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September 29, 2006 9:47 pm

Wine storage: it’s a cellars market

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With all due respect to CIA interrogators, waterboarding is for sissies.

To really break a man, just ask a wine expert about how many Americans treat their best vintages. Stuffed in broom closets, piled next to boiler rooms, jangling loose in boxes: to sommeliers and cellar masters, this is torture of the most unspeakable kind.

“It drives me insane,” says Tony Leventhal, cellar master at New York City’s Vintage Wine Warehouse, who has handled premium wines for the likes of Celine Dion and Lachlan Murdoch. “The worst I have ever seen was a case of Romanée-Contis, $7,000 a bottle, clunking around and rolling into each other. Things like that tear my heart out.“

Enter the communal cellar, or high-end wine storage facilities for the private collector. In cities like New York, where space comes at a premium, wine professionals will free your collection from your cramped one-bedroom apartment, and baby your finest bottles in luxury. The spaces are temperature- and humidity-controlled, vibration-free, and about as secure as casino vaults. And each claims to be the perfect temporary residence for all of your Mouton Rothschilds.

“If you really are a wine lover, there’s nothing worse than opening a bottle you’ve had sitting in the kitchen too long at the wrong temperature,” says Kristofer Kraus, managing director at Barclays Capital, who keeps his collection of prime Bordeaux and Burgundies at a Bronx facility called The Wine Cellarage. “It’s a considerable investment, so the least you can do is take the time to store it properly.”

For beginner aficionados, who might have 40 or 50 bottles, a home cellar like a EuroCave is probably sufficient. But for serious collectors, who are usually dealing in cases, off-site storage becomes critical. And with wine recently surpassing beer in popularity in the US, according to polling firm Gallup – the first such finding since the company began tracking beverage preferences in 1992 – more oenophiles are taking advantage of these communal cellars. In fact New York Fine Wine Storage, a popular facility in White Plains, has already reached capacity and is now closed to new collectors.

So what should you look for, when scouting out just the right home for your vintage Margaux? Here are a few key elements to consider:

The space. You want the most stable environment possible for your collection, since any variations – such as vibration, heat or even light – will cause your wine to age prematurely, harming the price it could fetch at auction, or possibly even making it totally undrinkable.

That is why The Wine Cellarage is housed inside the vault of the former American Banknote Company building, where currency was once printed. And The Vintage Wine Warehouse is a 20,000-square-foot subterranean bunker in Queens, surrounded by 12-inch-thick concrete, which used to store produce for United Grocers.

The climate. The ideal storage temperature for fine wine is 55 degrees, and ideal humidity is 70 per cent, which is why storing a bottle on your apartment shelf is wrong on so many levels. Many of the facilities in New York are underground and thus naturally cool, with additional air-conditioning and humidity controls to keep the environment constant.

At Guarantee Wine Storage in Jersey City, New Jersey, alarms go off if the temperature strays more than two degrees, or if humidity is altered by more than two per cent. And The Wine Cellarage features a “vapour barrier” of 18-gauge sheet metal, so that condensation from the cooling doesn’t drip on to the bottles.

The cost. A consideration, but not a huge one, as anyone who’s dealing with an armful of Chateau Lafites probably doesn’t need to haggle over pennies. Most cellars are in the same ball park for storage fees, about $1.50-$2 per case per month, often less the more wine you store.

You should also expect some additional fees, such as handling when bringing cases in or taking them out.

The service. Delivery is usually next day, or clients can pick up their precious vintages at the cellars themselves (as some do, to bask in their collections). And pretty much every high-end cellar these days gives clients online inventory-management tools to survey their collection on the web.

Then there are personal touches, of the above-and-beyond variety: Guarantee Wine Storage once built a special cellar-within-a-cellar, at the request of one particular valued client and his 1,500-plus cases.

The security. From the outside, most storage facilities are supremely nondescript – and that’s just the way it should be, says Kraus, given the “good bit of money” many thousands of bottles represent.

But on the inside, every movement is tracked. Leventhal jokingly calls his warehouse “the casino,” since it’s impossible to tell what time of day or season it is, and there are surveillance cameras just about everywhere. The Wine Cellarage, which has never lost a bottle, has 24-hour guard service and four separate locked entrances before gaining access to the wines.

This kind of meticulous care might seem over-the-top to many. But not to cellar operators, who are used to dealing with the most serious collectors in the world on a daily basis. It is why improper wine storage is seen as the most unforgivable of sins, akin to casually defacing a Rembrandt. “You are buying a piece of history that cannot be recreated,” says Leventhal. “Once you drink it, it is gone.“

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