Wine Cooler Buying Guide

With all of the manufacturers competing for your business, there is a ton of conflicting, biased information on the web today.

That is why we prepared this wine cooler buying guide:  to discuss the basic and most important considerations when choosing a wine cooler/cellar.

Before using this guide, however, we suggest you first read our article discussing the basics of wine storage to get a better idea of what a wine cooler/cellar is and what these appliance are intended to do.

Choosing The Right Capacity

Commonly-available wine coolers exist that can hold just one to over a hundred bottles of wine.  So the first decision to be made is how much wine do you want to store?

A Word on Reported Bottle-Holding Capacities

You should know right off the bat that most of the bottle capacity ratings you will see assume that you are storing standard, 750 ml. Bordeaux-type bottles like the one below.

Standard Bordeaux Type Wine Bottle

“Bouteille en verre” by Aurélien Mole under CC by SA 3.0

Odd-shaped, larger bottles, such as Champagne bottles, Pinot Noir, Magnums, etc. will reduce this rating significantly.  If you tend to collect these larger/odd-sized bottles, assume the true wine holding capacity of the wine fridge/cooler is 1/2 to 2/3 the stated number.

Err on Buying More Capacity Then You Think You Need

Edgestar 121 Bottle Single Zone Built-in Wine Cooler

The Edgestar 121 Bottle Wine Cooler may be overkill for the casual wine drinker.

If you, like most people, buy relatively inexpensive wine (generally bottles less than $20), chances are that it’s made for immediate consumption and it won’t benefit from aging anyway.  It’s been estimated that 90% of all wine commonly sold is of this category.  In this case, the purpose of the cooler is simply to preserve the wine until you drink it.  And if you drink the wine quickly, then you don’t need lots of capacity since space should continually free up.  Still, if you drink with any regularity, plan on getting something that holds over a dozen bottles, and double or triple this if you tend to buy bottles in bulk.

Fine wine – sometimes called “age worthy” wine benefits from storage and thus requires a period of maturation for it to reach its full “peak” potential.  The time required varies tremendously and is beyond the scope of this article; however, some wines may need 10 years to hit their peak, depending on type, year and storage conditions of course.  Nevertheless, most age worthy wines will flower much earlier and may be stored for a year or two.  In this case, you will be tying up your wine cooler for quite some time, so planning is required.

Think about your drinking habits of fine wines and estimate how long you intend to store them.  Perhaps you typically drink general consumption wine and need capacity for a half dozen bottles of fine wine?  Or maybe you want to store all fine wine?  The choice is a personal one but remember that most people underestimate the capacity they need – and simply purchasing a wine cellar typically increases one’s interest and wine purchasing habits.  As a result, whatever capacity you think you need, we suggest you increase it by 50-100% as a conservative measure!

Built In Versus Free-Standing Wine Coolers

Kingsbottle 36 KingsBottle Two-temp Wine Cellar-glass Door with Stainless Steel Door Trim and Handle

Like most built-in units, this beautiful Kingsbottle 36 Bottle Two-temp Wine Cellar uses front-ventilation.

A built in wine cooler is intended to be installed under the counter or in some other tight space surrounded by and flush with other appliances or walls.  For example, there are many small wine coolers designed to replace old trash compactor units.  These coolers therefore typically employ a front-venting ventilation system to ensure that air exchange take place notwithstanding the tight fit.  But note that many built in units can also be used as free standing wine coolers as well, just read the product descriptions carefully before purchasing to make sure this is the case, however.

Free-standing coolers, on the other hand, as the name suggests, are not built to be flush up against other appliances and can be placed just about anywhere there’s room.  These coolers generally use a rear ventilating system that requires at least a few inch gap between the unit and any rear wall.  In addition, because the sides of these units are designed to be exposed they may also be a bit more “finished” and attractive to look at (from the side) as a consequence.  Due to their rear exhaust system, unlike many built in units, most free standing coolers can not be used in place of built in models.

Thermoelectric Versus Compressor-Driven Wine Coolers

This is another basic decision facing most consumers.  So which one is better?  The answer is it depends.  Below we discuss the benefits and limitations of each technology so you can make your own decision.

Thermoelectric Wine Coolers

Allavino KWT-18SS Thermoelectric 18 Bottle Wine Refrigerator

The Allavino KWT-18SS – a good example of an 18-bottle thermoelectric wine cooler

A thermoelectric wine cooler relies on the “Peltier Effect,” whereby DC current is passed through a pair of semiconductors fitted to a conducting plate, which results in the transfer of heat from one side of the plate (the cooling side located within the cooling chamber) to the other side (the hot side), which is located on the outside of the cooling chamber.  The hot side is normally fitted with cooling fins and may use an electric fan to help dissipate the absorbed heat into the room.

Pros:

Thermoelectric technology has been around for a fairly long time, and is commonly used in a variety of applications, especially in small beverage coolers, where the light weight and compact nature of these cooling mechanisms is highly advantageous.  Thermoelectric systems also benefit from simplicity, as they are solid state devices that have no moving parts (save a cooling fan) and don’t use refrigerants or other gases.  They can also be installed in virtually any orientation and are sometimes a bit quieter than compressor-driven systems (although not always!).

Another often-cited benefit of thermoelectric coolers is that they generate less vibration, because they don’t have the large compressor mass that turns on/off during cycling.  And while this is true, we don’t believe that the slight vibration caused by the cycling of a compressor in most modern wine coolers is significant enough to characterize such a distinction  true an “advantage” of thermoelectric coolers.

On the other hand, one very clear benefit of thermoelectric is affordability.  Given their greater simplicity and ease of installation during the fabrication process, these units tend to be significantly less expensive than their compressor-driven counterparts.

Cons:

Despite what you may have heard, thermoelectric coolers are not – I say not – more efficient than compressor-driven systems.  In reality, in terms of their coefficient of performance (cooling power per unit of energy consumed), they are significantly less efficient than a traditional vapor-pressure refrigeration system.  Yes, I know – there are many “leading” wine websites that have this backwards!  For a more detailed discussion of thermoelectric technology, click here.

Perhaps the biggest drawback of Peltier systems is their comparatively limited ability to deal with temperature flux.  In other words, hot environments or those that experience significant temperature swings.  Thermoelectric coolers simply do not have the cooling power to keep up with high/rapidly rising temperatures, and may struggle to maintain the set temperature in rooms that fluctuate routinely or experience temperatures above 85 degrees Fahrenheit for prolonged periods.

Compressor-Driven Wine Coolers

The Whynter BWR-18SD 18 Bottle Built-In Wine Cooler/Fridge

The Whynter BWR-18SD is a powerful compressor-driven model able to deal with lots of heat.

Pros:

Compressor-driven wine coolers are by far the most powerful, and best able to maintain the set temperature in the face of hot environmental temperatures and rapid temperature swings.  If you live in a hot climate or want a wine cooler to go in a room that routinely experiences temperatures in excess of 85 degrees Fahrenheit, a compressor-driven model is the better choice.

Wine coolers powered by compressors are also more efficient, despite what you may hear to the contrary.  Vapor-pressure refrigeration systems simply deliver more cooling power per watt of energy consumed.  Moreover, unlike a thermoelectric, they can quickly cool down a cabinet and then shut off (cycle) as necessary once the desired set point is reached.

Further, while they may involve more moving parts, compressor-driven systems are just as reliable, if not more reliable, then thermoelectric coolers.  How often do the compressors in most household fridges break down in your experience?  Vapor-pressure refrigeration systems have been around for a very long time and are very durable, particular when operating under demanding conditions.

Cons:

Considering their greater mass, installation complexity and number of parts involved, these systems are nearly always more expensive than an otherwise equally-rated thermoelectric unit.

Compressor noise is another potential drawback of these systems, especially when the unit cycles on and off.  However, relative to thermoelectrics, this is a close call, since many thermoelectric units can be quite noisy, and many compressor-driven units can very quiet.  It really depends on the particular model – read reviews carefully!

What is not a close call is weight.  There’s no doubt about it, a compressor and all of the associated hardware adds considerable weight to any wine cooler.  So, if you want a small cooler that you can move around easily, a thermoelectric is the much better choice.

Dual Zone Versus Single Zone Wine Coolers

 EdgeStar 21 Bottle Dual Zone Stainless Steel Wine Cooler - Stainless Steel

The EdgeStar TWR215ESS1 comes with an upper “cold” zone that’s good for chilling whites before service.

A dual zone wine cooler has two compartments, each of which is temperature controlled.  In many cases, one of the compartments (or zones) has a broader temperature range compared to the other.  The warmer zone, which should be able to maintain a set point of around 55F, is ideal for storing both reds and whites, while the colder zone is designed to bring whites down to serving temperature.  As we’ve said before, please don’t forget that white wines are stored best at the very same temperature as reds (~55F) – don’t make the mistake of confusing storage and service temperatures.

Do You Need a Dual Zone Cooler?

Because reds and whites can and should be stored together at around 55F, there is no need for a dual zone cooler as far as storage is concerned.  Moreover, when it’s time to serve the wine, you don’t need an actual wine cooler to reach proper service temperature anyway.  Reds can merely be left out for a few minutes to warm slightly, and whites can be put in your household fridge briefly to cool them down.

The only real purpose of the dual zone is therefore the ability to drop the temperatures in the “cold” compartment just prior to service, typically for white wines.  That’s basically it.  Consequently, to the extent you want a dual zone cooler, you don’t need a very large cold zone at all. You can store all of your wine in the warmer compartment and simply move the whites you intend to consume into the cold zone about an hour or so before service.  So, to answer the question:  do you need a dual zone cooler?  Absolutely not – but they are convenient and allow for precise serving temperatures to be reached for whites.  And of course, when entertaining guests, it’s a bit more elegant to simply pull the wine from your cabinet for service, rather than the refrigerator.

Sliding wood racks are a nice, practical touch to a wine coolerRack Material

Most wine coolers are fitted with chrome wire racks, wooden racks, or wire racks accented with wood.  Is there a difference?  Some people will say that metal racks conduct heat away from the wine more efficiently, but this shouldn’t be an issue in a temperature controlled environment anyway.  Wood looks very nice in a wine cellar and performs just as well as far as we’re concerned.  The bigger consideration is whether the racks (whatever they are made of) are easily removable and allow for simple access to the wines without the need to disturb the rest of the collection.

Door Material

The majority of the wine coolers available today use a double-paned and/or insulated glass material that is tinted or smoked to provide additional UV filtering but still provides enough clarity to allowing you to view your collection.

wine cooler temperature controlTemperature Controls

The electronic temperature controls that predominate the market are quite accurate, and should should allow sufficient enough fine control of temperatures (assuming the cooling mechanism can keep up).  If you are concerned that the controls or temperature readout is off, we suggest you invest in a temperature probe to get a second opinion.  They are fairly cheap and quite accurate.  For example, the Oregon Scientific THGR122NX is a good wireless temperature probe that also monitors humidity.

Air Filtration Systems

Some wine cooler come with air filters, which typically consist of an activated carbon media that absorbs odors and other volatile organic compounds.  These are nice, but are not necessary, unless your home air happens to be very polluted!

Leveling Legs

Most wine coolers come with these.  They simply allow you to vary the height of the legs so you can maintain a “level” horizontal line despite minor floor irregularities.  Some may or may not work as a vibration damper as well, but as we’ve said before, the vibration issue is way overblown in our view, so a dampening system is generally not necessary.

Interior Lighting

NewAir AW281E 28 Bottle Thermoelectric Wine Cooler

The NewAir AW281E 28 Bottle Wine Cooler uses bright blue LED lighting.

A nice interior light is not simply about providing enough illumination to locate particular bottles, but also serves to display your collection.  Indeed, considering how much time and effort you will put towards maintaining your fine wine, it only makes sense that you can appreciate it while it’s being stored.  Furthermore, with most modern wine coolers’ good looks, proper lighting really adds to the allure of a full cabinet and imparts a bit of class and sophistication to any room.

Most wine coolers use a cool blue LED lighting that emits no damaging UV light and creates a soothing glow.  LEDs are ideal for such applications because they are far more durable than just about any other bulb type, use extremely little electricity for their light output, and produce much less heat compared to other fixtures.

Fill up Your Wine Cooler!

Just a quick tip:  by filling up your wine cooler you allow it to function more efficiently and resist temperature swings.  The more volume of liquid stored in the compartment, the more thermal inertia the cooler has.  In other words, a full cabinet loses heat and gains heat more slowly, which is precisely what you want when temperatures begin getting warmer outside.  In addition, once a larger volume of wine is brought to set temperature, the unit needs to expend less energy to maintain that temperature, and compressors will cycle less often.  Another very good reason to buy more wine!

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One Comment

  1. Heather says:

    Hi, what’s the quietest wine cooler avail on the uk market? Want to put in the dining room.
    Thanx

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