What’s in a wine fridge? Well, wine, naturally. But how does one make a decision on whether to buy a standalone cooler or shell out big bucks on a tricked-out, built-in wine storage system? There are a lot of things to consider about size, scale and quality – not to mention price – when it comes to properly storing your precious vino. Here is some great information to guide your decision.

The California Wine Club

For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.

Wine Coolers versus Wine Storage Systems

First off, let’s start with the difference between a wine cooler and a wine storage system.  A cooler is usually the stand-alone or built-in “fridge” we often see in people’s homes or apartments.

According to Paul Leuthe at Sub-Zero, these are really just glorified refrigerators, which is fine if all you want to do is chill wine. But remember, different wines need different temps – at least between reds and whites – to really bring out their full flavor. Chilling a Chardonnay to death is actually overkill and all you will taste is cold.  Top quality wine storage systems do much more. They control humidity and light and are essential if you want to age wines or have expensive wines that need to be served at optimum conditions.  A wine cooler is fine if are just buying and drinking wines that are moderately priced and meant for immediate consumption.

Marcus Graziano of Capitol Cellars Diamond Creek has spent 25 years consulting with customers on the right wine storage solutions. He says customers should be wary of wine units sold in bulk at places like Lowes, Home Depot or COSTCO – many take advantage of consumer ignorance and may spoil your wine.

Wine Quality Assurance
Sub-Zero has done a lot of research on what their high-end wine collectors and drinkers need. They have even consulted with the viticulture experts at UC Davis on optimum storage conditions. The factors that affect wine storage and quality over time are: temperature, humidity, agitation and light.

Temperature
Wine lovers want to have control over the wine’s environment, with options to lower or raise the temperature. Subzero offers two zones within one cavity and have found this to be optimum – normally splitting the capacity 1/3 and 2/3, knowing people tend to buy more reds than whites or vice versa. The settings can range from 38 to 65 degrees within a zone. Some systems offer four temperature zones, but Subzero has found that these don’t work as well, so that is not really a valuable feature.

Humidity
Humidity control or an evaporator condenser is crucial. You don’t want the environment to get too damp or moist, or the labels will peel off. But you don’t want a very dry environment either. A good range is 50-60% humidity. “You will see many units and cabinets out there - I should say most - that are not humidity controlled and therefore will ruin your wine over time with dry corks,” says Marcus.  “If you see any unit out there under $1000, be wary on this issue - even if they are over that price.”

Agitation
Stirred-up sediment is a bad thing, so minimizing agitation and vibrations are key. Some brands, like Sub-Zero use an easy glide shelving system rather than a ball bearing system, so that you can reach the back without disturbing the bottles in front. This ensures smooth flow and tranquility with the whole lot.

Light
Lastly, light can negatively impact wine; thus, why they normally put it in brown or dark bottles. You want to cut down on UV light on the bottles, as this will have a detrimental effect.

“It can be so upsetting to hear consumers spend so much money for wine storage only to have it ruin their wine,” says Marcus. “We have been consulting customers for over 25 years on purchasing the right wine storage that fits their needs and have worked with contractors all over the country to make sure they are properly building wine rooms.” His company has consulted with Perry Sims, author of “The Home Wine Cellar” who has helped his team build some of the most beautiful wine rooms in the country.  Marcus recommends this book to educate yourself on everything you ever wanted to know in either building a wine cellar or purchasing the proper wine cabinet.

Key Questions to Ask When Making Your Wine Storage Unit Selection

•    Does the unit have uniform temperature control (within a zone) to ensure consistency and maintain a stable environment? Two zones are recommended.

•    How well does the unit cut down on UV rays?

•    Does it have humidity control or an evaporator condenser? 50-60% humidity is desired.

•    How many bottles will you store and of what type? Many consumers underestimate this.  Be sure to know what types of wines that you collect since proper wine racking will save much time and headaches when storing, according to Marcus.  There are many different sizes of bottles and it can be very inconvenient when they won’t fit in the rack.

•    How well does the unit minimize bottle agitation and vibration? If you have expensive wines you want to age, this is especially important.

•     If you have larger offsite storage, do you just need a smaller unit at home? Or do you want the entire storage system in your home? This depends on how much wine you have and what you want to do with it.

•    Do you live where the climate fluctuates greatly? If so, you really need a controlled environment and either offsite regulated storage or a high-caliber system at home.

•    Do you want to monitor storage from afar? If the unit is for a second home that remains empty for stretches, you will want to be alerted to system malfunctions or power outages. Sub-Zero offers models that can be tied into your security system and alert you.

•    What other storage do you need? If you need your wine storage unit to do double-duty, you can buy models with extra refrigerated drawers for soda, beer, or cheese so that it becomes an entertainment center. Sub-Zero’s 427-R model includes wine storage on top and then 2 refrigerated drawers below.

•    Should you get free standing or built-in? This is more of a question of aesthetics and preference. Some people like the storage integrated with the rest of their appliances and cabinetry. Others do not care or are adding in the unit after renovations.

•    What is the warranty policy, company reputation and service record? This is huge. Paul suggests comparing apples to apples when evaluating. Sub-Zero offers a full two year protection on everything, a five year warranty covering the parts and labor of the sealed system, and 12-year protection for parts only for the sealed system. They also have authorized service agencies across North America.  You want to avoid what happened to Anne Maxfield of Itsallaboutaging.com:  "We spent nearly two months trying to get someone to repair our $1800 EuroCave wine fridge from Wine Enthusiast. When it came to finding someone to service it for us, they were terrible. If we ever buy another wine fridge, it will be from a major manufacturer like GE so we know there will be a network of service people.”

•    If buying a built-in unit, can they repair it without pulling the entire unit out? Make sure they offer easy access to make adequate service repairs without disturbing your wine environment.

•    Does it lock? This is an important one if you have small children lurking about who are future oenophiles in the making. Apparently, this is not an easy feature to find.

Rating Brands on a Familiar Spectrum

If you think of wine storage brands like cars, you might want to classify them as Kia’s (basic, cheap and get you from Point A to Point B); Toyota’s (dependable, affordable, some cool features); and BMW’s (high-end, luxury, expensive, many bells and whistles for the money)

Good (Kia): Haier, Marvel, Dancy, Avanti, Kitchen Aid and GE. They do the job, offer a variety of models and you can get decent service and warranties. But they may not offer all the features avid wine lovers and collectors need.

Better (Toyota): Avanti, Ammana, Vinotemp and possibly Whirlpool

Best (BMW): Sub-Zero, Viking, Uline, Perlick, Vinotheque, and possibly EuroCave.  These brands often offer units that address temperature, humidity, light, agitation and have sterling warranties. For example, Sub-Zero’s units range from their basic undercounter unit which is 24” wide and deep, 34.5” high for $2600 and holds 46 bottles to their WS-30 model which is 30” wide by 84” high and holds 147 bottles for $5500.

Maria Ross is a freelance writer who also runs Red Slice, a branding and marketing agency that helps emerging businesses, including wineries and wine bars, tell their unique story and attract new loyalists.  She is based in Seattle.