Better with Age
Stellar Cellars hones craftmanship to improve wine storage
Some things—like fine wine—improve with age. Stellar Cellars, founded in 1992 by Ron Cowan, was born from a desire to find better ways of storing wine. And, for nearly 30 years, Cowan and the Stellar Cellars team have constantly strived to improve their crafting techniques and products to better serve their clients.
Before founding Portland-based Stellar Cellars, Cowan worked as a general contractor. When one of his clients requested a wine room for the home being built, Cowan ordered what he thought would be commercial-grade wine racking. But when the product arrived, Cowan was immediately disappointed with the quality.
“It was like tinker toys,” describes Jerry Cady, Owner and General Manager of Stellar Cellars. “It was very hard to put together and flimsy after it was assembled.”
Cowan, who also had an interest in and knowledge of the wine industry, knew he could create a better wine storage system. So, for the next client to request a wine cellar, he decided to manufacture his own. Cowan combined his skill as a craftsman with his wine expertise, developing wine storage centered around the specific types of wine being stored—taking into consideration everything from the individual shape of the bottle to the way a particular wine should be kept for an optimal aging process.
“Stellar Cellars developed out of Ron’s love of wine, and his desire to build a product that was exceptional,” Cady says. While Cowan is still very much involved in the business he founded, Cady now runs the day-to-day operations.
The goal for Cowan has always been to continue to improve and perfect wine storage each time he works on a new project. To improve the sturdiness of the wine rack, for instance, Cowan developed a technique that uses doweling at the load-bearing joint to construct it, resulting in a strong and durable racking system.
“Once we install the wine racks, you can climb them like a ladder—that’s how sturdy they are,” Cady says.
Stellar Cellars also uses custom machines to manufacture cellar storage systems that support different wine bottle sizes. “These machines allow us to make the hole where you put the bottle to be specific to the type of wine that the collector or restaurant wants to store,” Cady explains.
“Our products are centered on making sure the wine is properly stored and kept safe.”
Chardonnay on Display
Stellar Cellars continues to use Cowan’s techniques to craft wine cellars custom-made to each space—whether it’s simple storage under a staircase, a fine wine display in a restaurant, or a cellar for storing a collection of many thousands of bottles.
As Cady explains, much of the company’s business comes from word-of-mouth. “We’ll build a wine cellar in one house in a neighborhood and then the neighbors will approach us to build cellars for them, too,” he says.
In addition to private clients who may be remodeling and want to add wine storage, Stellar Cellars also works with general contractors, designers and architects in Oregon and southwest Washington who wish to incorporate wine storage for their commercial and residential clients.
Another area of focus for the business is the restaurant industry. Stellar Cellars’ wine storage displays can be found gracing the walls of high-end restaurants worldwide, including about 21 Perry’s Steakhouse & Grille locations that feature wine as a main focal point.
According to Cady, having a wine display can be a potential moneymaker for a restaurant. “We did work for a restaurant in Seattle that wanted to build one wall as a wine wall,” Cady says. “They did a before-and-after comparison, and wine sales went up over 10% when wine became a feature in the restaurant. We’ve found that other restaurants see similar results.”
Cady has also found that Stellar Cellars’ wine displays attract business when they catch the eye of restaurant patrons. “We get a lot of clients around the world who have gone into restaurants we’ve done, and they’ll ask the general manager who did the wine racking for them,” he says.
Zupan’s Markets has seen the benefit of having a Stellar Cellars wine room. The specialty market has wine rooms in two of its locations, and according to Cady, the owners have stated that their wine sales significantly increased; they also host special events and tastings that attract clientele.
Stellar Cellars’ craftsmanship can also be seen in Willamette Valley Vineyards’ tasting room located in Turner, Oregon. For this project, the team not only built the racks along the walls for displaying the wine, but also used them to create a focal point for the crystal wineglasses illuminated with special lighting.
Willamette Valley Vineyards and its tasting room have received several accolades, including winning the Best Vineyard/Tasting Room Experience award from Sunset magazine in 2016.
“It’s a spectacular tasting room and includes some other unique attributes like a secret room with a hidden door made of wine racking,” Cady says. “It’s as much of an art piece as anything else.”
Perfecting the Craft
What began as Cowan’s individual mission to enhance wine storage for his clients is now shared by the entire team. The culture of Stellar Cellars is one of quality and creativity.
“Our craftspeople are continuously coming up with new ideas and suggestions for a different type of look or a different type of process,” Cady says.
Cady understands the value of nurturing and investing in this sense of creativity. When business slows down, rather than temporarily laying people off—as is common in the construction industry—the team uses that time to experiment with designs.
Team members explore YouTube or Etsy to get ideas on different types of wine-related furniture they can craft, using any extra or leftover materials lying around. Cady has found that this method not only increases creativity, but the team experiences higher job satisfaction and a greater sense of pride in its work.
Adding an altruistic component makes the work even more fulfilling: Wine furniture and racking that the team creates during these periods are donated to good causes. Most recently, Stellar Cellars donated items to the Auction of Washington Wines to raise money for Seattle Children’s Hospital, and the company has also supported Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland with in-kind donations. Each year, Stellar Cellars donates a wine rack to Alliance Francaise de Portland, a French language center, and this year the team will be donating to Edison High School in Portland.
For Stellar Cellars, providing its craftspeople with the freedom to create and innovate leads to the constant striving for improvement that has been characteristic of the business since its founding.
“There’s been almost 30 years of continuous improvement,” Cady says. “Every cellar we build gets better and better.”
As for the talented team members, Cady says, “They’ve latched onto what Ron’s vision has been through the years and have followed and learned the techniques he’s developed.” He adds, “We give everybody the opportunity to be creative and to perfect what Ron started.”