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WINE

So I Built a Wine Cellar

August 15, 1996|DAVID SHAW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When I began buying wine in greater quantities than I expected to drink on a given night, I rented a locker in one of those temperature-controlled wine storage facilities that have become so popular in the last decade.

As my collection grew--100 bottles, 300 bottles, 600 bottles--I rented a second locker, then a third. Then, during a blistering, six-day heat wave in 1991, I stopped by the wine locker after work one evening and found that the master cooling unit had broken down.

I tracked down the owner of the facility and urged him to have the cooling system repaired within 24 hours, before all the wine was ruined. His response was surprisingly indifferent, almost dismissive.

"I'll try to get it fixed in the next few days or so if I can," he said, with little conviction and no sense of urgency.

That's when I shifted into what my wife calls my "telephone terrorist" mode. I muttered a few words about lawsuits and I raised the possibility of even more ominous courses of action involving people and body parts near and dear to him.

The cooling system was repaired the next morning.

But I didn't want to risk another breakdown; I decided to have a small wine cellar built in my house.

I called several manufacturers that advertise prefabricated cellars in wine publications and found two with models that sounded reasonably priced and just about the right size. But before I plunked my money down, I wanted to see what one of these units looked like fully assembled.

None of the people who sold them would give me the names or addresses of any customers, though. I finally found a cellar maker who was willing to call a customer and ask if I could visit him--in Michigan.

As it happened, I had to go to Michigan in a few weeks, so I stopped by. The cellar owner turned out to be much nicer than his cellar; it was a flimsy affair, I thought--neither well-built nor attractive. Nor was it large enough for me to turn around in comfortably. And the wine racks were too short; the neck and part of the shoulder of each bottle protruded considerably, unsupported--not a great idea in earthquake country.

When I got back to Los Angeles, I started calling wine merchants, collectors and restaurateurs for advice. Several people mentioned Jean-France Mercier of Tixa Wine Cellars in Los Angeles.

I called Mercier and arranged to look at a couple of his wine cellars. They were beautiful. I made an appointment, then called a contractor friend, Michael Collins.

I am capable of no home improvement project more complex than screwing in a three-way light bulb, so I had considered it an act of divine intervention when I found Collins to handle a major remodeling for us seven years earlier. Most people tell only horror stories about such experiences, but Michael had been a sheer joy to work with. By the time he'd finished, it was a toss-up whether my wife or I was more likely to run away with him to a desert island.

I figured that with Collins and Mercier working together on my wine cellar, I'd be in very good hands indeed.

Collins and his crew could turn what was essentially a rocky, dusty hole behind our laundry area into a small room, with the necessary insulation, flooring and other features, as dictated by Mercier, who could design the cellar, build the racks and provide the temperature/humidity unit.

At the time I had 900 bottles and wanted the cellar to hold 1,200, enough to permit modest growth but not so much that I'd be tempted to buy more wine than I could afford or would live long enough to drink.

Mercier said that sounded reasonable. His price didn't seem so reasonable, though, until I thought about it for a few minutes.

He wanted about $40 to $50 a case for the cellar itself--racks, insulation, cooling system, etc. That was a helluva lot more than the $4 a case I was then paying for my rental lockers (especially if I took into account what I'd have to pay Collins to turn my empty hole into a room in which Mercier could put the wine cellar). But I figured that if I amortized the cost over 10 or 15 years, I'd come out ahead, and everything after that would be gravy.

In fact, I thought I'd probably have the cellar cost amortized in less than 10 years because locker rental rates had been increasing every year and, like everything else, would probably continue to increase. (Sure enough, they're now about $7 to $10 a case, compared with $35 to $75 a case for prefab cellars).

Besides, with a cellar in my basement, I'd have less risk, more control, far more convenience--and a real pride of ownership: My Own Wine Cellar.

I told Mercier we had a deal. Then he and Collins began taking measurements and speaking constructionese and I stood around nodding dumbly for a couple of hours.

Over the next several weeks, Mercier faxed me several possible designs. My collection was about 70% red, 30% white, about 60% French, 20% Italian, 15% California and 5% Port and miscellaneous, and I wanted to organize the wines by color and region of origin.

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