The Ultimate Strategy for Choosing the Best Wine Cellar Contractor for Your Home

choosing the best wine cellar contractor

A cellar contractor can help you build a custom wine cellar capable of holding all of your bottles safely. Image source: Wikimedia CC user Jorge Royan

If you’re considering building your own wine cellar from scratch, you’ve already made the move from a beginning wine collector to a serious wine speculator. That’s because building a home wine cellar is a huge investment that only the most serious collectors should consider. The cost of most home wine cellars runs anywhere from $20-$30 per bottle, and this cost doesn’t include extra fees for high-quality building materials like marble or additional decor. If you own about 2,000 bottles of wine, you should expect to pay at least $40,000 to build a wine cellar from scratch, and for high-end cellar models, you might pay closer to $60,000. Some fine wine collectors spend as much as $400,000 on custom wine cellars. This cost is worth it if you have the kind of collection that needs state-of-the-art protection; why invest in vintage Latour if you’re not going to store it properly? However, if you choose the wrong wine cellar contractor for the job, this money will go to waste.

Before You Hire a Contractor, Consider the Risks

Personally, I’ve never built my own wine cellar at home because I’ve always had Vinfolio’s safe, temperature-controlled warehouse available. I keep a handful of bottles at home in my wine fridge; I ship any bottles that require aging directly to Vinfolio’s warehouse, which makes it easier for me to focus on buying wines, rather than storing the ones I already own. Even if you hire someone who seems like the perfect wine cellar contractor for the job, if one minor problem arises during the build, you risk spoiling your entire collection.

Home wine cellars in general come with a long list of potential issues, including unexpected maintenance costs, poor control over temperature and humidity, limited space, and general disarray. For all of these reasons, I recommend that serious collectors invest their money in high-quality third party storage like Vinfolio, rather than going through the headache of building their own home cellars. However, if you understand these risks and still love the idea of having your own cellar at home, you should consider building a smaller cellar to start, then slowly adding to it as your collection grows. When you have a small home cellar, your storage is limited to a small number of bottles, which means that if something goes wrong with your cellar, you’ve only put a small number of bottles at risk. You’re also investing less initially in a small cellar, meaning that if you choose to get rid of your cellar years later, you’ll experience less of a financial loss.

Look at Your Contractor’s Portfolio

Once you’ve decided that you’re completely sold on having your own home wine cellar, you’re probably wondering how to go about choosing the best wine cellar contractor for your project. First, stay within your network of wine peers, asking them which contractors, if any, they’ve used to build their own cellars. Do you know someone who has a gorgeous wine cellar that you admire? Ask them which contractor they used. Not all of us have friends with wine cellars, but that doesn’t mean you’re stuck gambling on a random name from the phonebook. Instead, gather a list of names and contact information from trusted contractor websites. Next, research your state’s contractor licensing rules, and ask all of the contractors on your list whether they are compliant with the current state laws. Next, find your contractor’s information under the Better Business Bureau; does the contractor have any complaints filed against him? If so, research what happened. Not all complaints call for immediate disqualification from the running, but they should be noted and carefully considered.

Finally, once you’ve verified that your contractor is legal to work and has a clean record, you should ask to see the contractor’s portfolio. Cellar contractor John Seitz says that if your prospective contractor has never worked with a temperature-controlled room before, you should immediately drop them from your list. All qualified wine cellar contractors should have worked on at least one temperature-controlled room in the past, even if that room is not a wine cellar. Ideally, you’ll find a contractor who has built a wine cellar before, but as long as he has a comprehensive understanding of temperature-controlled rooms, he is likely qualified for the job. Ask your potential contractors if they have references for their past clients. How satisfied were these clients? Customer reviews can give you a decent sense of how your own cellar will turn out if you choose that contractor.

Test Your Contractor’s Wine Knowledge

John Seitz has been a wine cellar contractor for more than 18 years, and he explains that collectors should do detailed research into what it takes to build a cellar from scratch, and feel comfortable quizzing their contractor candidates on this information. Never take “I don’t know,” or, “I would need to get back to you on that,” for acceptable answers when you seek out a cellar contractor. Every qualified contractor should know the answers to the following questions off the top of their heads.

First, ask what kind of walls the contractor would use, and what paint is best for your cellar. Good contractors will tell you that the walls should be made of greenboard, real stones, or brick, and that paint should always be water-based and odorless. Next, ask them what kind of lights they plan on installing. Their answer should be “LED only,” as this lighting doesn’t produce heat.  Next, ask them what kind of flooring they would install. If they answer, “carpet,” drop them from the running. Only hardwood floors, made of wood, stone, or marble, should be used in a cellar. Finally, ask them what kind of door they would use. Their answer should be either insulated glass, or an exterior door with weather-stripping.

Your contractor doesn’t have to know how much a bottle of Margaux is worth on the market, but it helps if he at least has a working knowledge of wines. Cellar contractors who know something about the wine itself are more likely to understand why safety is so important for your bottles, and that this trumps aesthetics every time.

Ruthlessly Negotiate Your Bids

Once you’ve determined that your prospective contractors are qualified, you’ll need to be a fierce negotiator if you want to get the best deal for your wine cellar. Get at least three estimates from qualified contractors before you begin negotiations. After you receive estimates from your contractors, go for the lowest bid, but hold off on immediately signing a contract. First, look at the estimates as a group. Is one contractor estimating a far lower cost than the others? If so, ask them to explain what they’re including in their estimate, and make sure that they’re accounting for the same costs as the other contractors. Remember, if a bid sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

You’ve already verified that all of your potential contractors are qualified, so this step is purely about the economics of your cellar. Stick within a tight budget, and try to negotiate this budget with your contractor. When your contractor asks for a down payment, keep it at either $1,000 or at 10 percent of the total cost of the job (whichever amount is less). After this, you can sign a contract, but make sure that you include a clause which states that you have three days to back out of the contract, should you choose to do so. This gives you time to think about the terms of the contract and the price, and prevents the contractor from taking advantage of you during the negotiation process. Before your contractor gets to work, update your home liability insurance, and ask for a copy of your contractor’s insurance as well. Check in on your cellar’s progress at least once per week until it is finished, and only make the final payment when you have fully inspected the completed cellar.

Additionally, you can have one of Vinfolio’s experts analyze your new home cellar after it’s complete, providing you tips on how to organize it and make the most out of the space. One your cellar is complete, you should upload your bottles into the VinCellar app to ensure that your cellar stays organized, and that you never lose bottles in your new space.

Whether you are starting your high-end wine collection or adding to an established portfolio, Vinfolio is your partner in buying, selling, and professional storage. Contact us today to get access to the world’s best wine.

Image source: By © Jorge Royan / http://www.royan.com.ar, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15102850

With over a decade of experience in the wine industry, Derek Cienfuegos serves as Director of Collector Services at Vinfolio. During his tenure at Vinfolio, he has had the good fortune to work with some of the most distinguished wine collections in the country. Trained in wine production, Derek spent many years making wines commercially for some of Sonoma’s top producers. In addition, he has designed, opened, and managed two wine bars in San Francisco.