Those who enjoy entertaining friends at home will have missed that pastime dearly at times during the past year. For me, sharing some great wines I’ve discovered, after some persuasion from online UK merchants, has had to wait until Covid-19 restrictions began to relax.
That did not stop me from stocking up. But where to put the bottles accumulated over the year? Some went straight into professional storage, as they need to age. Others, moving past their drink-by dates, required serving. Having moved to a smaller house a few years back, shoving another case under the stairs has become more difficult.
Wine enthusiasts have always needed somewhere safe to park their liquid treasures. Deep in the bowels of the headquarters of the UK’s Ministry of Defence is hidden the wine cellar of Henry VIII. Meanwhile, the UK government’s wine cellar — some 2,500 cases — sits under Lancaster House near Buckingham Palace.
Whitehall takes wine storage a bit more seriously than the White House. Staff there only keep about 25 cases in a modest room off the kitchen, says Frederick J Ryan, author of Wine and the White House.
Deciding how much wine storage to have — or indeed whether to have any at all — requires some self-interrogation. Consider these questions. What proportion of the wines you serve were brought to you by some forgotten dinner guest? Does the term “drinking dates” refer to anything other than appointments with your friends?
More seriously, do you even have enough space to put extra bottles and avoid arguments with your partner or housemates? If you answered “dunno” to any or all of these, then any outlay much beyond what might be found at Ikea will probably be too much.
For the rest of you, how to cloister the treasures amassed over time deserves more than passing consideration. To begin, storing wine properly requires somewhere dark as ultraviolet light can ruin delicate wines. This area should also offer a stable, cool temperature under 20C without excessive humidity.
Fine wine collectors with sufficient resources and space — and perhaps a Henry VIII-like thirst — increasingly build bespoke storage rooms (cellars) in their homes. Some households that have curtailed spending on other luxuries, such as travel, over the past year can afford to splash out on wine storage. As with fine wine itself, costs for storage can go as high as one’s pocket is deep.
Should you store at home?
Not all wine collectors should keep their wines at home. Those in the UK who do trade any surplus cases should leave that wine “in bond” — held in a warehouse without passing through customs. This way one avoids paying any VAT and duties. These can add up (20 per cent VAT plus £2.86 per bottle).
Also consider the provenance of the wine, which dealers for wealthy clients insist upon. Counterfeiting scandals of the past, as well as poor storing conditions, can affect the value. Some small damage to the outer crate of wine for sale can mean a buyer might scotch a deal. “Some traders demand absolute perfection these days,” says strategist Miles Davis of Wine Owners.
Outside the UK though, the tax issues are less pressing, and outside (or even professional) storage is not so popular. Indeed, the French, who produce the world’s most prized wines, do not generally age wines, nor see the need to pay up for storage facilities.
Costs versus benefits
Putting aside the investment issues above, storing wine properly can span everything from using a glorified refrigerator to creating a climate-controlled entertainment space. Good-quality wine coolers start at about £500 for a 50-bottle capacity. Go for a larger capacity of 200 bottles and you can easily pay a couple of thousand pounds.
Those interested more in function than style can convert a room. Some do this off the kitchen, others in a basement. During his west London house remodelling two years ago, James Pulsford chose to put a wine-storage room adjacent to the kitchen. Preferring something understated, he had bespoke cabinetry fitted for 1,000 bottles along with an integrated air-conditioning unit specifically designed for wine storage. Together with labour and VAT it came to £20,000, with the refrigeration accounting for a quarter of that.
Though he’s not an investor, the rest of Pulsford’s wines remain in bonded storage due to space constraints. UK storage groups, from Octavian (the largest) to smaller specialists such as Nexus, offer various services from basic rental fees to full portfolio management services to keep the investor up to date on prices. Professional storage also exists in North America, Europe and Asia (primarily Hong Kong) for those who do require it.
Savings on professional storage
Given all those costs, understandably some wine lovers will rationalise the building of home storage as a saving compared to rental fees. What then is the payback period? The answer is a long time. In the UK, where one might need bonded storage, the comparison is most apt. Depending on the storage provider and the amount of bottles stored, expect to spend about £1 per bottle including VAT annually.
On that basis, spending £20,000 on a thousand bottles would mean a two-decade payback. Thus either drink up, trade your portfolio cleverly or accept that you own wine for your passion not your pocket.
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A relatively recent collector, Andy Lund, has some top-quality cases of Bordeaux from top vintages that he “hopes to drink with his kids someday”. Those will stay in bonded storage. He hopes to build something into his London home that can hold the growing wine collection of bottles he loves but will not likely trade.
But one does not need to live in a house to store wine. Jancis Robinson, wine critic and FT columnist, does not but has long opted for home storage. Her profession has not only taken her all over the globe but brought the world’s wines to her as well. For both personal and professional reasons, she requires good-quality wine storage.
In 2016, when she and her husband moved out of their north London home into a flat in a King’s Cross development, she had to rethink where to keep her bottled treasures.
Internal underground storage was not an option. Her new flat — bought off-plan — came with an “unnecessarily large utility room, windowless and north-facing, so pretty ideal for wine storage”. So, she simply hived a third of it off for her bottles.
Her builder did add some insulation and a refrigeration unit. Double-depth shelving — prefabricated at a cost then of £218 per two dozen bottles — along with extra floor space in the middle of the room for crates, created space for about 2,000 bottles.
Robinson’s somewhat unusual situation enabled her to get the developer to pay for some of the costs. Even so, the cost for this practical above-ground cellar would have totalled less than £20,000.
Something a little more special
Though hardly a pittance, other connoisseurs have grander aims for their holdings. They prefer a space that displays a collection at its best to visitors, perhaps with a separate entertaining space in which to enjoy these delicacies.
Those keen on making a statement without devoting a separate room to the wine might consider spiral units. These have shelving that corkscrews underground, around a staircase, creating enough space for one person to descend and peruse the choices. Spiral Cellars in the UK creates these, as well as glass-fronted wine cellars. About 80 per cent of clients plump for its typical design.
When managing director Lucy Hargreaves took over the business in 2004, these spiral cellars often went into garages hidden away from the eyes of guests. Times have changed. In her first five years she noticed clients increasingly asking to place cellars inside, into kitchen floors, even under reception rooms. Square wooden trap doors became round Plexiglas ones, strikingly lit from beneath within the cellar. “More people want to show their wine off,” Hargreaves notes.
Starting at about £23,000 for a 1,000-bottle DIY kit, prices rise. A custom installation for a spiral cellar can cost up to £80,000. And despite the pandemic business has been brisk. Spiral’s order backlog stretches over a year in advance.
When a little luxury will not do
If aspirational collectors of wine have changed Hargreaves’ business over the past decade or so, her handiwork looks downright understated compared with that of Genuwine Cellars. This Winnipeg, Manitoba group claims to be the world’s largest constructor of wine cellars. Most of its clientele reside in the US, though it does have international projects in some surprising places, including Pakistan.
For the past 25 years, Genuwine has created wine cellars for both more modest connoisseurs and aspirational collectors. They too have enjoyed greater demand during the pandemic, increasing their workforce.
And when I say aspirational, I mean huge. Founder Robb Denomme has built 10,000 sq ft wine cellars with capacity for 45,000 bottles. These can have multiple climate areas to allow for entertaining — even cigar rooms — within the storage area. One client wanted a separate 4,500-bottle room just for his collection of Petrus, one of Bordeaux’s priciest Pomerols.
Denomme and his teams will make whatever the clients require from a small, under-the-stairs job to vast, jewel-encrusted temples. Genuwine has created wine rooms costing up to $3.5m.
Even empty, Henry VIII’s cellar had sufficient historical value to warrant moving it after the second world war to a safer location — 9ft west and considerably deeper — to protect it. Increasingly, wine collectors will pay up to create their own valuable storage legacies.
Alan Livsey is Lex research editor