"It's become a social aspect of their lives," says Patterson.

Wine notes

Do you dream of having your own wine cellar? Here are tips from the pros:

Space. Mark Sanders, vice president of Pyramid Builders in Annapolis, says the most important element of building a custom wine cellar or wine room is finding the right space in your home. "It doesn't have to be in the basement," explains Sanders. "We did one wine room that was off the main living area."

Location. "The shell is critical," he says, as are such factors as proper insulation and a system for controlling temperature and humidity.

Planning. Pyramid Builders works closely with architects on such projects. To find one, resources include the American Institute of Architects, Baltimore, located on Chase Street. Executive director Kathleen Lane says chapter members include area firms whose portfolios include designing wine cellars. Among them are Curry Architects in Towson and SMG Architects in Baltimore.

DIY. Wine expert and radio host Al Spoler turned to construction pros for his wine cellar but says collectors can build an inexpensive one on their own. "It's not complicated," says Spoler. "Build shelves. Make sure it's stable and strong enough. Be careful stacking bottles." He advises that you cover windows and stay away from the furnace. "Darker is better. …Use the coolest part of the basement."

Collecting. In terms of allocating one's wine purchases, Spoler suggests about 50 percent everyday wines; 35 percent Saturday night dinner wines; and the final 15 percent "expensive" special occasion wines.