Monday, May 23, 2011

A comprehensive approach to maintaining the integrity of the contents of a wine cellar in hot-weather environments

Maintaining a wine cellar in a hot-weather environment presents a number of challenges to a wine collector; challenges that have to be recognized and addressed in a timely fashion in order to maintain the integrity of the cellar contents.  I live in Central Florida (hot) and recently had a sphincter-muscle-popping issue with my cellar which led me to exhaustively catalog my vulnerabilities and implement appropriate gap-closing solutions.  In this post I will share my views on the important issues that need to addressed in order to maintain cellar integrity in hot-weather environments.

A demonstration of concern for cellar integrity begins in the design/build phase of the effort.  It is preferable that the cellar be located in a basement (no such animal in Central Florida) or in an inner portion of the house.  If the cellar has to fall along an external wall, west- or south-facing walls should be avoided as they take the brunt of the sun's rays.  While this is good advice, it is not always possible to heed it.  For example, given the orientation of my lot, and the fall of the house on that lot, I was forced to place my cellar against a west-facing wall.  The upshot of this is that the cooling system has to work longer and harder to maintain the cellar at the desired temperature.  I have attempted to mitigate the problem by using the highest available R-value insulation in the ceilings and exterior walls and by planting trees so as to provide both low and high cover for diffusion of the intensity of the sun's rays.

The second piece of advice in this vein is that you build a tomb with a door.  Avoid using any glass in the walls or door (do what I say and not what I did).  Glass may be esthetically pleasing, and allow you to caress your collection with your eyes without opening the door, but it increases system inefficiency, putting additional pressure on the unit's cooling system.  The cellar should keep light out and keep cool air in and a cooled tomb does that effectively.

Once construction is complete, the cellar has to be stocked.  You will stock it with wines that you already own and, over time, with wines that you procure from local and distant sources.  Hopefully the collector is buying wines from reputable suppliers and constantly enquires after provenance.  It would not be fun finding out that you have expended a lot of money and energy amassing and maintaining a cellar of below-par wines.  If you buy wines locally, and take responsibility for transportation between the retail shop and your cellar, do not dally along the way.  In Florida, temperatures in a parked vehicle can climb to the high 90s within a few minutes of parking.  It does not take long to cook wines under those conditions.  If you are having the wine shipped in, ensure that temperatures at the destination is favorable before allowing it to leave the vendor's establishment and choose a suitable shipping option. If possible, the wine should be delivered to a business establishment to avoid an un-airconditioned UPS truck driving around all day with your precious wines in tow.

The watchwords (watch numbers?) in cellar management are 55 (degrees) and 65 (percent humidity) and the resultant environment is considered optimal for the long-term storage of wine.  Just like a good data center, redundancy and contingency plans are keys to maintaining the integrity of the managed environment.  The first link is this chain is maintenance of the desired operating environment.  Cellar owners use either one-piece or split-system chillers to create wine-friendly environments.  The temperature within the cellar should be continuously monitored with a mechanism for providing alerts when the threshold is breached.  Many alarm monitoring companies provide such a service and will call you when the cellar temperature falls outside of the set parameters.  There are a number of devices that monitor cellar temperature and humidity and provide audible, text, or email alerts when temperature/humidity rise above acceptable levels.  I utilize a system called Weather Direct which monitors the temperature with a device installed in my cellar and posts the information to a web site based on a monitoring periodicity that I have established.  Those data are available to me online 24 hours a day.  In addition, I receive email and text alerts in the event of rising temperature.

Rising cellar temperature is generally associated with a cooling system problem and this requires immediate attention.  There are a number of issues to consider here.  If the wines were stored at 55℉, it would take a while without the cooling system for them to be in harms way.  If you have a split system with the condenser housed on the outside, the system will continue to work and will begin to blow the hot outside air into the cellar. 

Two things should be done to address this problem: the cellar should be equipped with a lower-capacity cooling system as a backup unit for just this type of emergency.  This system will not be expected to maintain the environment at 55℉ but it will be expected to maintain a degraded cooling environment in the cellar until full-service is restored.  Secondly, some sort of cut-off switch should be employed to halt the operation of the defective unit and its continued introduction of hot air into the environment.  This system could be as unsophisticated as tripping the breaker that controls the flow of electricity to the unit but should probably be more of an electrical/electronic process.

The last major hurricane in Central Florida left a number of areas without electricity for more than a week.  In addition, Florida is subject to random power outages (lightning strikes, wandering backhoes, etc.), a risky proposition for a collector's wine cellar.  Serious wine collectors will install gas-powered generators to provide a level of protection against the interruption of power to the home and cellar. 

A second hazard in the Florida environment is electrical surges caused by lightning storms or other such anomalies and these events can wreak havoc with electrical equipment such as condenser units.  Progress Energy sells a service called Residential Surge Protection which is aimed at protecting large-sized electrical equipment from the effects of surges.  If you live in an environment that is prone to electrical surges, such protection should be considered.

 The final safety measure for the collector to consider is insurance.  Wine, as is the case for any other valuable, should be insured against loss.  Some insurance companies will not offer insurance coverage for wine collections in Florida (based on the hurricane threat in the region) but will do so in other states.  The company will insure the contents of your home, however, and this provides a path to insuring your wines as household contents.  Regardless of the procurement mechanism, the contents of your cellar should be insured.

Here's to wine integrity.