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Ventura County

Storage Companies Tapping In to Wine

July 28, 2002|STEVE CHAWKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For some collectors, aging fine wine is as simple as a stroll to the cellar.

But others have little access to the dark and silent temperature-controlled havens where the grapes of worth are stored. Instead, they stash cases of wine in bedroom closets and on top of refrigerators where hefty investments easily can turn sour.

In the last year, though, at least four Southern California self-storage facilities have opened wine cellars for enthusiasts who don't have their own. The rows of compartments, which contain everything from a grandmother's old furniture to the remains of households shattered by divorce, now also hold vintage vino, kept in conditions optimum for aging.

"It hasn't really proven itself yet, but it's definitely a new trend," said Bill Hobin, president of the California Self Storage Assn. "We're seeing a strong demand from consumers in the baby-boomer population who want to store anything from one bottle to 400 cases."

Following the lead of self-storage owners in Anaheim, Pasadena and Malibu, Jay Sundher has included 1,000 square feet of wine space in his newly expanded Thousand Oaks facility.

Sundher, who plans a $6.4-million transformation of Thousand Oaks Self Storage into the newly dubbed Hollywood Storage Center, said he did an extensive marketing survey on wine. The result is a dimly lighted, locker-lined room kept at 55 degrees Fahrenheit and 70% humidity. It has a refrigeration system that can run off a backup diesel generator in case of blackouts and a wine-tasting room for use by clubs.

"There's an incredible demand for this, especially in the Conejo Valley," he said.

Cellar Masters in nearby Westlake Village has been cashing in on that demand for years. Primarily a builder of wine cellars, the business also stores wines for more than 100 collectors. A cooling technician is on 24-hour call should the temperature unexpectedly fluctuate.

With fees as low as $16 a month, Sundher expects to triple his wine storage area in a year. He plans to open the cellar in early August.

Jeanne Bartlett, head of a 200-member wine appreciation club called Ventura County W.I.N.O., won't be a customer. She has a refrigerated armoire that holds 750 bottles of wine. Such systems can be costly and noisy, and to keep down the din, Bartlett stations hers in the garage.

"It might also be why I have a fairly high electric bill," she said.

Appealing to wine aficionados is part of a strategy to dress up the drab business of self-storage, industry experts say.

"We want to get away from the metal shed look," said Tom Litton, a Lodi-based self-storage owner and consultant. "In the South, they're experimenting with a colonial plantation look. In California, you see fountains. We don't want to look any different than a Marie Callender's or other nice retail outlets."

In Thousand Oaks, Sundher has opted for a show-business theme.

Wax figures of Marilyn Monroe and Arnold Schwarzenegger will grace the lobby, courtesy of the Sundher family's Hollywood Wax Museum. A wall-mounted TV will continuously show "The Wizard of Oz," "E.T." and other family films.

"Normally, storage comes from a negative experience, like divorce, the loss of a loved one or a business downsizing," Sundher said. "We wanted to make it a more fun environment."

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