Best cellars: Wine storage rises to the occasion

Inside the 1905 Arts and Crafts-style house that Tony Foreman shares with wife Katie and their newborn daughter in Northeast Baltimore, the mood is festive in anticipation of New Year's celebrations. Downstairs in the wine cellar, some 5,000 bottles are just waiting to be opened for toasts.

"It's an awful lot of fun to come down and find your favorite," says the president and wine director of Foreman Wolf, the restaurant group he co-founded with chef Cindy Wolf. Their brand includes five restaurants (with a sixth scheduled to open soon) and two wine stores around Maryland.

"This cellar is not fancy," Foreman says as he enters a small basement room with concrete floors and rough limestone walls. "It's built for storage and not as much for display."

Still, Foreman's cellar — kept cool, humid and insulated to protect its perishable products — is the stuff of a wine connoisseur's dream.

Custom-built wood shelves and bins hold wines from Italy, Spain, South Africa, New Zealand and other spots across the world. Standouts include a pricey red wine produced in the Rhone Valley of France, a rare magnum of Riesling from Austria and golden champagnes.

The wines are carefully stacked and semi-organized, some peeking from recycled packing crates and even old metal wash sinks. Simple hanging light fixtures softly illuminate the liquid gems.

"Each bottle is different," says Foreman, a trained chef and sommelier, who honed his wine expertise in France. "They each hold little surprises."

For the serious oenophile, wine cellars remain a time-honored method of showcasing one's collection. Yet for wine lovers who don't want to go that route, experts say a bevy of options exist for storing those precious pinots and merlots.

Al Spoler, who co-hosts the radio program "Cellar Notes" with Hugh Sisson on WYPR, recalls his first wine cellar in the communal basement of a Bolton Hill apartment he rented years ago. "The landlord let me store wine," he says. "Back then, I had about 80 bottles."

Today, he's graduated to a custom cellar in his 1920s Baltimore rowhouse, which is part of his "man cave." It was built by two contractors who have done other projects around his house.

"It's strictly storage, but it looks nice," Spoler says, describing four large "modified bookshelves," complete with "individual cubbies," that hold about 650 bottles. The cellar has dimmable lights and is carpeted, he adds.

Spoler has a collection of bargain and special-label wines that include several from Maryland vineyards. He pops down to his cellar about twice a week to select something for dinner or special occasions.

"Anyone serious about wine wants to build a cellar at some point," he says, adding that it doesn't have to cost much. "You can pay a lot of money to have a cellar built, but anyone with a basement can pretty much build their own."

A number of companies on the market sell pre-built wine cabinets and similar furniture, but some pros insist there's nothing like the personal touch.

"I do very custom, one-of-a-kind work," says Bill Hergenroeder, a custom woodworker who owns Springwood Construction Inc. in Cockeysville.

He built Foreman's personal cellar, has done work in several of his restaurants and counts other area dining establishments as clients. "Nothing is prefab."

Mark Sanders, vice president of Pyramid Builders in Annapolis, says his staff also takes pride in its custom home projects, which include wine cellars and wine rooms in different parts of the house.

"We have an onsite woodworking shop with carpenters plus other craftsmen," says Sanders. "I'd say we've done four or five of them in the past few years."

Hergenroeder and Sanders said the cost of a wine cellar is open-ended, depending on size and scope.

"They can become quite expensive," Sanders says.