Wine Cellars for Apartment Dwellers!

Jeremiah, the bullfrog, had retired (obviously) by the time Don Henley, Glenn Frey and friends checked into the Hotel California. Fortunately, for us, it was all just a musical mirage. Bullfrogs don’t collect wine for Danny Hutton and the State of California has quite a few bottles available.

All joking aside, having wine available for dinner parties, a special romantic evening, or just an evening with a DVD, popcorn, and wine with that special someone requires a little planning. Of course, you can always run out to a store to buy a bottle, but that only works in populated urban cities. In suburban or rural environments (or even in late night urban settings) having a few bottles on hand works much better.

But, I live in a small apartment! You say. I don’t have the room for a cellar, and the apartment is either too hot or too cold to store wine. What do I do? Get yourself a small temperature controlled wine cellar. These are essentially small beverage refrigerators with either one or two temperature zones. Since red wines should be stored at temperatures in the range of 52ºF – 65ºF, and white wines in the 45ºF- 50ºF range. These units do not need to be as powerful as your kitchen refrigerator, which must keep food below 40°F. Typically, this means the ambient temperature within the refrigerated section is ideally between 34°F and 40°F.

What are Small Cellars?

Wine Bottles in Rack

Wine Bottles in Rack

Small wine cellars come in capacities from 6 bottles to about 48 bottles. Capacities between 50 and 100 hundred bottles can be considered medium sized cellars, requiring some serious room to keep and some serious dollars to acquire. Full size cellars with a capacity for 100+ bottles, are refrigerator/freezer sized appliances, with some as large as walk in closets. These cost thousands of dollars and are beyond the scope of this article. Returning to the small cellars with 6 to 48 bottle capacities, these will cost from around $100.00 (one hundred dollars US) at the low end to around $1,500.00 (fifteen hundred dollars US) at the 2 zone high end; unless custom, built-in installation is desired.

Many small wine cellars are energy efficient and should cost from $ 25 to $50 a year to run constantly. Actual cost will depend on make, model, and your cost for electricity. Small wine cellars will fit under counters, or bars or other tables (excluding end tables, coffee tables, etc.). My point is that most of us can find room for a small unit. If you are looking at a 12 bottle or fewer capacity unit, fill it with whatever you like. The low capacity does not require long term planning. Also, these are more than likely, one-zone cellars – meaning that the ambient internal temperature is uniform for the entire interior.

Wine & Blue Cheese

Wine & Blue Cheese

Two zone cellars usually offer a larger red wine zone and a smaller white wine zone. I have a 48-bottle cellar that I keep under my bar. It is a two zone Avanti with a 32 bottle red zone and a 12 bottle white zone. If you are planning to invest in a wine cellar, go as big as is convenient for you. As this article is directed at apartment dwellers, I will assume two things. First, that you prefer an on-premise rather than an off-premise solution. In larger cities, an off-premise solution may prove as inconvenient as a visit to the local store. Typically, the individuals who store large quantities of wine off-premise are the same who can afford the large capacity cellars and opt for a better solution. Again, large volume wine storage is not the scope of this article. My second assumption is that you are probably unwilling to give up precious closet space to erect a wine cellar.

Which wine cellar to buy? The choices are as endless as with any other major appliance. Some of the top brands include Avanti, Danby, Eurocave, Edge Star, Haier, Le Cache, Marvel, Summit, U-Line, Viking, Vinotemp and Wine Enthusiast. Electrolux and GE Profile are latecomers to the game, but they apparently have substantive product offerings, as they are numbers 1 and 3 respectfully on the Consumers Report Ratings list.

The features to look for in a wine cellar are:

  • Temperature Performance: does the unit keep the zone with the proscribe temperature settings. If not you may be in for some very expensive vinegar.
  • Reliability: is the unit well made? Is the motor powerful enough to run continuously for several years?
  • Noise: does it run quietly or at least within an acceptable white noise range? Remember, very few machines run silently. Even my backup power supply occasionally makes noise.
  • Aesthetics: Will the unit fit into your décor or will it stand out like a white elephant? It probably makes sense to have it fit in so that it goes un-noticed.
  • Flexibility: Less likely available on units this size, or will come at a premium, but, are the temperature configurable?

Stocking Your Cellar

Case of Various Wines

Case of Various Wines

You have selected a cellar, arranged for delivery and decided on a place to put it. Now the big question, how will you stock in it? First, the question is aimed to those with a 32-48 bottle capacity cellar. There is no single answer to that question, as it depends on several factors. What is your lifestyle? Do you entertain frequently? Do you have wine with every meal? How often do you drink wine in lieu of a cocktail? Do you plan for future events? Or, do you live minute to minute? And, certainly neither last nor least, the kind of wines you like. As you answer these questions, you will decide what wines you should have.

If I may, I would like to make a couple of suggestions, particularly if you are an entertainer. I have been told that some of these suggestions date me. That may be true but first, there are plenty of us around and second, not only young people drink wine or live in apartments. Many of old fogies retire to apartments.

Other of these suggestions reflects my thinking like a chef, which is convenient since my posts are written primarily for those who are interested in cooking.

  • Have three bottles of sherry on hand; one dry for drinking, one for cooking, and a cream sherry available to serve as an aperitif. Sherry as aperitifs may be old school, which I’m from, thank you; but in consideration of the younger folk, stock a Moscato or rosé, if you prefer.
  • Always have a good port and good Madeira available. You can’t always plan for the events or meals that may call them into service. (A friend brings you a rare camembert or Brillat Savarin, or even a really, really, great cigar)
  • Always reserve one or two of the white wine slots for good sparkling wine; Champagne, if you drink it, or one of the many other sparkling options, if you don’t.

If you are a planner like me, the next section will provide a glimpse into my 48-bottle wine cellar. Some of my thinking may help you make some decisions. If you are not a planner, or could care less how I think, feel completely free to ignore this section.

Mike's Cellar

Mike’s Cellar

My cellar is a two-zone Avanti, as I mentioned earlier. I can store 32 bottles of red on 4 shelves and 16 bottles of white on the 2 lowest shelves. I generally lose one bottle of capacity to the two bottles of Bollinger’s I generally keep on hand.

My top shelf is reserved for my Sherries, Ports, Madeira, and any other dessert wines I may have. Any leftover space is devoted to 2nd shelf spill-overs. My 2nd shelf is used for Californian, Australian, Chilean, and New Zealand wines. These second shelf wines are usually my first choice for cooking, and I want to minimize the exposure of the more precious wines stored below.

My 3rd shelf is reserved for Spanish and Italian wines – I have a weakness for Rioja, and Barolo. Occasionally, I can afford to add a Barbaresco, a premium Piedmont. Since I entertain, I usually buy at least two bottles of any wine. Any room of the 3rd shelf is used for lesser French imports. The 4th shelf is reserved for vintage estate bottled French wines, these currently include Pauillac, Pomerol, Cabernet Sauvignon and Médoc.

Vitage Wines on Red Background

Vitage Wines on Red Background

This arrangement works for me because I tend to keep my vintage wines for a longer time-period. I have purchased vintage wine that needed additional maturing in the bottle. I also hold my most expensive acquisitions for special occasions. I find that keeping them closer to the center of the cellar provides a more stable holding temperature when retrieving frequently swapped bottles in the upper two or three shelves.

My white wines are more simply selected. Unless I have a need for a specific white wine for a meal or recipe, I will stock Napa Valley Chardonnay, Sonoma Fumé Blanc, Saar Riesling, French Sauternes and Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc. And on occasion a bottle of Prosecco (an extra dry Spumante from Veneto, Italy).

Because of the size of a magnum and the layout of the cellar, I must keep my Champagne on the bottom shelf. For ease of access, I keep the more frequently used Rieslings and Sauvignon Blanc on the upper of the two shelves, as I use these white wines mostly for cooking.

Wine & Cheddar Cheese

Wine & Cheddar Cheese

I enjoy these wines; they fit my lifestyle and complement the food I like to serve my guests. I seldom drink wine in lieu of a cocktail, but I have been known to buy a half-pound of imported English aged Cheddar, some English biscuits and polish off a half bottle of Cabernet or Borolo. I do know that cheddar pairs better with a good port, but sometimes I just don’t want to open an expensive port and let it sit for a few days. As I mentioned, gone are the days when I finish a bottle of wine by myself.


Love, laugh, cook and enjoy!

About the Author

Michael Farnum

Profile photo of Michael Farnum

I have spent the better half of five decades honing my culinary interest and developing my gastronomical palate, such as it is. I began this journey when I was 10, much to my Dad’s concern for his grocery bills. As a Letter Carrier with a wife and two kids, he could ill afford my experimentation. He finally relented and began teaching me the fundamentals he learned as a navy cook and from a Southern family he befriended after he migrated from Trinidad after the war (WWII). By my junior year in high school I was preparing family dinners, since I usually got home before them. I have a particular fondness for French, Creole, and Trinidadian cuisines; and I attended the French Culinary Institute, later in life. In addition, I am a member of both The American Culinary Federation and the James Beard Foundation. In semi-retirement from an Information Technology career, I am now developing a food trade business with designer marinades and sauces, specialty jams & jellies and other goodies under the Menu by Mike label.