Hanging above the entrance at London private members’ club Annabel’s is an original portrait of Picasso’s lover Marie-Thérèse Walter, painted by the artist in 1937. Rather than keeping it safely under lock and key at home, the club’s already self-assured owner, Richard Caring, wanted his impressive acquisition to be on display for all to see, allowing members the chance to enjoy the painting up close, while sending out a strong message about his social standing.
A similar trend is taking root in fine wine circles, where people no longer want to squirrel their bottles away in cobweb-filled subterranean cellars. Instead, they want their liquid treasures on display for all to see. The difference here is that it’s happening in the home. Once upon a time, the ultimate status symbol may have been a swimming pool or a tennis court. Today it’s a walk-in wine room.
Advances in technology mean it’s now possible to create wine storage spaces in all sorts of weird and wonderful places, from downstairs loos to disused lift shafts. As a result, people are shunning underground wine cellars in favour of ultra-modern above-ground spaces that serve as snazzy showrooms for cracking collections.
The trend for converting underused spaces into cutting-edge wine rooms exploded during the pandemic, as housebound City execs sought to create wine’s answer to the walk-in wardrobe. ‘It’s the equivalent of having a Ferrari in the driveway; a bespoke wine space says something about you and the image you want to convey,’ says Mark Dickens, one half of the British couple behind Spiral Cellars. ‘Brits used to think that showing off was vulgar, but now people want to proudly present their collections.’
Things have changed dramatically since Dickens’s now wife Lucy Hargreaves bought Spiral Cellars in 2004. Back then, the bulk of commissions was cellars beneath garages accessed via trapdoors. Hargreaves says the thirst for above-ground wine rooms originated in the US and has migrated across the Atlantic. It’s a trend that shows no sign of slowing in America, where wine rooms with the wow factor often feature in the architectural plans for homes that have been bought on spec by developers to add to their appeal.
Christopher Noel, owner of US-based Vintage Cellars, has designed wine spaces for multimillion dollar homes that have appeared on Netflix hit Selling Sunset. ‘We used to work a lot with people with large wine collections. Today we’re getting commissions from people who are newer to wine, based around the collections they’re planning on building up,’ he says. ‘We can design for the wow factor while maintaining the proper humidity – and the visual element is really important now. People want their wine to look pretty.’
While aesthetics are a top priority for clients, creating the perfect environment is paramount if bottles are to remain in pristine condition, with everything from lighting and temperature to air quality taken into account. ‘It’s about making the best of the space you have available to you,’ says Tim Lewis of Sorrells, which has designed show-stopping wine spaces for royalty, financiers, celebrities and high-end hotels.
‘A lot of wines are associated with happy memories, so collectors want to be able to see them rather than hiding them in a cubby hole.’ Business began booming for Sorrells during the pandemic, as customers looked to recreate the restaurant experience at home. ‘A lot of collectors are asking to have their large-format bottles on display to draw people into the space,’ says Lewis, who offers his top clients virtual-reality tours of a space before the construction work begins.
An important consideration when designing a bespoke storage solution is how the space is going to be used, and whether it needs to work simply as a storage unit or also function as an entertainment space. ‘Tasting areas within wine spaces are becoming popular, but we encourage people to have their wine room close to their entertainment area rather than being part of it, because it’s no fun shivering in a 12°C room,’ says Dickens.
A lot of wines are associated with happy memories, so collectors want to be able to see them rather than hiding them in a cubby hole
For those contemplating a wine room of their own, working with a specialist is recommended. ‘We have a number of calls each year from people who relied on their joiner and builder to oversee the work and have ended up having serious issues with condensation and a lack of functionality,’ warns Andrew Speer, founder of London-based bespoke storage specialist Cellar Maison, who advises against building wine spaces in sunny, south-facing rooms, which may cause temperature-control issues and UV light damage. ‘Many of our serious collectors who invest in wine keep most of their bottles in a bonded warehouse and have the wines that are reaching their optimum drinking age delivered to their home cellar,’ he adds.
The cost of these projects can vary dramatically, depending on the space available, the number of wines needing to be stored and the scale of the prototyping involved. Anything – from downstairs shower rooms and under-stairs cupboards, to neglected indoor swimming pools – can be transformed, with bottle numbers ranging from 40 to 40,000 and costs starting at around the £10,000 mark and going up to as much as £10 million.
It helps if clients are realistic about what can be achieved in the space available. Sorrells’s Lewis has found storage solutions for yachts particularly challenging, since small spaces and big egos make for a potent mix. ‘I had one client who wanted his wine displayed in a clear glass box in the middle of his yacht’s dining area, which I told him wouldn’t work, but he seemed to care more about the aesthetics than the practicalities of temperature control. There was no way we could create what he wanted within that design specification, but we managed to reconfigure it to make it work,’ he says.
Smaller doesn’t always mean more affordable, however. ‘Some of our most expensive commissions have been for smaller amounts of bottles,’ says Hargreaves of Spiral Cellars. ‘We’ve designed a £60,000 space for 24 bottles, and a £300,000 area for 60 bottles. These types of projects are for people who want to show o their best bottles like works of art, and have their capacity storage elsewhere.’ It’s not unusual at the top end, she adds, to never meet the client or even know who they are, with staff making the decisions for them.
Hargreaves has designed wine rooms for royalty, heads of state, chef Delia Smith and Superman himself (actor Henry Cavill). Among her more outlandish commissions are a Skyfall-themed wine space in a ski chalet, one incorporating a Fabergé egg collection and another where the owner wanted to age his prime cuts alongside the wine. Speer of Cellar Maison, meanwhile, is particularly proud of his mechanical design for a luxury residential space in London’s Fulham. It featured bottles attached to giant chains that move around a carousel at the crank of a handle while remaining horizontal, which required precision engineering and several prototypes.
Cellaring specialists are now designing multipurpose lifestyle spaces that cater to their clients’ every need
As for aesthetics, mixing materials and contrasting textures is currently in vogue. ‘A lot of people are seeking to contrast dark wood with metal and brass detailing. They’re getting a bit bored of oak and are asking for dark-stained ash instead,’ says Dickens. For Dale Leigh eld of Demada Custom Wine Cellars in Wales, it’s all about making an impact. ‘No matter the size of the space, people want their storage to have the wow factor, which we achieve through a mixture of wood, glass, acrylic and steel, along with angled shelving for people to display their best bottles,’ he says. While black walnut and natural textures are proving popular in the UK, in the US, white oak and LED lights are having a moment.
The UK market for bespoke wine spaces is broadening as more women and younger collectors get into the game, and the target audience moves beyond the traditional hot spots of London, the Home Counties and the Cotswolds. ‘Women are in the driving seat a lot more now when it comes to the look of these spaces, and they often work in collaboration with an interior designer to get the landscaping right,’ says Hargreaves. ‘We’re dealing with a much younger audience these days: we’ve just taken on a project for a 19-year-old YouTuber.’ Other requests have come from as far a eld as the Middle East, where wine rooms are referred to as ‘zones for special water’ in the planning permission.
Lewis, meanwhile, is keen to grow Sorrells’s presence in the US, where he’s recently opened offices in Florida and Texas to serve increased demand. ‘The demand for our services in America is insane right now as they love the level of craftsmanship we’re able to o er, and the fact that everything is done in-house,’ he says.
From fashioning furniture out of old wine barrels to factoring in cigar collections, cellaring specialists are designing multipurpose lifestyle spaces that cater to their clients’ every need. As Lewis points out, ‘People don’t just want cellars now, they want to create entertainment areas where they can share their wines with family and friends. Why spend four times the retail price on a bottle of wine at a restaurant when you can have a similar experience at home and you’re guaranteed a table?’