Chicago caught in the chilling grip of the wine fridge, Chicago Tribune, Apr 21, 2004


A wine cellar in every home?

As consumers learn more about storage, sales of special fridges grow

By Tyler Colman
Special to the Tribune

Published April 21, 2004

"Americans all have a wine cellar" runs an old wine-industry joke, "it’s called the back seat of the car on the way home from the wine shop."

Although this may have been the norm for a long time, more American wine consumers are looking for the kind of cellar that cools better than simply rolling down the windows.

A recent trend has been the proliferation of stand-alone, plug-in wine refrigerators (known in the trade as "wine cellars") that can accommodate from 24 to 300 bottles. Increasing consumer awareness of the importance of proper wine storage and decreasing prices on the units help explain their popularity. Beyond just scoring style points while keeping up with the Jonses, such units also can be a selling point in a home if built in under a kitchen counter or other handy spot.

Similar to a stylish, small refrigerator, these models are designed for storing wine in better conditions than in a rack on the kitchen counter, which is too warm and gets too much light, or the refrigerator, which is too cold and dry. Top models come with digital temperature controls, glass doors and interior lights that make the bottles on the inside alluring.

"Wine storage is getting more and more popular. Nearly everyone puts it in the homes we build," said Kent DeReus of Orren Pickell, luxury home builders on the North Shore. But it is an urban trend as well, according to Gina Dunning, a real estate broker at Baird and Warner’s Lincoln Park office: "More and more homes in the city have some sort of wine storage.

The 50-bottle unit is "in the sweet spot," according to Han Ko, director of marketing at Wine Enthusiast, a leading seller of wine fridges and wine-related merchandise. "The 50-bottle unit offers great value per bottle, which makes it the most popular size," Ko said, because a smaller unit–such as those holding 12 to 36 bottles–would not give you much space for the money, and larger units are more expensive.

Convenience is the buzzword for this model. Big enough for four cases of wine, it offers enough room for serious wine enthusiasts to store ready-to-drink bottles. Casual wine drinkers will find this space ample for their needs. Apartment dwellers with space constraints will like the fact that it can be built in under kitchen counters.

Wine buffs and gadget hounds can sprinkle the 50-bottle wine fridges around the house. According to DeReus, the units are so compact that "you can fit them just about anywhere–a butler’s pantry, adjacent to a great room–without having to do the formal wet bar."

Many of his clients opt to have a walk-in wine cellar in the basement as well as a compact wine cabinet in another part of the house.

Logan McDougal keeps a 48-bottle unit in a closet in his Lincoln Park apartment.

"My wife and I got it as a wedding gift two years ago," he said. "And we use it to keep wines that we will be drinking in the next month or two–and some emergency items like Champagnes." It complements the off-premises storage space that he rents for other wines.

Why store wine

While this may seem like simply over-the-top hedonism, there are good reasons to store wine in proper conditions. Those conditions replicate subterranean wine cellars in that they are dark and humid with a constant, cool temperature (ideally 55 degrees Fahrenheit), and free of vibrations. High heat and temperature fluctuations are the most damaging to wine as they can excessively speed up the aging process. Ultraviolet light is also damaging. And vibrations can cause a wine to develop sediment too soon.

This combination means that the worst place to store wine is in a rack on top of the refrigerator. Although storing white wine short-term in a regular fridge is fine, keeping it there long-term is not a good idea: It’s too cold and too dry. Plus, the gentle shaking of the compressor may not affect the mustard, but it is damaging to the muscadet.

Some wines, overly tannic upon release, mellow and improve with age. These are the bottles that consumers should aim to age, or "lay down," in ideal cellar conditions. But these age-worthy wines are a narrow slice of all wines produced–Yellow Tail or "Two Buck Chuck" will not improve with prolonged cellaring. Because the majority of wine in America is consumed within 24 hours of purchase, most wines on retailers’ shelves are meant to show well in their youth. For the casual consumer, then, the 50-bottle wine fridge will extend the life of favorite wines longer than simply leaving them on the
kitchen counter wines you’re going to consume in the next few months.

A cautionary note

When selecting a 50-bottle wine fridge, steer clear of poor design. Treated glass doors or cabinet doors that protect against ultraviolet light are a must, sliding shelves ease bottle removal and digital thermostats make for precise temperature control.

A model that meets these criteria generally costs about $500, although more expensive models are possible from luxury appliance makers Viking or Sub Zero.

Big box retailers such as Costco and
Wal-Mart have entered the market and are bringing the prices down to about $200 to $250. But wine catalogs and specialty Internet vendors offer more expertise, experience and a larger selection.

There are limitations, however, on the convenient small units, said Bill St. John, a wine specialist at Sam’s Wines & Spirits.

"They are not appropriate for long-term storage since they can vibrate a lot and the opening and closing of the door may cause excessive temperature fluctuations over time."

But McDougal would encourage other wine lovers to consider them.

Although there are downsides, he says a 50-unit model is good choice, especially now that they are becoming available at lower prices.

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Buying tips: Points to consider when buying a wine fridge

– Calculate the price per stored bottle (price divided by the number of bottles the unit can hold).

– Assess the amount of storage space needed, remembering that it fills up quickly.

– Is the unit built-in (which may require professional installation) or freestanding?

– Look for a model with a digital thermometer, sliding shelves and, if a glass door is chosen, UV protection.

– Humidity control helps prevent corks from drying out.

-Ask about the warranty coverage.

– Although convenient, the units are not necessarily for storage longer than one year.

— T.C.