What began as a home-improvement project has turned into a small business for Rolf and Charlene Thorhauge, who design and build about four cellars a year.

When Rolf Thorhauge retired from the RCMP in 1993, he knew exactly what he wanted to do with his new-found freedom: build himself a wine cellar.

The keep-busy, home-improvement project soon morphed into a full-time, home-based business for Thorhauge and his wife Charlene.

Now in operation for 12 years, the owners of Rolf’s Wine Cellars design and build on average three to four basement cellars a year for customers across the city.

“It is a luxury,” admits Thorhauge of the temperature-controlled walk-ins that he customizes by using redwood racking, tile floors, pine- or oak-covered walls and subdued lighting. Prices, including all materials and labour, start at about $8,500. “You have to have a disposable income to afford a wine cellar,” he says to describe his affluent clientele. “You also have to like wine.”

In the basement of their new Cardel bungalow in Barrhaven’s prestigious Stonebridge community, the Thorhauges recently completed a large cellar wrapped with racks to hold up to 1,500 bottles of wine.

Chocolate beams criss-cross the ceiling and sheets of oak line the walls. Track lighting on dimmer switches washes the bottles in a soft glow and a stained-glass shade suspends from the ceiling above a small wine-tasting table that juts into the centre of the room.

To provide flexible storage space, there is a mix of diamond-shaped racks, wide-open shelves and floor-to-ceiling slots that can accommodate bottles of champagne or wine. A compact cooling unit hums quietly high above the room, keeping the temperature at a constant 13*C.

Ottawa designer André Godin is no wine connoisseur, but he clearly knows his way around a wine cellar. Godin recently designed five basement cellars — four in estate houses in Ottawa and one in a renovated home in the Upper Ottawa Valley town of Eganville.

“It’s definitely a very popular trend,” says the soft-spoken designer, who created an Old World ambience by incorporating stone walls, limestone or slate floors and custom racking and open shelving for storing expensive collections of Merlot and Chardonnay. “People are really into drinking wine. They’re also well-travelled. It’s a lifestyle thing.”

Some of the higher-end cellars include separate seating areas for hosting wine-tasting parties, rolling ladders to reach ceiling-sweeping shelves and a high-performance ventilation system so owners and their guests can smoke fat stogies while sipping their favourite red or white.

“We’ve become much more sophisticated about wines,” says Ernst Hupel to explain the increased demand for wine cellars, as well as more affordable wine storage options, such as small wine rooms retrofitted under the basement stairs, built-in wine racks in the kitchen and under-counter wine coolers and fridges. “Our senses are being heightened to the finer luxuries of life.”

In an über-modern condo hovering high above downtown Ottawa, Hupel designed a Tuscan-style wine cellar complete with raw slate floors and floor-to-ceiling racks made of weathered wood that hold hundreds of bottles of wine.

“It was a juxtaposition to the rest of the condo,” says the co-owner of 2H Interior Design of the rustic cellar located at the end of a long, sleek hallway. “The cellar looks like a ruin found in Europe.”

A custom wood door with iron and glass detailing draws attention to the cellar entrance, while inside Hupel visually expanded the room by installing mirrors behind the custom racks.

“One bottle looks like four bottles,” says the award-winning designer of the simple design trick he repeatedly uses to make even the smallest wine room look and feel larger.

Rather than add a table and chairs for wine-tasting — “No one wants to spend time in their cellars because it’s too cold” — Hupel placed an old wine barrel topped with glass in the middle of the room. It’s here the host can prepare two or three bottles before serving.

Eight years ago, Ottawa wine writer Natalie MacLean and her husband Andrew Waitman had a custom wine cabinet built for their Crystal Beach home. Wine collectors since 1994, the couple needed space to store their growing collection, but since their ranch-style home sits on solid bedrock, a basement cellar was out of the question.

“Building an underground cave wasn’t an option for us,” says MacLean, who opted for a hand-carved cabinet made of Brazilian mahogany and North American madrone burl topped with wide crown mouldings and a ribbed clamshell. Two columns, intricately carved with twisting grapevines, flank the main cooler, which is finished inside with sturdy redwood to resist rot and mildew and prevent odours from leaching into the wines. “We wanted something beautiful to go with our furniture. We didn’t want it to look like a sterile fridge,” says MacLean.

Over the last four to five years, Ottawa designer Chuck Mills has seen a steady demand for built-in wine storage — from simple wine racks on the side of a kitchen island to full-scale cellars with custom shelving, sophisticated cooling systems and textured stone floors. When it comes to enjoying wine, convenience is key.

“Having it at hand is an advantage,” says Mills, who incorporates built-in racks into most of the kitchens he designs, “as long as you keep it out of direct sunlight and in a cool temperature to avoid spoiling the wine.”

Mills, who has taken wine and food pairing classes and visited vineyards in Greece and Portugal, has a built-in wine cabinet with space for 18 bottles in his own kitchen. Though he admits wine is only stored in the racks for short periods of time, the central location means he doesn’t have to run up and down the stairs when company comes for dinner.

“I buy more exclusively for consumption,” quips the budding wine aficionado, who designed a main-floor wine room for an upscale bungalow near Manotick with 12-foot high wood racks, a rolling ladder and an electronic screen that silently descends in front of the glass entry door to protect the homeowner’s cherished collection of French and Italian wines from damaging UV rays.

“Our generation seems to have a strong appreciation for the finer things in life,” says Mills. “We love our wine.”

Cheers to that.