Vine Vaults: Toronto's secret wine cellars

Wine collectors are turning to businesses like Fine Wine Reserve and Iron Gate to store and manage their hoards of bottles – worth thousands of dollars, and in some cases, millions.

Toronto's secret wine cellars

Just over 100,000 bottles of wine are stored in the cold, dark, misty cellar of the Fine Wine Reserve, below the street-level bustle of King and Spadina. Overhead, passersby may be toting a couple of bottles from the LCBO ready to crack them open when they get home, perfectly unaware of the multi-million dollar assets in the form of decades-old ferments in this 5,000-square-foot facility.

Here’s how you get to the Fine Wine Reserve: Look for one of the more nondescript buildings at the corner of King and Spadina, an intersection that specializes in nondescript buildings. Descend the stairs to an unassuming door; the one that looks like it could be a custodian closet or a room full of dusty water tanks and pipes. Swipe a pass card and lay your index finger on a fingerprint sensor and then pass through the opening of the two-foot-thick cellar wall to a sparsely decorated anteroom. There’s a rack for coats, but keep yours handy. Another swipe of the key card, and then you may surrender to the darkness, where a labyrinthine passageway of wooden storage lockers awaits.

It’s chilly down here. The cellar is kept at a consistent 13 C and routinely misted by foggers. It’s also closely watched: 18 infrared motion cameras keep track of exactly who is in the cellar and where they are, and a high-end security system notes which doors are being approached and opened.

Once inside, the effect of the darkness, the fog and the faint whiff of pine feel vaguely sauna-like, except here, it’s wine that enjoys a comfortable repose, not sore-bodied athletes.

Storing and aging wine properly is a complicated process. Most people assume it takes a certain amount of darkness and cool temperatures, and it does, but those are only third and fifth on the list of the five most important considerations when it comes to optimal conditions for a cellar.

“Any idiot can provide cold temperatures with refrigeration units,” says Marc Russell, founder of the Fine Wine Reserve. “The number one thing here is getting rid of fluctuations. Every time the bottle warms up, the air in the wine literally expands.”

That expansion pushes tiny amounts of air out of the cork, and then when temperatures fall, the air contracts, letting tiny amounts of fresh oxygen back into the bottle. So the most important part of ensuring optimal wine storage conditions is getting rid of temperature fluctuations. Number two is keeping the bottle moist: hence the foggers, which pump out filtered air anytime the humidity drops below 60 per cent, for up to 15 minutes per hour during the winter.

“Even if the bottles are on their side, keeping the bottom of the cork moist, the top part is exposed to the air. In dry temperatures, it will dry out, it’ll shrink, it’ll crack, like any piece of wood. And then it lets in too much air and it ruins your wine,” says Russell.

Number three: Cool temperatures. Number four: Keeping the bottles stabilized. Neither is a problem in subterranean downtown, far from the rumble of passing subway cars. On a tour, the affable proprietor and experienced tour guide (security orientation sessions for new members run three hours long), stops every few paces to explain in tangential detail all the gadgets and gizmos of this facility. That includes the conveyor belt that carries cases down from an alley off Spadina, to the complex rig of condensers and evaporators that stabilize the temperature in the cellar. Occasionally and repeatedly, he will punctuate each explanation with, “See? It’s a science application!” with a gleam in his eyes.

The average wine consumer will forget that most wines just don’t get better with age. Mass-produced wines are designed for immediate consumption, including premium wines. Even wines that are made to be aged have no guarantee of tasting all that delicious without proper conditions.

Aging affects wine in a number of different ways. The tannins in wine, a compound that occurs in the skin, seeds and stems of the grapes, will soften and combine, getting heavier over time, affecting the texture and flavour of the wine. Oxidation from the air left in the bottle will deepen the wine’s colour, while constant interaction of different acids and sugars will slowly mellow and bring out new flavours, depending on the variety.

“When a wine is first made and it’s young, it tends to have what are called primary flavours, which are fruit flavours, so it tastes like cherries or plums, or all kinds of strong fruit flavours,” explains Russell. “But as the wine ages, secondary flavours start to become more pronounced. Other things in a higher quality wine will come to the forefront, more subtle aromas and flavours, like leather, chocolate and vanilla.”

There’s a room at Fine Wine Reserve for tastings

When Russell started this business, it wasn’t necessarily in pursuit of incubating the finest tasting Burgundies in all the land, it was in pursuit of the science application. Not a lot of people feel all that comfortable working for long hours in tight, dark, cold spaces but Russell was: He had left a career behind as a geologist in the gold mining industry, where he had worked around the world, including five years out in the field in South America exploring centuries-old mines with bats whizzing by his head in Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras and Nicaragua.

“I had 40 addresses in 18 years or something,” he says. “And when I was 40, I said, ‘that’s it. I’m done with this and I want to come back home.’ So I came back to Toronto, and I thought, ‘there’s not a lot a geologist can do in downtown Toronto.’ ”

He found musicians, movie industry vets and execs to put down up to $18,885 a month

In January 2004, after a three-year search for the perfect location and $600,000 sunk into construction, climate-control tech and security, he opened the doors of Fine Wine Reserve. He quickly found clients amongst the who’s who of Toronto: musicians and movie industry vets and C-level executives, putting down up to $18,885 a month to safeguard their collections, which can max out at 7,200 bottles in a walk-in locker.

“I wasn’t interested in wine as much as I was bored by telecom”

Around the same time, across the city, another wine storage facility popped up in an old fur coat vault in Leaside. (It turns out that wine and fur coats both thrive in the same cold, humid environment.) Warren Porter, the founder of Iron Gate Wine Management, had just left a career in the telecom industry and, like Russell, was looking for a second act.

“I wasn’t interested in wine as much as I was bored by telecom,” says Porter dryly.

Not long after opening the storage facility, Iron Gate expanded their horizons into wine management, which encompasses estate auctions, assisting the international sale of collections, and operating a retail outlet in New York State for Canadian collections. A lot of their clients are lifelong collectors impacted by various life events that lead them to sell parts of their collections.

“I call it the Four D’s: death, divorce, debt and dry,” explains Porter. “‘I’ve separated with someone, or I’ve downsized, or it’s an estate, or my doctor says I can’t drink anymore. So I’ve got 5,000 bottles of wine. What do I do with them?’”

Iron Gate now has three storage facilities, including one in Buffalo, New York. The largest single collection is around 17,000 bottles. Theirs is not the Bond-worthy hidden lair that private-key holders can waltz in and out of when they’re passing through like at Fine Wine Reserve. It’s the hands-off case storage you leave your enormous collection in when you can no longer fit it all in your basement in Rosedale, or if you have to move to Geneva for five years.

Iron Gate recently spent over US$100,000 to implement a management system which will give clients even more targeted information on their assets, including historic pricing trends of each bottle of wine, peak drink-by dates and notifications on when a certain wine exceeds a certain dollar value for collectors to sell – all accessible by iPad.

The wine they store and sell tends to be the high-end collections: many of the buyers for the very top-end of wine Iron Gate sells are located in China and Hong Kong. Last November, they negotiated the sale of a six-litre (or imperial) 1979 La Tache to a buyer in Macau for almost US$50,000.

“I know guys who don’t drink wines that are, certainly, anything younger than 20 years old,” Porter says. “I have other friends who will drink almost nothing that’s not from the ’50s and ’60s.”

He also has clients who are the opposite.

“I get a lot of calls from people who go, ‘Warren, I just don’t want to drink a $1,500 bottle of wine,’ ” he says. Those are the bottles that go out of the private collection and into the asset management arm of the business.

Now, 15 years on, those assets are growing at both Fine Wine Reserve and Iron Gate. According to Porter, wine storage needs keep growing and growing, with increased interest from what he calls “younger new money” – a trend that Russell has also seen.

As for Russell, he himself has casually, over time, amassed his own modest collection of around 400 bottles. The science application part is over; the self-storage facility basically runs itself, as self-storage facilities of any kind are designed to. In 2013, he opened a case storage facility in Rexdale to cater to larger collections. And there are always larger collections. Russell’s collection will grow to warrant the locker he has; and then probably onto a larger one. Collections grow, because that’s what they do, at least until the Four D’s come knocking.

“People ask, ‘why do people have so much wine when logic dictates that they couldn’t drink all that in their entire life?’ ” muses Porter. “People collect because they collect. They start for many different reasons and they keep buying and collecting, and the next thing you know, they’ve got hundreds, if not thousands of bottles… but at some point, even if that’s coins or stamps, you’ve built up a million bucks worth of stuff over the course of your lifetime. So now what are you going to do and why?”

Is getting out a corkscrew and a couple of glasses really too far-fetched an idea?