Cellar Dweller

Housing fine wine requires the same attention to detail as selecting a premium bottle

When Ronnie Randall was house shopping two years ago, he knew a purchase wouldn't be made without the wine cellar of his dreams a part of the equation. His previous home featured a cellar for his collection that now numbers around 3,000 bottles, but the space wasn't high enough for the seven-foot diamond shelves Randall envisioned. (Each "diamond" compartment in these shelves can hold a full case — 12 bottles — of wine.)

When Randall finally discovered the right house — partially constructed — he took it upon himself to design and oversee that dream cellar. The result is a 15-by-15-foot chamber ironically on the second floor of Randall's new home (above a garage). Cooled year-round to 55 degrees by an air-conditioning unit designed specifically for intense use in a wine cellar, the room is as pleasing to the eye as its contents are to the palate.

Two walls are filled with the diamond shelves, including one section of larger racks to accommodate close to 100 magnum bottles (twice the size of a regular bottle) in Randall's collection. The wall opposite the room's entrance is home to Randall's 100-point wines, ranked as "perfect" by wine critic Robert Parker. Two horizontal racks along this wall flank a "waterfall" unit. (Smaller racks, built to hold individual bottles, descend from a height of about seven feet to four feet, thus the descriptive name for a rack that holds 400 bottles.) Each bottle — or a vertical section — is tagged with its vintage, with one collection going back annually to 1979. Randall spares no detail in his presentation, devoting one section to premium French wines, another to wines from California, and yet another to a relatively new region on an oenophile's map: Australia. "Australia has come on like gang-busters," says Randall. "They've started making some of the best Shiraz ever."

The room was completed in no more than a month, including the week it took to install the cypress shelves, which were custom-built by Ron Scott of Scott's Antiques and Woodworking. "We used cypress," explains Scott, "because it holds up well to moisture, and it's 70-percent humidity in the room. There's also no finish, because the chemicals used for a finish can give off gases that get in the cork and spoil the wine."

The floor is slate, and the ceiling peaks at 13 feet, where a 750-watt heater radiates the room during the rare winter days when 55 degrees is warmer than the air outside. (Randall points out that his wine room has twice the insulation of a typical house, trapping that cool air during a Memphis summer — even on a second floor — unlike most interiors will. He has a remote system that alerts him if the temperature varies more than five degrees.) Randall estimates the room cost $40,000, a small fraction of the value of its contents.

A pair of small cabinets store various necessities (glasses, gift bags, etc.), with a central table for spontaneous, on-site tastings. You won't find any wine in the cabinets, which is precisely the point of a good wine cellar. The idea is for the inventory to be visible.

Randall's wine room — just beyond a game room enjoyed by his children and grandchildren — is locked with a coded keypad, but has less to do with conventional security than you might think. "If I can't get it open," quips Randall, "I know I've had too much wine."

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