Stellar Cellars:A Look at Five Wine Vaults That Impress

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on July 22, 2012)

In just a couple of years, the St. Mark’s Cellar Classic may well have become the wine auction of record in Santa Barbara County.  In its first two years alone, it raised more than a quarter-million dollars – impressive by any local auction standard – in support of the community-focused and non-denominational programs at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Los Olivos.  The third Cellar Classic takes place this coming Saturday, July 28th, from 4-7pm.  (Go to www.SMITV.org for tickets and information.)

The event draws crowds for the fine food and wine that’s doled out generously throughout the afternoon, and for the beautiful setting in the church’s picturesque courtyard.  And hobnobbing with stars of Santa Barbara wine – from pioneers to TV bachelors – has its allure, too.  But there’s no denying that the biggest attraction of all is the wine, itself – a lineup of fine, rare and cult wines that raise the eyebrows of even novice aficionados, and that have avid collectors making the drive to the Santa Ynez Valley from all over the state.  This year’s Classic features no less than eight 100-point wines – a 1949 Leroy Musigny, a 1961 Chateau Latour, a magnum of 1982 Lafite Rothschild and a 1999 Screaming Eagle, among them – which will easily go to the highest bidder for thousands and thousands of dollars.

These wines and many others like them – both at the Cellar Classic and at a bevy of other auctions that benefit local non-profit causes throughout the year – are special gifts from generous donors, of course.  Before they go on the auction block, they are part of someone’s personal, private cellar.  Before they raise funds for a purpose, they were one wine lover’s careful investment.

So we were inspired to open a few vault doors and take a peek inside some of the impressive private cellars in Santa Barbara County.  The five featured here vary in size and bottle count, and in the types of wines they house.  They may or may not be insured, or secured with elaborate alarms.  But they all contain at least a few – in some cases many – noteworthy bottles, and they are, ultimately, a testament to one individual’s penchant for something special.


Photo:Nik Blaskovich/SB News-Press
Dr. George Primbs, Santa Barbara
For Dr, George Primbs, the love of collecting wine was inspired by a Bordeaux he tasted in 1959, and on bending the rules just a bit.

“That wine tasted so great, I thought, ‘I should start collecting this stuff,’” recalls the Santa Barbara resident who, in the 1950s, was an Air Force flight surgeon stationed in Northern Africa.  “I could get French wines cheap there, but there was a rule we couldn’t bring it back home.”  So when he left the service in 1960, he got creative: from the same Plaster of Paris he used to fix fractures, he devised five large doorstops, which he filled with his first favorite bottles (and a lot of cotton for padding) and transported home to the States.

During the first 10 years in his Santa Barbara home, he stored his budding collection in the basement.  But when an El Nino storm in 1971 flooded it and jeopardized his stash, he began a 20-year project to build a latticework of light-frame racks above ground instead.  “I was on-call at St. Francis Hospital,” recalls the man who’d go on to become a celebrated ophthalmologist, “and whenever I’d have free time I’d come in here and, little by little, I’d work on these racks.”

Today, two converted garages are crammed with floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall furring strip frames that house a lifetime collection of some 25,000 bottles.  It’s rumored to be one of the largest wine anthologies in the city.  And that’s after he decided to thin out his collection two years ago through an international online auction, when some 20,000 bottles went to a Hong Kong company for the highest bid of $700,000.

Dr. Primbs prefers to stay tight-lipped about specific finds in his cellar, which he upkeeps these days with the help of his lady friend of two years, Barbara Gaughen-Muller.  But he admits, “I love collecting Bordeaux,” and many high-scoring releases dating back to the 1960s, 70s and 80s – French, mainly as well as numerous high-profile Californians – fill his racks.  Most have soared in value over the years.  “I don’t know how much I paid for a lot of this stuff,” he says with a laugh, “but I could have spent, say, $19 on a bottle back in 1961 and it could well be priceless today.”

His main motivator for continuing to collect, though, is “just having the rarities and creating novelty for others.”  In fact, guests to his home are often known to leave with a bottle from the vintage year of their birth.   Dr, Primbs also moves many of his bottles – including various he, himself, helps make under the celebrated local home winemaking label, Los Cinco Locos -- by donating dozens of cases a year to local charity events, including the Sansum Diabetes Research Institute’s annual Taste of the Vine event.  And he readily enjoys his own collection, too.  As his stands snuggly between his racks, he admits, “I come in here and drink about a half bottle every other day.”


Richard Harris, Santa Ynez
The charm of the cellar at the Santa Ynez home of Richard and Pamela Harris is evident even before you walk through the door.  Outside, it’s reminiscent of a quaint Provincial cottage, with empty wine barrels stacked against the wall, surrounded by flowering bushes of rosemary and lavender.  The backdrop is a bucolic landscape of rolling hills.  And adjacent to this small structure – which is attached to the Harris’ four-car garage – is a budding vineyard where one of Santa Barbara’s most celebrated wines is harvested every year.

It turns out that this wine-inspired project – to tack on extra square footage to the home they bought in 1996, including this quaint cellar – also included transforming the backyard into a field of grapevines.  Some 619 vines in all, which produce the annual 50-case production of the very sought-after Calzada Ridge viognier

The vineyard was, in truth, a hands-on project for Richard Harris, who took viticulture classes at Alan Hancock College in Santa Maria and planted the vines, himself.  But the decision to build a cellar grew out of need.  Major success in Mr. Harris’s Tinsel Town career had resulted in a vast collection of wine gifts.  But there was a problem: “Now we needed a place to keep them.”

Mr. Harris, is an Academy Award winning film editor.  He won the Oscar in 1997 for “Titanic,” and his career gigs include major films like “Fletch,” the “Terminator” series and “True Lies.”  The latter was also a movie his wife, Pam, worked on as special effects producer; among her previous work was the hit comedy, “Ghostbusters 2.” 

So as this Hollywood connection began generating fancy gifts of wine, especially in the 90s, the Harrises’ collection began.  Many bottles – which are kept in simple racks and loosely organized by region or producer in vertical rows – are actually labeled with a tag around the neck that reads “Gift.”   For example, “We were totally knocked out with a Burgundy – an Echezeaux – that Jim [Cameron] gave us once and that we drank during a Christmas dinner, just the two of us,” Mr. Harris recalls.  “It left a great, great memory.” 

Mr. Harris and his wife are partial to Burgundies, although some fancy Bordeaux wines – a 1996 Latour, for example – also catch the eye.  And so do several older vintages of Central Coast wines, like the ’98 Julia’s Vineyard pinot by Foxen.  Perhaps their most prized possessions, though, are the complete lineup – bottles of every single vintage – of their own Calzada Ridge wine, which saw its first harvest in 1998; their very first – a bottle tagged “Bottle # 001” – is easy to spot.

The cellar’s décor is simple: a small round table for four in the center, a writing desk stacked with winemaking books, a basket filled with hundreds of corks they’ve popped over the years.  A cooling system keeps temperature steadily in the upper 50s.  And the racks, admittedly, seem to be going empty a lot more quickly these days.  Mr. Harris admits, “We’ve definitely become the type of people who drink our collection.”


Photo: Steve Malone/SB News-Press
Richard Torin, Hope Ranch
There are some wonderfully rare wine finds inside Richard Torin’s cellar, which stands to reason.  That’s the business he’s in, after all.  Torin owns Clarets, one of the foremost players in the international fine wine trade, catering to collectors with fancy tastes all over Asia.

“Many people don’t realize it, but Hong Kong has been a sophisticated wine market for the last 20 years,” he says while he sits in his Hope Ranch home, just two days after returning from the fifth work trip of the year to the region.  “In mainland China, on the other hand, it’s more neophytes with new money.”

Torin readily comes in contact with the high-end wines his Asian clients demand.  Lots of French powerhouses like Chateau Petrus and Domaine de la Romanee-Conti.  And several California cult wines, like Harlan Estate and Screaming Eagle.  The latter “can demand $1600 a bottle in a mediocre vintage,” says Torin, “and $3000 in a good year.”

As fine bottles have crossed his hands, Torin has naturally succumbed to the temptation to buy some for himself.  He was in the English wine trade for many years before moving from his native London to Santa Barbara, and launching Clarets, in 1992.  Storing his wine appropriately has long been a priority.  So when he bought his current home in 1996, constructing a carefully designed cellar – carving it, in fact, into the earth underneath his house – made perfect sense.

On the exterior, his cellar mirrors a chateau-inspired cave, with an arched wooden door that leads out to a pool complex with sweeping views and enveloped by mint and rosemary vines.  Inside, it’s rustically quaint, and warmly lit, with added brightness coming through a floor-to-ceiling window.  Smooth stones line the floor, and contoured rocks line the walls.  “And I put in a sound system,” he says with a smile, as he points to a speaker in the ceiling.  Vintage Sinatra pours out.

About 800 to 1000 bottles, about 95% reds, are kept at a constant 57.4 degrees.  Mr. Torin is especially proud of his 1982 Bordeaux wines.  “It why I started in the business in the first place, a benchmark for our trade,” he says.  “The wines are of a fantastic quality.”

But while Mr. Torin believes, naturally, that wine can be fruitful investment – “An effective tool to see your capital grow,” he says – there is one bottle in his collection he’ll never sell.  “Ten years ago, I was clearing out a private cellar in St. Louis for a client who’d gotten married in 1961,” he recounts.  That year happens to be one of the classic vintages of the 20th century in Bordeaux.  “I ran across a Pomerol with the price tag still on it -- $3.75 – which I thought was so funny, I asked to take a photo with it.”  Funny, because these days that wine commands thousands.  His client, instead, gave it to him as a gift, with the promise he’d never sell it.  Referring to his teenage son, he says proudly, “I’ve earmarked it for the day Alex turns 21.”


Photo: Bill Morson/SB News-Press
Fredric Steck, Santa Ynez
Fred Steck’s wine collecting days began in the mid 1980s when, as a Bay Area-based financial expert with Goldman-Sachs, he was introduced by a co-worker to a man by the name of Gary Marcaletti.

“Gary has got to have the best small specialty wine shop in California,” says Steck of the well-known owner behind the San Francisco Wine Trading Company.  “Maybe in the whole country.”

Over the years, the wine-driven relationship between the two men has been a boon for Steck.  To this day, he depends solely on the Northern California wine expert to tip him off to producers and vintages he should buy.  For the first couple of decades of Steck’s collecting, when he didn’t have a private cellar, Marcaletti stored the budding bundle of bottles at his own shop.  And when it came time to build wine storage at Steck’s Santa Ynez Valley home – he bought the property on New Year’s Eve of 1999, razed the existing house and erected a beautiful three-level home during a multi-year project that ended in 2007 – it was Marcaletti who helped design it.

“He and Alex worked on it,” says Steck, referring to his 32-year old son, a recent MBA grad who once worked for Marcaletti.  “And the sub-contractors I had on the project were fabulous.”

Steck’s cellar is adjacent to the basement, close to 10 feet below the foundation’s soil grade.  It’s elegantly decked out, with designer lighting and cabinetry.  The floor is made of tile milled in Mexico.  And there are several cubby spaces where this collector displays high-end bottles of aged spirits, like tequila and cognac.

Several rack options allow for storage in varying sizes, from single bottles to magnums to box cases.  Most of the 1500 spaces are taken, mainly with classic French, Italian and Spanish wines organized in vertical fashion.  “Old World wines are more tannic, more patient, and you can experience them over time,” Steck says, and then reaches into a case of 1996 Rioja on the floor.  “I haven’t touched these yet, and it’ll be really good in another 10 years.”  The impressive French labels include a 1978 Chateau de Pommard, a 2000 Lafite Rothschild (“A great year,” Steck declares) and a 1988 Domaine de Montille, one of his favorites.

There are some notable California inclusions, too, like multiple vintages – in some cases stretching back to the 70s – of Opus One, ZD, Robert Mondavi , Jordan and Colgin.

As he glances around his cellar, Steck makes an admission.  “If I could do it again, I would not have used cement down here,” he says.  “It’s not efficient for conducting cold.”  The cooling system, which keeps the mercury at a steady 59 degrees, is kept on consistently.  “I would line the walls with brick, instead.”

Regardless, this vault is clearly a source of pride and enjoyment for Steck, who also raises quarter horses on his property and handles private equity in the natural pharmaceuticals industry these days.  “I love being able to pull a bottle at dinner and have people say, ‘Wow,’” he admits, “and seeing wine increase in value.  That’s definitely part of the fun.”


Photo: Bill Morson/SB News-Press
Steve Pepe, Lompoc
When Steve and Catherine Pepe bought land in the now-famed Santa Rita Hills near Lompoc in 1994, they had plenty of work to do.  The barn would have to be razed to make way for what would one day become some of the most sought-after pinot noir and chardonnay in the county—Clos Pepe Vineyards.  And a home would have to be built, and it would have one no-brainer feature: a wine cellar.

Mr. Pepe began his avid compilation of wines after he moved out to California from New Jersey in 1968.  “We were renters then, so our cellars were those under-the-kitchen-counter refrigerators,” he recalls.  But as they purchased homes throughout Southern California in years to come, they invested in more formal cellaring.  And in the new home in Santa Barbara wine country – they moved in full-time in late 2005 – their new cellar was designed with functionality in mind.

“The basic job of our cellar is to store wine and not to look pretty,” says Mr. Pepe, who added a deep, narrow 200-square-foot space to the garage that currently houses wine in double deep case racks, rather than a single-bottle system.  A cooling system keeps the thermometer at a steady 55 degrees.  And there’s a humidity monitor, thought the weather is mild enough so that it’s rarely needed.  “You don’t want the humidity to drop below 60% because that’s when the corks will dry out,” he cautions.

The size of his collection varies on the number of get-togethers they host each season, but the cellar is currently stocked to about two-thirds of its 3000-bottle capacity.  And it’s divided pretty evenly, based on  how the Pepes’ tastes have evolved over the years: 1/3 is vintage port, which they preferred in the 70s and 80s, 1/3 is fine Bordeaux, which they preferred to drink in the 90s, and 1/3 is fine Burgundies, which is their drink of choice today.  He keeps tabs on his assortment by numbering the bins and using a computer program called Cellar Tracker.

Among his favorite finds is a bottle he acquired as part of a mixed case at a tasting in the late 90s with Aubert de Villaine, part owner of Burgundy’s uber-famous Domaine de la Romanee-Conti.  He remembers paying $2,000 for the 12-bottle collection, which included one selection now valued, on its own, at about $10,000.  “Everyone says, ‘Sell it, sell it!’” says Mr. Pepe.  “But I’m not a flipper.  I buy wine to enjoy it and drink it.  That wine is coming into prime now so I’m sure we’ll find a special moment to open it.”

Enjoyment aside, Mr. Pepe has reached into cellar for wines to donate to myriad charities over the years.  Most recently, that includes the Cellar Classic, which he launched with fellow wine collector Brooks Firestone, to benefit St. Mark’s-in-the-Valley church in Los Olivos.  “There was pent up demand locally for an auction of this caliber,” he says.  This year, he donated a case of unique Burgundies to the Classic, and a 1961 Chateau Haut-Brion, a 100-point wine worth thousands.

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