East Lansing wine cellar maker aims to be best

One of the toughest jobs James Cash ever took on was in Grand Rapids. The basement of the historical house was damp, dark and cold. Apart from its concrete floor, the space was the perfect example of an eerie Michigan basement — that Cash needed to transform into a functional, stylish, wine cellar. “It was at a time when they built foundation walls out of stone, and it was not decoratively built,” the 63-year-old founder of Revel Custom Wine Cellars, said. “It wasn’t charming old masonry; this was a nasty, ugly basement.”

Its functionality-first construction posed several problems for Cash too.

“The primary electrical and water service were on the walls and there was a very large wastewater drainpipe coming out of that same wall,” Cash said. “Our cabinetry goes on the walls, so we couldn’t put the cabinetry over this utility infrastructure, and building code wouldn’t allow it anyway, because you have to access all of that.”

To combat the problem, Cash decided to make a room within a room.

“We made a hidden door out of the cellar, into the space around the back of the room, so there was a room where these masonry walls were, and in-set three feet from these masonry walls was the other room,” Cash said. “You’d go through the cellar and through this really cool secret door into the outside of the cellar where all this infrastructure is.”

That type of outside-the-box thinking is the environment that Cash is used to working with. It’s also likely why the young business, incorporated only seven years ago, has created customized wine cellars around the world and the country — even for some big names like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

But the East Lansing-based business is no amateur’s attempt — Revel Custom Wine Cellars also been featured in many publications like Wine Spectator, Bloomberg, Forbes and more.

Cash, who was the former chief operating officer of the Lansing-based Christman Capital Development Co., attributes some of his success to a drive for both utility, and design perfection. It started with his own wine cellar.

“On traditional wine racks, all you can see is the cork ends of the bottles, and you can’t identify anything. They all look exactly the same, and so that’s what I had,” Cash said. “I disliked it greatly.”

Cash revamped this design by making “wine the star of show.” His designs are deceptively simple, but they all visibly display each bottle’s label — a vital feature in wine cellars with several thousand bottles.

Cash is also meticulous in the materials he chooses to make his wine cellars.

“The gold standard for wine cellars is mahogany. The reason for that is that a cellar is a very special environment. It’s 55 degrees and 70 percent humidity. So, it’s a cold, damp, environment and very conducive to the formation of mold and mildew,” Cash said. “And mahogany is resistant to mold and mildew, and it’s also very strong and stable. It doesn’t warp, it doesn’t crack, so those are the things that are important to wine cellars, because wine is very heavy.”

Cash does make cellars from different materials, but to ensure they last, he said they either have to be furniture-grade hardwoods or made of strong, flexible, metal.

But with that type of quality comes a price. He said that it’s not uncommon, even for very wealthy clients, to have a bit of sticker shock.

“It usually runs about $45 a bottle, so if it’s 1,000-bottle cellar, you might be thinking in terms of $45,000,” Cash said. “I’ve only had one guy, I think in all the 100-plus cellars that we’ve done, say, ‘Well, that’s actually a little less than I thought it would be!’” There is a reason for that price tag, however; It allows for artisanal-quality work.

Because Cash has no other employees but himself and a handful of contractors who help him organize the dozens of orders Revel receives annually, he outsources the labor to a Holland, Mich.-based company called Benchmark Wood Studio.

“They take my general instructions and then they load them into their CAD machines,” he said, referring to computer-aided design, “and they have a very sophisticated computer and numerically controlled equipment and a very large shop.”

The studio made an investment to be part of Cash’s business too, by purchasing much expensive equipment. That kind of a commitment is what Cash was looking for. He said he made the mistake early on of working with a firm that didn’t value his design ideal — among several other learner errors.

“I’ve made some huge mistakes. So, if I had the benefit of foresight, I would have avoided them. They were very costly and they almost put me out of business a couple of times,” Cash said. “And really, they all were related to my choices and my people that I chose to be part of Revel.”

Cash did eventually get it right, and his ability to spring back from those mistakes have also lent him the ability to be flexible on the job, resulting in some of his favorite work.

“One example is a client that we shipped a cellar to a month ago from Melbourne, Australia, a billionaire building a huge, fantastically designed home. He ordered a 4,000-bottle cellar from us and we built it, put it on a ship and shipped it over to him,” Cash said.

The catch was that one of this client’s design themes was copper, and he requested that each wooden dowel in his wine cellar be copper-plated — a material that Cash doesn’t normally work with.

“So that’s what we did,” Cash said. “We have projects like that, that are with really cool people. They’re very smart, they’re very challenging. They give us a very high hurdle, they cause us to think outside the box — it’s very stimulating.”

But just because Cash loves the “grand designs” doesn’t mean that he isn’t willing to do smaller jobs.

“We’re not arrogant and say that if you’re too small we don’t want your business, it’s not like that,” Cash said. “We’ve done cellars as small as 200 bottles and in a very small space.”

There are, of course, limitations to how small a cellar can be — 17 by 17 inches to be exact — but it all has to do with the size of a bottle.For now, Cash aims to take on any job — big or small — that comes his way.

“One thing that I’m proud of, is that we have really been able to put Michigan on the worldwide wine landscape, so to speak,” Cash said. “To make something that has a reputation as being the very best in the world is something that I’m happy about.”