How do I Choose a Wine Cooler?

Your collection of wines has grown to the point where you have bottles overflowing from the wine rack you bought last year and you’re tired of seeing cases of wine on the floor.  Or maybe you’re remodeling your kitchen and think a wine cooler will come in handy and enhance the resale value of your home.  Whatever the reason, you’ve made the decision to buy a wine cooler and are now looking at all the different brands on the market, trying to make heads or tails of it all.  How do you choose?

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The first thing to remember is that a wine cooler is not the same as the refrigerator in your kitchen.  They may look the same and operate in a similar matter, but in reality, they do very different jobs.  How are they different?

There are 4 basic features to consider when choosing a wine cooler:

  1. Type cooling system
  2. Installation type standalone appliance or built-in
  3. Bottle capacity
  4. Number of temperature zones

Cooling

Wine coolers use one of two cooling systems, thermoelectric or compressor.

The air and food or wine inside your refrigerator react to temperature differently.  Food and wine both have a thermal mass greater than air temperature.  Thermal mass is the ability of a material to absorb and store heat energy, or in our case, stay cold.  How many times have you turned off your car’s air conditioner on a really hot day only to have to turn it back on 10 seconds later or risk breaking out in a sweat?  The air in your car cannot maintain the desired temperature for long without the air conditioner working constantly.  What happens when you have a cold bottle of water in the same heat?  You can stand around on a hot day sipping that cold water for a very long time before it starts to get warm thanks to the thermal mass.  Food in a refrigerator or wine in a wine cooler eventually maintain a temperature that is closer to the lowest temperature achieved by the appliance.  The difference between a refrigerator and wine cooler is how well they can maintain a temperature of the goods inside it.

A kitchen refrigerator’s primary function is to delay food spoilage.  It also wants to operate efficiently and use as little electricity as possible so that yearly operating costs are kept to a minimum.  To operate most efficiently your kitchen refrigerator will cool for a long period of time, then shut down and stop cooling for a long period of time.  Refrigerators will usually cool about 3-5 degrees lower than the set temperature then warm 5-10 degrees above set temperature.  The is the most effective method for keeping food from spoiling.

A wine cooler’s goal is to ensure a constant, specific temperature. 

According to Wine Spectator:

Smith & Hanks: Wine Coolers, Temperature Control
“More important than worrying about achieving a perfect 55°F is avoiding the landmines of rapid, extreme or frequent temperature swings. On top of cooked flavors, the expansion and contraction of the liquid inside the bottle might push the cork out or cause seepage. Aim for consistency, but don’t get paranoid about minor temperature fluctuations; wines may see worse in transit from the winery to the store.”

Wine coolers don’t care what temperature you choose, their goal is consistency.  And, not necessarily consistent air temperature, but consistent liquid temperature of the wine inside the bottle. Your wine cooler is really good at manipulating air temperature in order to maintain a consistent wine temperature.  Unlike a refrigerator where the air temperature will fluctuate 8-15°F, the air inside your wine cooler will fluctuate no more than 5°F and the actual temperature of the wine will fluctuate less than 1°F.  And, the wine cooler can keep this up for years.

Now that we know the difference between a refrigerator and a wine cooler, are there differences in the type of wine cooler I buy?  The short answer is, yes. 

Wine coolers are separated into two distinct types, each with it’s own pros and cons, direct cooled and fan cooled.  How are they different?

Directly cooled wine coolers operate very similarly to your refrigerator or freezer.  There is single plate embedded behind the back wall of your wine cooler that has refrigerant flowing through it and this keeps the entire wine cooler cold.

Pros: Quiet operation. Few moving parts require little to no maintenance.

Cons: Because only 1 portion of the appliance gets cold, there is 5-10 degree temperature variation from the front to back and top to bottom of the wine cooler.

Generally speaking, directly cooled models are more expensive than fan cooled wine coolers.

Fan cooled wine coolers operate just like a directly cooled appliance, but with added fans to circulate cold air.

Pros: Very accurate and consistent temperature with very little temperature variation throughout the wine cooler.

Cons: Fans inside the wine cooler tend to be a little louder than a normal refrigerator.

Both direct and fan cooled wine coolers will keep your wine collection safe and do an excellent job of maintaining the proper temperature of your wine.

Stand alone or build it in.

If you plan to install your wine cooler into a kitchen cabinet, you had better make

sure that you buy a wine cooler that is listed as a built in appliance.  A stand alone wine cooler will vent heat from the sides and rear. The rear vent may even feel hot to the touch.  Over time, a stand alone wine cooler that is built into a cabinet will start to overheat and will eventually stop cooling. 

A wine cooler designed to be built into cabinets has vents in the front and all the heat is blown out through the vents.  You will have no problems installing this type of wine cooler into a kitchen or bar cabinet.  A wine cooler designed to be built into a cabinet can also be used as a free-standing appliance.  You get the best of both worlds.

Bottle Capacity.

Smith & Hanks: Wine Coolers - Capacity

Here’s what you have to remember about the bottle capacity listed by all manufacturers.  The number of bottles the manufacturer says you will fit are a best case scenario and you will only achieve that capacity if you have all Bordeaux bottles.  In reality, you will not get as many bottles as the manufacturer says because you will have a wide variety of different sized wine bottles in your collection.  The number of bottles you can expect to fit in your wine cooler will be about 70% of what the manufacturer lists.

Keep in mind that this is going to be a new toy for you.  As soon as your wine cooler arrives in your home you will be looking to buy more wine.  Plan on your collection increasing by 30-50%.

Temperature zones.

Multiple temperature zones allow you to store your wines at temperatures that best suit your needs.  Do you want to store ready to drink whites in the same wine cooler as reds you are aging?  Then a dual zone is right for you.  Or, do you keep a bottle or two of Chardonnay in the refrigerator and your wine cooler full of reds?  In that case a single zone might be a better choice.  Choosing a single zone or multi zone wine cooler all comes down to how you intend to use the appliance.