Tips to Building a Wine Cellar

Building a wine cellar for the first time?

You can use the steps below as guidelines for best practices.

Careful planning can help you avoid costly mistakes. Your wine cellar can be a showpiece, complete with a tasting bar...

or something more practical and individual...

Either way, your goal is the same.

To construct a cellar that can work:

  • efficiently
  • quietly
  • without mold or mildew problems
  • keeping your wine at an optimal temperature and humidity.

Do you want your fine wine to evolve and develop it's flavor profiles to it's fullest potential?

Let's take a look at what's involved in making this happen...

Designing Your Dream Cellar!

You have to have a plan.

A good wine cellar design is where it all starts...

There are just too many variables in building a wine cellar to do it off the top of your head. It doesn't have to be expensive or overly-involved but should still be done with a design in hand.

Image of a wine cellar sketch on graph paper.Putting some ideas on paper with a rough wine cellar sketch.

Regular 1/4"x1/4" pad of graph paper like what Amazon sells works perfect. Just jot down some ideas of what you want where. That way each square can represent one foot along each wall if you want.

You can also print "free" graph paper here if you have Adobe Reader installed. Printer ink is so darned expensive though. If you need to print a bunch of them off, it's cheaper to buy a pad.

To get started you should be asking yourself questions like:

  • what kind of wine racks will I use here or there?
  • how can I achieve the "look" I want with my specific cellar size?
  • how will it be cooled?
  • how to maintain humidity levels
  • what about lighting?

The amount of questions add up fast. To cover this more completely, have a look at my wine cellar design page. I take you through the entire design process, from the idea phase all the way through construction.

As far as completing the design itself, Wine Racks America has a free 3D CAD (computer aided design) wine cellar design service. You just tell them what you want and they render a 3D image of your cellar! At no cost to you.

They have a gallery of finished wine cellars to view so you can get lots of good ideas. The best part is, if you submit a photo of your completed cellar or wine storage racks they'll give you a $100. gift card from Naked Wines!

What's Better - a Passive or Active Wine Cellar?

Passive cellar:

The "traditional" cellar was always a passive design and they still are today.

Image of a passive wine cellar.

A passive wine cellar means the temperature and humidity are not controlled by mechanical equipment. To accomplish this, they are built right into the ground where the proper levels are maintained naturally by mother nature. Depending on your site, insulation and vapor barriers etc can also be used if one or two walls are not exterior walls (eg. basement).

Although some of that information is covered below, here is a highly-rated wine cellar book that goes through this in detail step by step.

You have to dig deep enough and have all of your walls completely underground. Proper drainage then becomes crucial when building a wine cellar, or water can seep onto your floor.

Pros -

  • no hydro needed other than lights
  • power outages don't affect the cellar
  • it's not polluting to the environment
  • basements are commonly used and many people have one
  • vibration-free

Cons -

  • limited to your existing site which may not be suitable
  • they usually have stairs so access is a little more difficult 

Tip: The size of your wine cellar will be determined by how many bottles you plan to store. Now add half of that again to the count! Because if you're like me and most wine geeks I know... you'll go way over.

Active cellar:

Active wine cellars use mechanical means like cooling units to maintain the proper temperature and humidity levels. You can help the cooling unit do it's job more efficiently by following the steps below. The unit will run less, last longer and your hydro bills will be cheaper!

Still though, the best location for your active cellar is in the coolest most humid area of your home. It will be easier to maintain the desired temperature levels. In the end, it's really up to you...

Pros -

  • you can build your cellar almost anywhere
  • easier access to put wine into or take wine out depending on where you build it
  • no stairs if you want
  • you can convert an existing room

Cons -

  • can be less efficient to cool depending on where you build it
  • more expensive to build
  • limited by the space you have in an existing home
  • potential power outages means you might require a backup generator to maintain temperature and humidity
  • potential of vibration

So it's not so much "what's better?", but what is the best fit for your current lifestyle and living arrangements.

Guide To Building a Wine Cellar

Make sure to read through all the steps before you get started. Some of the steps below won't be needed if you're building a passive wine cellar.

Step 1.  Vapor Barrier

The vapor barrier always goes on the warmest side of the wall studs, ceiling joists and floor joists (if any). A roll of 6mil plastic works great for this.

Image showing a vapor barrier.A 6-mil vapor barrier.

Leave extra material here:

  • at each corner
  • top and bottom
  • window and door openings to overlap and tape the plastic to the adjacent sheet.

In essence, you're creating a very large waterproof bag. Or, if there are no floor joists (eg. basement), a bag with a hole in the bottom.

Note: No vapor barrier and insulation is necessary for floors or below-grade walls in the basement level. That low ground temperature and humidity is exactly what you want in there. All other walls must have the vapor barrier and insulation though.

2.  Building the Shell

Use the maximum amount of insulation you can for:

  • wall studs
  • ceiling joists
  • floor joists

Use at least 2"x6" studs when building a wine cellar for all exterior and interior walls. This size of stud will give you close to R-20 for the insulation value using fiberglass batts. 2"x4" studs will give you only R-13.

Image showing a 2x6 wall stud.2"x6" studs for framing the wine cellar walls.

That saves you money, it's quieter and the cooling unit will last longer.

If the wall studs and ceiling joists are already in place you can simply wrap the vapor barrier around three sides of the stud and leave it loose between them. This will allow you to still be able to tuck the insulation batt between the studs.

Rigid foam insulation board can also be used instead of fiberglass batts, but make sure all the gaps are closed by using a can of expandable sprayfoam. It's more expensive with this method although it's great for space limitations.

Sprayfoam insulation can also be used but should be applied by a professional with the proper equipment. In most cases the sprayfoam is it's own vapor barrier but not all, so make sure to inquire.

Tip: Decide on the wall/ceiling finish now so the framing for electrical outlets, lights and switches can be done properly. This is the time to pick out your cellar cooling unit, door and windows as well. That way you can frame the openings to the right size.

3.   Ceiling and Wall Treatments

Common coverings for walls are:

  • redwood paneling
  • drywall
  • stone
  • brick
  • or any material that can live in a humid environment and doesn't give off strong odors.

If you'll be tasting wine or exposing wine in your cellar from time to time, it's a good idea not to use materials like cedar wood or oil-based paint that give off pungent odors. I'm not convinced these smells can penetrate the corks, but many wine "experts" claim otherwise.

But if you're tasting or racking wine in your cellar, then strong odors are obviously a not a good thing in there.


Most wood has an odor when wet. Yet when it dries out over time the aromatics are weakened and you can barely smell it. But in a humid cellar the odors can still be very evident because the wood stays slightly damp.

Two of the best species of wood to use are redwood and mahogany because of their low odor and excellent decay resistance. They're also available in tongue and groove paneling and other types of lumber. Some other woods with low aromatics:

  • chestnut
  • red alder
  • fir (sub-alpine)

Mahogany is hard, takes stain well and is very stable. Redwood is softer but has a beautiful hue.

Other Material Options

If you're using drywall when building a wine cellar then use the green moisture-proof board. It's a little more expensive but it's used in bathrooms for a reason.

I really like the look and feel of stone or rustic brick in the cellar. It sort of imparts that "old world" feeling of time and strength. You can use any material that resists moisture and has a low odor to it:

  • stone
  • glass
  • brick
  • mirrors
  • tile
  • granite
  • concrete
  • terra cotta

This is where your creativity really comes into play. Check out the 1000's of wine cellar designs on Houzz to give you some great ideas.

Tip: When you apply your drywall to the walls, bring it right to the floor. You won't be putting any baseboard trim around the bottom because the wine storage racks need to sit flush with the wall and the trim would prevent that.

Tip: Any paints, stains or concrete floor sealers should be exterior latex or water-based because of their low odors. 

4.   Racking

One of the most important considerations for your cellar are wine storage racks.

Image of a wine rack.Future Yum!

They play a huge role in organizing your bottles and cases. But let's face it... they're much more than that.

If you combine your wine racks intelligently within your wine cellar design, they can showcase your wine collection beautifully.

The racks themselves are made from several materials:

  • metal
  • wrought iron
  • heavy wire
  • wood such as redwood or mahogany and even pine
  • acrylic
  • plastic composite etc.

Give some thought to the blending of different materials between the racks, walls, flooring etc.

For instance, stone and wood compliment each other nicely. As does glass or marble with stainless steel. And you can use a contrasting material as a stand-alone piece to really draw the eye.

There's a lot more information on my wine storage racks page, and my wine cellar design page too.

5.   Flooring

Here are some types of flooring suitable for building a wine cellar:

  • marble
  • slate
  • decorative concrete
  • porcelain
  • ceramic tile
  • glass mosaic etc.

Since you won't have baseboard trim, carefully grout your choice of flooring directly to the bottom of the wall finish.

Although it is used by some people, I don't recommend vinyl. The glue that holds it down and the vinyl itself have quite strong odors. The other thing is that the glue never dries, but stays pliable. So the vinyl sometimes buckles and lifts here and there over time.

If your wine cellar is below-grade then I don't recommend wood or cork flooring either. They simply can't withstand the constant humidity over time. It will look fantastic at first of course, then slowly mold and rot from underneath.

If you're adamant that you have to have wood... white oak has good resistance to rot. It was used for "pinning" the timber frames of all the century-old barns you see dotting the landscape. And it's still used in the same way today for modern timber-framing. 

Tip: Never use carpet or any soft material that can harbor mold, fungus and mildew for flooring. Remember this is a humid environment. Wine spills happen too so if your flooring is made up of a hard material, you can easily wipe it up.

6.   Door and Window Options


A common mistake when building a wine cellar is to use an interior door. In fact, only exterior doors are designed to withstand moisture and the elements. So it makes sense to use one here.

Image of a wine cellar door.

Just as important and maybe more so, is to make sure the door is sealed on the sides and top. The bottom of the door frame should have a proper threshold or sill plate. Make sure the door has a sweep/seal on the bottom.

Most exterior doors can be bought "pre-hung" with everything above included, so it's just a matter of installing it in the wall.


Windows should be exterior grade as well, with as high of an R-value as you can get. I've seen where two or more walls are literally built of glass. It makes for a beautiful showpiece, but with that much glass... it can be difficult to maintain the optimal temperature and humidity.

It's also a good idea to use dual-pane glass with argon gas between the panes as this improves the thermal efficiency.

Image of tinted windows.

Another good option when building a wine cellar is to use low-e windows. Windows with low-emissivity coatings are 10%-15% more money but they can reduce the energy loss as much as 30%-50%.

I have them in my home and in the long run they're well worth it.

Tip: Use tinted windows and doors with glass so sunlight or fluorescent light can't enter the cellar. This may not be a concern depending on your cellar's location.

Tip: Use expandable sprayfoam completely around the door and windows to fill all the gaps in the framing. Seal the windows and door with caulking the same as you would on the exterior of your home.

7.   Lighting

Wine should be kept in the dark as much as possible.

Ultraviolet lights (like fluorescent lights) can initiate chemical reactions in your wine over time. Sunlight has even stronger UV-rays and these reactions can take place much quicker. So by using soft incandescent lights or LED lights and blocking any sunlight getting to your cellar, your wine will evolve naturally.

Image of lighthouse with bright lights.

Lights give off heat as well so your cooling system would have to run longer if you leave them on for a long time.

Incandescent lights:

  • give off 90% of their energy as heat
  • give you inefficient energy consumption
  • are slowly being phased out

LED lights:

  • run cooler
  • lots of style of bulbs or tape
  • instant full light
  • don't attract bugs
  • very small amount or no UV-rays

Tip: Use dimmer switches to have the option to dim the lights further in your cellar.

Tip: Use a timer that shuts off your cellar lights after a set period of time.

8.   Cooling Systems

You should pick out a properly sized wine cellar cooling unit before building a wine cellar.

Image of a wine cellar cooling unit.

This way the framing can be done for the unit and the ductwork, if any, along with the windows and doors.

You'll need to know the cubic feet of your cellar before you choose one, because that's how they're rated. Just enter the Height, Width and Length of the room you're going to use into the table below. Then hit calculate to get the total cubic feet... simple.

 Cubic Feet Calculator 
Total:cubic feet

Now when you shop for one of these units you'll already know what size you need.

There are three main types of cooling systems that I explain on my wine cellar cooling units page. Each one is designed for a specific purpose depending on your wine cellar's needs. Be sure to take a look there for some tips before you purchase one.

9.   Security Monitors

It's smart to get a wine cellar monitor for your cellar. These units are cheap, compared with the cost of your wine collection.

Image of two wine cellar monitors.

Sensaphone makes excellent wine cellar monitors. They're super simple to set up and program, so you'll be up and running quickly.

What I like about them is that there are no monthly fees with most of their monitors, the way there is with some other manufacturers' devices.

Depending on the model, their units can notify you by:

  • phone
  • email
  • text message
  • fax
  • SNMP

You can even call the unit yourself and get a status report, or listen in on any activity real-time.

The Sensaphone reads off of "real sensors" and will notify you if:

  • there is ever a power outage (they come with battery back-up)
  • temperature or humidity change
  • smoke alarm notifier
  • water on the cellar floor etc

And, they can be set up to notify multiple people at the same time. So there's no way the alarm will go unnoticed.

You can even be in your own home and not know your cooling unit died. If you have wine on hand in the wine cooler upstairs, it might be a few weeks or more before you take a stroll down to the cellar. Should any problems arise - you'll know about it.

These systems are ideal for vacation home cellars too, as an extra pair of eyes and ears. It takes a long time and a lot of research to build up a cellar with savory wines just the way you like them. A good wine cellar monitor will keep your collection safe.

Also, if you're on a trip half-way around the world, you need to know your wine collection is secure back home. If the phone call or alert comes through on your cellphone, you can send someone over to check it out. Installing one of these cellar security systems when building a wine cellar or refitting an existing one - gives you peace of mind.

10.   Get a Backup Power Generator!

This is likely the most overlooked item for cellars everywhere. For those living in the northern U.S. and Canada you are pretty familiar with power outages over the winter. And the importance of a backup generator.

Image of a backup generator with transfer switch.

Despite technical advancements year after year, mother nature seems to stay one step ahead of us. Blackouts are a common theme now, with all the wacky weather.

  • hurricanes
  • tornadoes
  • flooding
  • drought
  • high winds
  • grid overloading

They all contribute to power outages.

If you're building a wine cellar then it's a good idea to include one of these generators. They'll keep your wine temperature from fluctuating. That's the key to great wine.

You can buy a small genny to power just the wine cellar if you want. But larger generators can be wired directly into your electrical box too, using a kit. If you're not comfortable doing that yourself then you'll need to hire an electrician.

That way when the power goes out, it kicks on automatically and your whole house has power again.

Well worth it.

Once your newly built wine cellar is up and running, it's time to plan what wines to fill it up with! Whether you buy retail wine or make your own, you'll be ready with the proper storage.


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