By design, the rooms are chilly, damp and dark -- but an environment in demand.
Homeowners are turning to wine cellars to keep their vintages in optimal storage conditions, building rooms that can be as elegant as a Tuscany-styled entertainment hideaway or as stark as a rack-lined cave.
Cellars can cost as little as a few thousand dollars for a simple grotto or well into the six figures for an architectural statement, and they are as likely to hold inexpensive vintages as they are those valued at upwards of $2,000 a bottle. Decor is everything from Halloween-like fake cobwebs to pricey art.
"They are definitely getting more popular here on the East Coast. We are still catching up with where they were on the West five to six years ago," said Steve Goldstein, a former sommelier and owner of the Washington-based firm Classic Cellar Design, which has clients in the Baltimore area.
Builders say wine rooms capitalize on the cocooning trend: the home is a retreat from the outside world and a hub for entertaining. Years back, the basement was a musty cavern that gathered junk. Now, wine cellars (rooms historically below ground anyway) may blend into an entertainment zone that includes a home theater, pool table and foosball, even shuffleboard.
It took nearly a year to construct Gus and Lynne Kalaris' custom mahogany wine cellar in the basement of their Highland home -- its racks are three bottles deep to accommodate 7,500 bottles.
"I needed a place where I could store a lot of wine," said Gus Kalaris, 49, a regional wine distributor and owner of Axios, a Napa Valley winery.
Despite owning their own vineyard, the couple stashes a variety of vintages from mostly other wineries in their cellar. They have some for drinking and tasting now and in the near future, and they also collect and keep wine for the long-term. The size of their wine room reflects the couple's enthusiasm, although builders say a more typical cellar is closer to 1,000 bottles.
And though Gus Kalaris wanted a place for tasting with friends, he didn't want the wine room to become a regular gathering spot. Chairless, it has a small sink at one end, but an octagonal table around which people stand and chat is the centerpiece.
"I don't want it to be a cafe," Gus Kalaris said. "I want it to be attractive, elegant and functional."
The floor is tiled. Decorative sconces punctuate deep red walls. Recessed lighting is dimmable. The room, at the end of a small corridor lined with wine art, lies behind a glass-paned wood door and is kept dark unless in use. A carving of grapes highlights the view of the door from inside the room.
Gus Kalaris eschews the in-vogue computerization of a grotto's contents, preferring his handwritten log.
A sophisticated air-handling system keeps the room at 59 degrees and 50 percent humidity.
Wine cellars were found in 37 percent of luxury homes in California, according to a 2006 survey. The rise in American wine consumption and collecting, and the burgeoning wine investment market fuel the demand. When figures are tallied for 2007, the U.S. wine market is expected to surpass that of Italy for the first time, hitting 304 million 9-liter cases, according to reports of the 2007 edition of The U.S. Wine Market: Impact Databank Review and Forecast.
Like other sought-after amenities, wine cellars are becoming standard in upper-bracket homes in the Baltimore-Washington corridor -- whether the owner is an investor in wine futures, an oenophile or just likes a cave's cachet.
About three years ago, Charles Stapf, a co-owner of Stapf Custom Homes, said his Abingdon company made wine rooms a standard feature in the multimillion-dollar homes they build. The interiors are stone and cedar with granite counters and decorative tile.
"It's kind of a unique little room. It's gone over real well," he said.
'It's a convenience'
Real estate agent Sisi Wills of Chase Fitzgerald & Co. of Baltimore said adding a wine cellar to an existing high-end home is gaining popularity: "I do think for resale purposes, people are doing it. A lot of people want it when they move in."
But not everyone: Beazer Homes had no takers when it twice offered wine cellars as promotional options on its Maryland houses with price tags up to $1 million. Buyers instead chose enhancing spaces for the entire family, said Diana van Stone, vice president for sales and marketing.
But wealthy oenophiles are not the only ones with wine cellars. Ordinary wine drinkers like them.
As more homeowners indulge in fine wines, they learn that aging improves some or they look to save favorites for celebrations years away.
Pediatricians Josh and Robin Madden installed a 500-bottle wine cellar when they finished the basement of their Ellicott City home two years ago.
Though builder Brett Schoolnick, president of the Baywood Design/Build Group of Columbia, included a cedar bench, the couple uses the room strictly for storage.
"It's a convenience. If we find wines we like, we can buy them by the case," Dr. Josh Madden said. "We love wine, and we love trying new wines."
Builders say it is the climate of the room that makes a wine cellar unique, a version of a walk-in refrigerator. Special construction is a must, said Schoolnick.
"We use pressure treated lumber for framing and rigid insulation, then you sort of wrap the whole thing with a vapor barrier," Schoolnick said. Cedar or redwood gives the rooms a pleasant aroma and can be used for racks, walls and the like.
The cold, damp environment sends some people to a warmer tasting area.
"If you are used to a 70-degree environment, you wouldn't stay in there too long without a sweater or jacket," said Dirck Bartlett, director of business development for Ilex, an East Coast custom builder. Some clients have preferred a separate area outside the wine cellar for wine-related gatherings.
Goldstein said about 20 percent of his business is tear-outs and rebuilding of improperly done rooms, where walls have crumbled, mold and dust have creeped in, or where arid air caused wine to evaporate.
Carving out space
Yet people who are handy have built their own wine rooms, using kits, online how-to instructions or ingenuity.
Figuring the excavated area under the family-room addition to their Towson home would accumulate something, Andy and Brenda Evans turned it into a wine room, doing all but the electrical and climate work themselves.
The old-and-rustic ambience comes from the reuse of old building materials and furnishings that include their former wood kitchen table, an old dresser as a sideboard, candles and sconces.
The racks, from a kit bought online, can hold up to 500 bottles.
"It's not so much about how much wine do you have, but you have a different kind of experience. It's a place we share with friends, away from the kitchen," Andy Evans, 47, said.
"The fun thing for us about wine is that every one of those bottles has a story," he said, from family events, travel and more.
Homeowners with less unused space -- or who keep a smaller amount of wine on hand -- are carving out space for wine coolers, from under-counter chillers to keep a few dozen bottles in a kitchen to freestanding units that can hold much more.
At least 30 percent of kitchen remodelings include installing a wine chiller beneath a counter, said John Damico, general manager of Bray & Scarff, a regional kitchen and appliance company.
And at least one appliance maker offers the wine room as a unit, a walk-in wine vault, complete with computerized tracking of more than 1,000 bottles.
WINE CELLAR TIPS
A few wine-cellar basics:
Location --Basements are cooler than the rest of the house. Still, heat and humidity fluctuate there. Main-level wine rooms are less common.
Walls and other surfaces --Construction should be moisture-resistant and mold-proof.
Climate control --Experts disagree on optimal temperature and humidity levels for lengthy wine storage. But they agree on this: Too moist, and the risk of mold is too high. Too dry, and the corks dry out and the wine evaporates. They also disagree on whether whites need to be kept cooler than reds, but 58-60 degrees and 60 percent humidity are in the ballpark.
Racks --Wood is most popular, but racks can be made of metal and terra cotta in varying styles, from cubes to cubbies.
Lighting and style --Light is wine's enemy; low lighting and switches that dim are best. Typical decor is an old European look: textured ceramic tiles; stone, wood or tile uncorking surface; painting or fresco or tile mural; and an ornate wood door.
Wine cabinets --Climate-controlled, glass-front wine fridges allow you to chill wine, not guests. They range from pretty to plain and can be built into a wine room or other space.
Kits --An online search using the words "wine cellar" and "kit" turns up a wide range, from kits for racks only to companies that, if you send room dimensions, help design a room.
Andrea F. Siegel