Chris Womack was curious. He had just finished a monster remodel in his University Heights home: "The house was a single level on a hill, so we cut into the hill and had a level kind of below grade. We put a garage in part of it and had some area left over, so I put a wine cellar in. About four years ago, I went to Australia and spent four or five days wine tasting down there in Adelaide and the Barossa Valley. I started really enjoying Shiraz, started learning more about wine," and started collecting. A mechanical engineer by education and a consumer-electronics designer by profession, he designed the 600-bottle cellar himself. Once it was complete, "I had a little thermometer in there, but I really wanted to know how the temperature was doing over time, throughout the year. As the ground temperature changed, did it really work? I was a dorky engineer, and I liked that kind of stuff."
In this case, "Did it really work?" meant, "Did the cellar keep the wine cool and damp?" I don't know of any sort of rigorous academic study of the matter, but tradition and experience tell us that wine is best cellared under those conditions -- generally, around 57 degrees Fahrenheit and 70 percent humidity. (A lack of vibration is also good; vibration stirs up sediment that has fallen out of the wine.) Too cold, and the chemical processes that transform young wine into old will grind to a halt. Too hot, and the wine starts tasting cooked, spent. Too dry, and the corks dry out, weakening the seal. Too wet, and the labels get moldy -- bad for resale value.
Womack began searching the market for an easy-to-use product that would keep a log over time of both temperature and humidity. When he didn't find one, he set out to make his own, "really as a hobby." After a couple of years, however, the hobby started to look like a potential business. Womack brought in friends to help with the project -- creating a product -- the Cellar Sensor -- which would gather information, store it, and display it online for the user. "There's a base station, and it plugs into your router to send data up to our servers. Then we have a little battery-powered sensor that goes in the cellar. If you have a huge cellar, with zones at different temperatures for red and white wines, you just buy more sensors." The device then records the data for each sensor and sends it along. Finally, at the end of last year, "I took on an equity investor to get us to the next level -- buying inventory, marketing, all that."
Marketing a cellar watchdog can be a tricky business. First, "It's kind of a boring product. If your cellar is doing everything it should, it just kind of sits there. It's like your home security system." To combat this, Womack has been working to "build partnerships with people who have...online software. If you keep your wine inventory and your tasting notes online with somebody like Cellartracker or Vinfolio, it might make sense to couple that information with your temperature and humidity record. It's more valuable to see the data integrated -- if every time you log in or post a tasting note, there's a little gauge saying, 'Everything's A-OK.'" That would tie www.cellarcentral.com into general cellar management. Womack also hopes to connect with the social aspect of the online wine world, setting up the company as a "kind of community...where you can upload photos of your cellar. People build cellars" -- at least in part -- "because it looks cool." The website will let you show it off, and talk about it, too. "I think there's enough discussion that goes on, people building cellars, looking for wine-cellar products."
Second tricky bit: nobody likes bad news. "I'm amazed," says Womack. "People will spend $100,000 to build a cellar, and then they may have $500,000 worth of wine in there, and they'll never check it out. A lot of people have a thermometer, but they look at it once a day. They see a snapshot, not the whole trend. We have a lot of data, and it's really interesting to see. Cooling systems really do cycle a lot more than the users know."
Womack collected his data by going to 25 local collectors and offering them the unit free of charge. "I have a local client -- I guess he has 5000 bottles, most of it California Cabernet from the '90s through the '00s. We put the thing in his cellar, and his cellar was 65 degrees. He said, 'There's something wrong with your sensor.' His cooling unit said that the cellar was only 57 degrees. It was a good study for me -- I took two weeks with engineering instrumentation to validate the sensor. We turned down his cooling unit, and it pulled down the temperature to 56 in two weeks. Another thing -- his cooling unit is in the middle of his cellar, and right in front of it, the temperature goes from around 53 to 60 about four times a day. Near the corners, the temperature was more steady. He was really sad but still glad to find out."
Small wonder, then, that Womack thinks cellar-cooler manufacturers "are either going to really like us or really hate us." Cellar Chillers Inc. might like to hear that Cellar Central gives it a gold star, but what if the sensor picks up problems the customer might not have known about otherwise?
The professional cellar world, which makes a business out of caring for other people's wine, might be similarly resistant. As Womack notes, "There are about 150 wine-storage facilities in the U.S. right now, and less than 10 percent of them actually publish or share their performance data with their clients. We want to put our system in every wine storage facility, so that there is a third person, an unbiased company that holds the data and can guarantee it. I just feel like it's an absolute necessity. I mean, I wouldn't store my wines in a place that wasn't at least as good as my own cellar." It sounds like a sensible enough idea. But still, a wine storage facility might be hesitant to take on a product that lets someone else observe its performance -- unless the customer demands it. "That's why we're going after private collectors first, to get some traction, get the market established."
In Womack's happiest dreams, collectors would eventually create a groundswell of demand for a cellar guarantee, one provided through the company's cellar certification. "You put in our hardware -- have our sensor in your cellar -- and after 30 days, we'll give you a certificate saying that the hardware measures to a certain degree of accuracy to a measured standard and that there is an historical record of the temperature and humidity. If you're a storage facility, and you want to show that to your customers, it certifies that the facility hasn't tampered with the data. We believe that as more facilities do that and more collectors do that, it will become more of a branded certification. We want to become the trusted brand."
Besides providing peace of mind to collectors interested in storing their product under optimal conditions, Womack suggests that such a brand could provide added value. "If I took all my wine to Zachy's or Christie's for auction today and said, 'I have this report about temperature and humidity in my cellar,' I think they would look at it and go, 'Good for you -- so what? We inspect all of our wine. We might be able to get a little bit of a premium for that, but not much.'" But if it began to matter to auction buyers -- if the Cellar Central certification began to provide assurance the way "cellared at the Chateau" provides assurance -- well, then. It's one less thing to place under the old caveat emptor. "Ideally, in my grand world, if somebody put a lot of wine on WineBid or WineCommune, they could have a link in there that went right to the temperature and humidity profile. They could say, 'Here's what my cellar looks like. Here's how I take care of my wine.'"