Get the most out of your home wine cellar

Floor-to-ceiling racks of premium wines housed in a brick-lined subterranean oasis tucked beneath your Italian villa may be your fantasy as a wine lover. But if your reality is more like a corner in the basement of your split-level - or even some empty floor space in the kitchen - having a dream-quality wine cellar is still well within your reach.

Long gone are the days when wine storage was reserved for only elite connoisseurs. Today, even casual wine lovers can enjoy the convenience, flexibility and satisfaction of having their own private store of wines. Whether your wine collection needs to fit into your existing kitchen, or you have the luxury of extra space and funds to create a special storage area in your house, it's possible to have a wine cellar in your home.

Wine is as mainstream as beer in America, thanks in no small part to the convenience of supermarket sales, specialty shops and wine clubs that make it easy to find, sample and collect wines from around the world. Even casual wine drinkers are likely to have a bottle or two on hand at any time of the year, and the number of dedicated collectors has increased over the past few decades.

Most wines commercially available in supermarkets and big box wine stores are made for speedy consumption. If you'll be drinking wines relatively soon after purchasing them, a simple, quality wine rack or cooler will likely suffice for your needs. If your collection is on the large side, or you want to invest in wines that require some aging in order to fully mature, you can easily convert under-the-stairs storage into a wine closet, create a closet in a cool, dry basement or simply purchase a portable cooler for your kitchen.

No matter how much wine you want to store, or what kind of space you have for it, a few simple tips can get you started on creating your in-home wine cellar:

* Consider your consumption level and the size of your collection. Will you quickly consume new wines, rotating through your stock regularly? Or will you be investing in some wines that will need to be stored for a while?

* How much space do you have for wine storage? Can you convert a closet in your home or a corner of your basement into a wine cellar? Or can you only spare a countertop or a spot in the pantry?

* Temperature control is essential. Keep fluctuations to a minimum, even if you can't achieve the optimum temperature of a constant 55 degrees F. Self-contained coolers or cabinets can make it easy to maintain temperatures, but if you'll just be using wine racks, try to store them in a spot where temperature will vary little.

* Moisture keeps the cork from drying out and maintains the proper seal on a bottle of wine. If a humidity-controlled environment is impossible, be sure to store bottles on their sides, so the wine itself will keep the cork moist.

* Keep wine out of direct sunlight, since light can affect the maturation of wine.

One way to find premium and collectable wines is to join a quality wine of the month club. The original Wine of the Month Club will deliver two bottles to your door every month, allowing you to quickly and easily sample premium wines from around the world and start stocking your new wine cellar with the help of experts. The club's cellarmaster suggests you start your collection with a variety of wines, including ones you expect to drink:

* Once a year, such as a high-end cabernet sauvignon from Bordeaux ($75-plus). One bottle recommended.
* Once a month, such as a wine valued around $25. Two bottles.
* Once a week wines, that range around $15 to $25. Four bottles.
* Once a day wines costing $5 to $15. Five bottles recommended.

This variety will allow you to age some wine and watch them change. Your local wine shop owner or club cellarmaster can offer advice on particular brands or vintages.