Chill Out

How to create a wine cellar that will withstand the test of time

Miles Raymond, the bittersweet protagonist in the film Sideways, experienced a life-altering journey through Sonoma and tangentially whet the nation’s appetite for Pinot Noir. While vineyard visits are delightful—and Virginia is among the country’s top wine producers—many local residents are opting to uncork closer to home.

Contrary to popular belief, in-home wine cellars can be accommodated almost anywhere, from a modest crawl space to a cavernous room. “It’s a myth that there are spaces that don’t work,” says Lisa Weiss of Great Falls-based Vintage Wine Rooms, who designs about three in-home cellars per month. She recently installed her own wine cellar beneath the stairs adjacent to her first-floor dining room.

A wine cellar can be a simple area in a cool part of the house with special racks for storing and aging wine properly, or a more sophisticated, temperature-controlled environment. “The concept of a wine cellar is changing,” says Weiss. “It used to be a place to store wine correctly, but now it’s also a place where you can entertain. It’s become more of a conversation piece.” More and more homeowners are building wine rooms with high-end tile and stonework, custom-designed racking, and separate tasting rooms.

Before the aesthetic decisions are made, however, Weiss says there is a lot of expertise involved in designing a wine cellar the right way. “It’s all about the prep. It isn’t particularly difficult, but it must be done correctly to keep problems of mold away from your cellar… There have been plenty of times we’ve come out and had to re-create the space because it wasn’t prepared correctly for a cooled environment.”

According to Weiss, the most common mistakes happen when homeowners or builders prepare the space without the proper vapor barrier and/or sufficient insulation. “Another common mistake is that people use standard drywall in a wine cellar rather than greenboard [which is commonly used in bathrooms]. There’s a certain amount of moisture in a wine cellar and over the years drywall will turn to mush. Greenboard, on the other hand, is designed to handle moisture and humidity,” she says.

Moisture and mold problems also occur when insulation is installed without a proper vapor barrier. If the vapor barrier is installed on the wrong side of the insulation, moisture ends up going through the insulation, which over time will create mold. Weiss prefers to forgo standard vapor barriers and insulation by using a product called icynene, a spray product that acts as both insulation and a vapor barrier.

Careful planning and good design can avoid these common problems. The whole process from design through installation can take a few months, she says. She typically creates three or four designs with each client, as they discuss what type of racking system would work best with their collection. “The design is based on their collecting habits and possible future collecting habits and how they want to display their collections. ” Weiss reports that once the design is final, room preparation and installation may require only about five to seven days of in-home work.

Most of Weiss’s clients choose wine racks made from all-heart redwood—a reddish brown, richly grained wood that comes from the center of the redwood tree and is odorless and naturally resistant to mildew. Mahogany, red oak, cherry and black walnut are other popular options. The average residential wine cellar her firm designs holds 1,200 bottles. While the company has created high-end cellars in the $75,000 range, the bulk of their projects built with cooling systems average around $30,000.

As for décor, they are as varied as different homeowners’ bedrooms. “Every wine cellar is unique and requires a lot of attention to detail,” Weiss says. “It’s like designing a custom Sub-Zero every time.”

McLean residents Will and Ashley Jerro pored over numerous designs for their cellar—which literally arose from the dust when their builder discovered dead space in the basement that otherwise would have been filled with dirt—before finalizing plans with Weiss. The carderock-fronted tasting room and adjacent 1,533-bottle cooled area are both floored with variegated bluestone and together create a magical getaway in the basement of their home.

Upon opening the arched iron door of the tasting room, visitors to this cellar are transported to the Italian countryside courtesy of a landscape mural by Kate Nagle of Interior Illusions. The mural extends from floor to ceiling and integrates the grape-motif light fixtures as if they’re hanging from a vine. The rendering is so realistic that a contractor shattered a glass trying to set it down on a faux stone ledge. Eventually, the Jerros plan to have their children and family dog incorporated into the virtual landscape. “We were planning to cover the walls of the tasting room with the same stone that’s on the front,” says Will Jerro. “But we saw the mural in the wine cellar at the [2005 NSO] Decorators’ Show House and that was it.” The repetition of the arch theme on the mahogany-framed glass door between the tasting room and cellar and pairs of rustic lanterns that flank both doors add further depth and Old World style.

“There’s a special ambiance around a wine cellar,” Weiss says. “The whole experience of it is special because whether or not you’re experienced with wine, everyone brings something different to the table.”

For more information on Vintage Wine Rooms, visit (703) 589-8065 or visit

Wine Cellar Design and Installation: Vintage Wine Rooms, McLean, Virginia Wine Collection: The Vineyard of Virginia, McLean, Virginia Mural: Kate Nagle, Interior Illusions, North Potomac, Maryland.

In the Jerro’s tasting room, a mural of the Italian countryside by Kate Nagle
of Interior, Illusions extends from floor to ceiling.

The grape-motif light fixtures are integrated as if they’re hanging from a vine.