Wine Cellars Are Like Sailing Ships

December 31, 2006

Many serious wine collectors are successful alpha males living very busy lives. They understand that a wine cellar can be far more than just a place to store wine and that a large yacht offers a lot more than simple transportation on water.
Wine cellars and large yachts are similar in many ways. While appearances are very important, both of these creations may be subject to powerful forces that require proper engineering to withstand both earthquakes and storms and to protect the valuable contents.
During the development of a functional design, considerations regarding structural integrity, strength, and flexibility, are essential when creating an elegant solution. When a client selects a designer for a project, he trusts that the designer will first consider the functional necessities before adding elements that might improve the appearance of the finished product.
Designs for large custom wine cellars in locations that are subject to earthquakes must consider that the masses of wine and glass may move significantly within the cellar. Since the cellar is a container for this mass and is often part of a larger structure that will also move, it is essential to properly engineer its perimeter. It must withstand the stresses exerted by the outside structure, while containing any stresses imposed upon it by the large masses of wine and glass within.
Modern wine rack systems have evolved from an English design that supports each individual bottle while allowing good airflow through the rack. The primary function of this seemingly fragile and flexible rack system is to support the wine properly while allowing each bottle to become part of a large thermal mass linked by continuous airflow. This large thermal mass, contained within an insulated structure, makes it possible to maintain the very stable storage conditions so necessary for the aging of wine.
One of the characteristics of this rack design is that the entire mass of wine, glass, racks, and other contents in the cellar becomes a very live load during an earthquake. The flexibility of the rack system allows it to deform and move with the wine, supporting it until the event is over. Repositioning the rack system and repairing a few pieces of laminated trim is readily completed. In cellars with rigid rack systems, the wine will still move, by falling out of the rack, or breaking it.
Because the structural integrity of the ideal rack system is the primary design consideration, the shape and dimensions of the cellar perimeter must necessarily determine the rack system layout. The next requirement is to ensure good access to the cellar and each rack space. The capacity of the rack layout and the type of container to be stored, whether it be a single bottle or a wooden case, is not a consideration at this stage and does not require any input regarding the special needs of the client.
The initial primary design or designs can be modified so extensively that they bear almost no similarity to the original plan while still maintaining some of the functional requirements. Curved corners can become stone pillars, openings and arches can be inserted into the rack system, and racks can be broken up into blocks within stone alcoves. Each departure from the original solution becomes a trade off between form and function.
I have designed and built many thousands of wine cellars for special clients all over the world over a period of twenty-five years. Experienced collectors and new enthusiasts all understand that their collections will evolve beyond their existing capacity and I develop suggestions for targets in the various bottle sizes. The changes most often requested by clients are for more Magnums, and more capacity. The primary structural designs are almost always accepted in the same way that the lines of the hull for their new yacht would be accepted.
The cost of a wine cellar is not a factor in the design since the goal is to produce the best possible solution for a client. The value of the proposed design is something that the client must decide for himself. When considering the full cost of the wine, cellar construction, climate control, security systems, and racking systems, we get to large numbers. The differential between low cost wine racks with free designs, and fully developed high quality racks systems that will be admired for generations is not a significant consideration in the market that I serve.

© Paul Wyatt 2006