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The Seattle Times | Pacific Northwest
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First Person Michele Kellett

Persistence Pays

Beyond busted concrete and manly willfulness, a wine cellar is born

When the man who has become my best husband so far and I went on our second date, he drove me by what he described as "my idea of a great house." It had grand lines, a great view and a distinct sag eastward, and it was painted a horrible pink-y beige. I remarked that it would be quite the project and forgot about it, because it was not for sale and I was preoccupied by strategies to prolong the evening without tipping my hand re: my infatuation with Jim.

Jim had told me that his people were Norwegian dryland farmers from North Dakota, "stubborn" and "persistent" folk. I was about to discover what he meant: Jim's intentions, once made, proceed with the speed and implacability of a large glacier, rearranging objections and setbacks into tidy, productive riverbeds and farmlands. His "idea of a great house" had been on its way to the sea for five years when we met.

Four months after that date, we stood in that house with a realtor, watching a tennis ball roll downhill from the dining room to the living room before landing in the southeast corner with a vertiginous little shudder. The slope was one of many, many things wrong with the house, including a basement floor that had collapsed and upended itself into a pit. But the house had an equal number of beauties, and we had megatons of energy, released by sudden, late-life love.

Its greatest beauty, in Jim's eyes, was that it had a wine cellar.

The wine cellar was in the basement, a few feet away from the pit. It did not have real walls; on two sides it had framing to which beadboard had been nailed. The remaining two walls were formed by the house's concrete foundation and unpainted batten board next to the crawl space. The floor was dirt. The racks had apparently been shaped on a shop-class jigsaw by a not-very-interested 11-year-old. A single lightbulb hung from the joists. The previous owner had left a selection of '76 white zinfandels and a Mateus rosé. It was about 4 foot by 9, and Jim's heart leapt like that of the buck for the doe because it was a vast improvement on the cardboard boxes in which his current collection resided.

I stood outside the cellar, contemplating the chest-deep pit from which broken floes of concrete protruded, in something of a mood. Jim signed an offer, in something of a fever.

I'll pass mutely over the next few years, except to say that the basement floor was replaced, and pipe piers were installed under it, and the drainage issues were fixed. We raised the whole structure, replaced the windows and doors and plumbing fixtures. We put on a new roof. And we got married.

Jim thought we were done. And we were, for a while.

During this era, I came into some extra money. I thought to myself that my darling husband had shouldered all the unglamorous house repairs with great diligence. He had manfully lifted a pen to many large checks. And what had I done, except to weep and find contractors?

I resolved to build him a real wine cellar.

I researched the peculiar requirements of wine cellars and drew up a plan. Enthused about the generosity and coolness of my idea, I presented Jim with my plan, explaining how great it would be to expand and protect his valuable collection of wines.

He didn't want it.

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I staggered back to the drawing board. Was this a Norwegian dread of extravagance? Was Jim simply too humble or too embarrassed to become the kind of person who has a wine cellar, whatever kind of person that is?

Another woman might have caved, but I am made of denser stuff.

This project was not an extravagance. At least, not for a man who goes online to buy wine at 2 a.m. when he can't sleep, and who plans vacations around barrel-tastings.

I went ahead. He was getting his heart's desire whether he wanted it or not. I ordered the racks and secured a contractor.

To start, we had to move all the wine out of the cellar, and place it in the laundry area. This was a touchy procedure. "Ssssshhhhhhh," Jim would whisper, "It's been resting!!!!" as if the '99 Château Margaux that he held gingerly horizontal on his way across the basement were a potentially cranky hibernating bear. Because he wouldn't consider placing his bottles next to the dryer and couldn't put them anywhere near the furnace or hot-water heater, they ended up stacked along the wall at the basement entrance, where he judged it would be the coolest. Not that his resentment at having to move them at all was mollified.

Especially when workmen started trooping in. They came to install a vapor barrier on the cellar floor, followed by framing and insulation, drywall, a ceramic-tile floor, an exterior door with an insulating sweep, electricity and ceiling lights and, the jewel in the crown, the cooling unit. It was like building a walk-in refrigerator, except not as cold. It took a long time.

The construction also put a temporary halt to Jim's favorite leisure activity, which is buying wine. I've never known how much Jim spends on wine, and I've never cared, but he seems to think I'd care if I knew, so he does a fair amount of sneak buying, which is fun to watch. I felt a little sorry for him when that had to be suspended. Or I did until I dropped into his office downtown and noticed that an expanding stack of cardboard boxes clinked when I opened the door against them. He was starting to count on all that extra racking.

I spent one weekend painting the finished cellar a deep chili red, in advance of the racks. After eons (well, maybe a month) of carpenters, electricians, drywallers and tile setters, and operatic bickering between us, the rack installation was a letdown. Two guys showed up with a very large set of Lincoln logs; they had it all up in three or four hours. Jim spent the next three evenings arranging the cellar on principles derived from the periodic table. At least, I can't figure it out, and I can never find anything down there, which is fine with him. He designated an area that I'm allowed to choose bottles from — "for when your friends come over, so you don't open something too good" — and it has a sign that declares it "Cheap and Cheerful." My friends and I don't mind. There's nothing down there that isn't good.

And as it turns out, the wine cellar has other uses. On a trip to Walla Walla (buying wine) I impulsively bought 50 pounds of Walla Walla sweet onions. We put the sack in the cellar, and, because the onions were kept cool and in the dark, we got through the whole 50 pounds with no sprouting or spoilage. Summer berries go into the cellar, as do peaches and ripe tomatoes that used to attract hovering clouds of fruit flies. The wine cellar no longer feels like an inexcusable extravagance to Jim, and I know why. It now serves as that most sensible of structures, a North Dakota root cellar.

Michele Kellett is an interior designer who lives in Seattle.

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