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The Latest in Home Wine Cellars

Today's wine cellar is upstairs and out for show

It's name bespeaks, the Winery in Newport Beach puts its wine collection front and center.

Remember when a wine cellar was actually a cellar? In baronial homes and upscale restaurants, the wine cellar was a hidden vault where dusty bottles resided in quiet, dark solitude. The atmosphere was equal parts church and catacomb.

But like so many other tradition-encrusted design concepts, the wine cellar has undergone a dramatic transformation. It has been brought into the light, its contents displayed in dining rooms, foyers and other highly public places – glass-fronted, backlit and proud.

“I definitely see that as a trend,” says Orange County architect Christopher Brandon, whose recent residential projects have included wine display cabinets and rooms that are integrated into dens, dining rooms and other public parts of the home. “I like wine areas that put the wine on display. It adds texture and depth to a space, and it suits the way people entertain now. They don’t want to go into a wine room and sit at a table in a basement and smoke a cigar.”

“About 90 percent of the cellars I design are a focal point; most of them are for viewing,” says Jerry Wilson, founder and owner of Coastal Custom Wine Cellars in San Juan Capistrano. “Most people like to show wine off as well as drink it.”

Brandon sees a more visible wine area as part of a larger trend. “People want a lighter and brighter interior instead of dark cabinetry and granite countertops. They want features that are lifestyle-driven.”

Characteristics of the “lighter and brighter” look include indoor-outdoor walls that transform home and yard into a seamless space, the growing popularity of informal, combined-use living spaces and open display of personal collections such as wine, jewelry or masks. “Airiness and openness are the unifying themes,” Brandon says.

Others see the accessible wine room as part of the modern gastronomic movement. “It’s a lifestyle addition to your house. We’re seeing a lot more [cellars requested for] the main floor. These are not just storage rooms,” says Joseph Kline, co-owner of Joseph & Curtis Custom Wine Cellars, one of the largest and most successful wine cellar builders in the country. “People are obviously very passionate about the food they make, the sight, the smell etc., so it only makes sense that they want to hang out in the kitchen. The same thing goes for the wine cellar. People want to be around the wines they love.” Wines can suffer from long-term exposure to light. Keeping wine and food areas in close proximity makes sense since pairing wine with food is a crucial part of the gastronomic experience.

The public wine area started in the restaurant industry. One of the display-cellar pioneers is undoubtedly Charlie Palmer’s Aureole at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, which opened in 1999. Conceived by restaurant designer Adam Tihany, Aureole’s visual trademark is a glass-enclosed, four-story wine tower that dominates the restaurant. Its 3,200 bottles are retrieved by “wine angels,” black-clad young women who glide up and down on harnesses in full view of diners, going from bottom to top in 10 seconds. (Aureole says only 10 bottles have been dropped since the restaurant opened.)

Public wine displays can be seen at many upscale Orange County restaurants, including Stonehill Tavern at the St. Regis Monarch Beach resort, Del Frisco’s Grille in Irvine, Andrea at Pelican Hill, Provenance and The Winery in Newport Beach, and enoSTEAK at the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel.

Coastal Custom Wine Cellars specializes in one of the hotter aspects of the “show your wine” trend: horizontal display rows. The display wines are not in danger of drying out: they’re presented at a 15-degree angle, which gives the cork enough contact with the wine to remain moist.

Horizontal display rows are usually found in the middle of a wine case, 3 to 4 feet from the ground, allowing for storage both above and below. They’re often outfitted with a low-wattage LED system for non-damaging front and back illumination so you can read wine labels and admire bottles. They’re especially popular in restaurants, where a visible label can stimulate sales.

All that showy display comes at a cost. Wines can suffer from long-term exposure to light. Glass-fronted wine rooms present considerable engineering challenges, Wilson says.

“Wine cellars are kept at 57 or 58 degrees. Your typical home is 72 to 76 degrees. So when cool air meets warm, condensation forms. And especially in the oceanfront homes, they want that seamless glass appearance, which means a glass door. It’s more difficult to seal than a wood-framed door.”

The strain on your wallet can be considerable. Wilson says the average cost of creating a wine closet from an existing enclosure will run about $17,500 for a 500-bottle space. That includes everything from demolition to insulation, a dedicated electrical line, cooling systems, doors, floors and wine racks.

But you might get that money back when you sell. Realtytimes.com and several other real estate websites say a handsome and prominent wine cellar helps sell a house and adds grace and sophistication. “They’re a great conversation starter and the centerpiece of a room,” Brandon says of the wine display areas he has designed. “People are naturally drawn to them.”

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