The horizontal elevator doors slam shut with a firm metallic clang, feeling eerily like some gigantic creature’s metal mouth has just swallowed me whole as I sink slowly down, down below the Chelsea Market, through brick and concrete, leaving fresh air and daylight too many uncomfortable feet above my head.
But if this is what it’s like to be eaten alive by one of the most prestigious subterranean wine storage facilities in New York City, I’ll play Pinocchio to Chelsea Wine Vault’s whale belly any day of the week—that is, as long as I’m provided with a sturdy corkscrew.It is here, far beneath the cheery wine shop, that 425 of New York City’s most avid wine collectors store their liquid treasures: 25,000 bar-coded cases worth estimated millions.
The Vault’s founder, architect Dan Bartaluce, and partner Irwin Cohen’s “aha!” moment hit 11 years ago when Cohen was personally plagued with Gotham’s age-old vino conundrum: No appropriate, temperature-controlled storage space. The then-seedy wild, wild west of Chelsea seemed risky to some (“Everyone said my dad was crazy,” quips co-owner Amelia, who now runs the street-level shop. “Why open a wine store in a place with prostitutes on the corner?”), but the two men knew they were onto something. Their new landlord insisted that to take the 10,000-square-foot basement space, Bartaluce and Cohen had to lease the ground floor, too—so they did. Its high brick ceilings and ample floor space made an ideal retail space, perfect for bottle browsing and private tastings.
Bartaluce’s architecture expertise made the most of the basement’s cavernous twists and turns, but its below-level location made it kind of perfect all on its own. Word spread, and soon they became the go-to storage spot for city wine geeks, from dabblers to high rollers, all willing to spend between $70 and $2,000 a month for the temperature-controlled bottle utopia.
While the first clients were mostly restaurants (today, Gotham Bar & Grill, Picholine, the River Café, and San Domenico are among the eateries whose stores remain here, as well as some of chef Alfred Portale’s personal collection), it was private collectors—ranging from a few famous comedians and award-winning actors to Wall Street moguls, fashion designers and a well-known musician or two—who wound up being the best fit for the slim, packed, tall shelves, movable by nifty modern cranks that allow one to easily open up walk space between the stacked walls of cases, all of which are accessible to their personal collectors 24 hours a day, seven days a week, via a computerized bar-code tracking system.
Today the facility is officially at capacity and taking no new clients. Cellar manager Tom Trembley spends eight or nine hours every day roaming the packed, caged shelves and lockers, discreetly minding the secret stashes of case upon case of Montrose, Lafleur, Léoville-Barton, Bâtard Montrachet Grand Cru and vintage Bollinger. The temperature is maintained at a cool 55° F. and 85 percent humidity—numbers that Trembley checks throughout the day, though even when their state-of-the-art temperature control system was knocked out in the ’03 blackout, not a bottle was harmed; the cellar stayed nearly consistently temperate. Still, Trembley ensures conditions don’t vary so much as a degree. “I can tell,” he shrugs. Outside of that his lips, like a vault, are sealed.
Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell