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Cellar to Center Stage

From the Cellar

to Center Stage

When you hear the phrase, “The Good Life,” two of the first things that come to mind are undoubtedly fine wines and premium cigars. As more Americans are making allowances in their schedules and budgets to enjoy these finer things, small industries are being created to supply the necessary (and not-so-necessary) accoutrements.

Connoisseurs and consumers know that wine and cigars are more than just the sum of their ingredients. To make a Lafite-Rothschild wine or a Churchill cigar a luxurious treasure unto itself requires the expertise of artisans and the timeless traditions of the lands on which they’re produced. The same happens to be true of the wine racks, wine cellars, wine cabinets and cigar humidors and cutters that go along with them.

Out of the Basement

A wine cellar was once a basement nook or side room that was used purely for storing racks of bottles. A visitor to a home or a customer at a restaurant would normally only see the wine cellar if they took a wrong turn looking for the restroom or were snooping for the skeleton closet.

"The wine racks are done in African mahogany. Wine cellars must be kept fairly humid and cool, and most species of wood don't hold up well in those conditions. The mahogany from Africa and the Philippines holds us as well as redwood, but gives the added advantage of taking stains well."
John Bartz, Grotto Custom Wine Cellars

“There’s a trend in upscale hotels of creating these really high-end wine-cellar tasting rooms, and they’re not just storing the wine there,” says John Bartz of Grotto Custom Wine Cellars in Aliso Creek, California. “They are actually very well-appointed places where people can relax before or after dinner.

“The Ritz Carlton in Laguna Niguel, just south of L.A., recently completed a wine, cheese and chocolate bar called Enology. They make you believe you’re actually in a wine cellar. It’s a truly high-end experience, which is what you’d expect when you’re paying $30 or more for a glass of wine. “The wine racks there are done in African mahogany, which is a fairly new species for us but has really taken off. The standard for wine cellars used to be redwood, and still is, because it easily resists mold and mildew. Wine cellars must be kept fairly humid and cool, and most species of wood don’t hold up well in those conditions. The mahogany we get from Africa and the Philippines holds up as well as redwood, but gives us the added advantage of taking stains well.

“Redwood doesn’t take stain or lacquer very well, so it can never really look like a piece of fine, finished furniture. We can stain, lacquer and sand the mahogany, and it looks very nice. It’s really a beautiful wood.” Bartz likens the trend toward finer wines and the explosion in tasting rooms and cellars to the cigar and cigar bar boom of a dozen years ago.

“Wine is hot right now, and liquor store owners want to create special wine areas in their stores both for displaying wine and hosting tastings. The cellar trend is also taking root in homes, and they’re as much of a showpiece as they are practical storage. More high-end builders want to put wine cellars in their ‘spec’ homes, and many buyers want the cellar completed before they take the keys. “In the past, you really never took your friends or family into a basement wine cellar to show it off. Nowadays, it’s becoming more of a showpiece for the home. We’re also starting to see more wine ‘cellars’ on the living floors of a home. The big selling point for mahogany, again, is that you can give it more of a formal furniture finish, which people like. Redwood looks too casual for many who want to show off their cellars. Because we’re a custom business, we’ll match whatever the customer wants, and many are opting for mahogany.”

Grotto also sells wine racking kits and a modular cellar package, which are also offered in mahogany. “I talk to a lot of architects and designers, and this trend is very hot right now,” says Bartz. “We’re happy to be on the leading edge of it.”

A Place to Entertain

“Designers will try to not just fill rooms full of racks, but to complement the racks with other elements – wood floors and paneling on the ceiling and walls,” says Stephen DelDuca of Wine Enthusiast Custom Cellars.

Wine Enthusiast Custom Cellars (a division of the same company that publishes the magazine) also uses several species of mahogany for their projects, including Honduran mahogany and some less-expensive Southeast Asian species. “They’re just as impervious to the dampness and are resistant to warping, splitting, mold and mildew,” says DelDuca. We use mahogany for the construction of the racking, posts, rails, trim, and mouldings, and we glue it up for the diamond bins.”

As the trend expands, customers are asking to see more wood species options and challenging their designers to think outside of a ‘box in the basement.’ “A lot of residential cellars have become fun places for entertaining. Customers go through a lot of time and trouble designing a certain feel and ambience that they want to project, something that might remind them of a trip they may have taken to Tuscany or to Bordeaux. In fact, many want that rustic European kind of look.”

“We can do specific pieces of art to make that wine cellar all yours,” says Wine Enthusiast’s Hank Rosen. “Stained glass, paintings of what they might envision their own vineyards would look like, elegant wooden entrances, these are all things we’ve done for our customers. It’s become an entertainment venue and a lifestyle statement.” “It’s important to have several species to work with,” says DelDuca. “We’re currently investigating sapele because of its nice red color, and it has the same characteristics as mahogany. Having redwood everywhere in a cellar makes you feel like you’re locked in a cigar humidor with a little light bulb overhead.”

For many of its cellar projects, Wine Enthusiast also uses imported plywood made from species like lauan or meranti. “These types of plywood hold up very well in the high humidity of a wine cellar,” says DelDuca. “We use plywood with finish-grade veneers to give customers the same beautiful mahogany look as the other components in their cellar. The uniform finish and grain of these panels adds a lot to the elegance of the finished project.”

Aromatic Accessories

If you’re the type that likes a nice cigar with your after-dinner glass of wine, you need not leave the company of rich imported woods. Xikar Inc. designed a double guillotine cigar cutter that became the industry leader just as the aforementioned cigar craze caught fire. The Kansas City company quickly augmented its line with gentlemen’s folding pocket knives, a move that opened their eyes to the appeal of the use of exotic woods on these upscale accessories.

“We originally started with zebrawood, beechwood and redwood, which are much more common species,” says product designer Scott Almsberger, who is also a co-owner and vice president of Xikar. “These three look completely different, so when we decided to expand our offering, we tried to find three other woods that would also easily differentiate themselves.

“We chose bocote, a particularly fine, beautiful wood with colors varying from light to golden brown with irregular markings; cocobolo, a uniquely figured and highly-prized wood that ranges from a beautiful rich dark brick red to reddish or dark brown; and amboina burl, which can vary in color from yellow to golden brown to red and is figured with lots of captivating swirls.

“These woods really appeal to the kind of customer who is familiar with the fine woods that pipes are carved from,” says Almsberger. “As demand for our wood-handled cigar cutters grew, we happened upon the idea of offering stylish humidors in matching exotic species. This is really a pretty small industry, so it didn’t take long to find a humidor maker to build these for us.”

Acceptance has been strong, and Xikar now is exploring expanding their family of products to include wooden cigar cases and money clips in matching woods. Almsberger also says he would like to expand the woods offered by one new species a year. “From what we’ve found, exotic wood really plays an important role in appealing to our customer base,” says Almsberger. “The old motto, ‘wood is good,’ really works.”

Where to Buy Imported Wood: Search IWPA's Directory for wood suppliers, species, products or service providers.
Wood Species Library: Technical data sheets on domestic, imported, and lesser-known wood species from the U.S. Forest Products Lab.

Copyright© 2007 by the International Wood Products Association. Published by Bedford Falls Communications, Inc. and circulated to an audience of 20,000 architects, designers, distributors, manufacturers, and users of imported wood products in North America.

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