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Buried Treasure

Stellar cellars have become status symbols in Manhattan's luxury apartment buildings

Matthew DeBord
Posted: April 16, 2001

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Buried Treasure

Stellar cellars have become status symbols in Manhattan's luxury apartment buildings

By Matthew DeBord

A penthouse view has for years been a crowning attraction in a luxury apartment. Today, however, wealthy buyers are paying attention to what's in the basement as well. It was probably only a matter of time. After a decade in which swimming pools, health clubs, spas, T1 lines and numerous other once-luxurious amenities became standard-issue, the developers of multimillion-dollar condominium conversions took a gander at all that unused space under their buildings and began to envision ... wine cellars.

These new cellars, completed or under construction in several Manhattan buildings, are hardly dark alcoves squeezed somewhere between the boiler and the super's office. The latest rage is for elaborate cellaring "environments," featuring everything from sealed, temperature- and humidity-controlled chambers to Tuscan decorative themes.

The most impressive of these luxury amenities can be found beneath the Loft, an 1878 former garment factory at 30 Crosby Street, in Manhattan's trendy -- and exceptionally expensive -- SoHo neighborhood. The building houses 13 apartments: eight 4,100-square-foot lofts; three "maisonettes" -- street-level duplexes with professionally landscaped private gardens; and a duo of jaw-dropping, $8 million duplex penthouses that feature titanium-clad exterior walls, Italian marble roof decks and glass-enclosed exterior stairwells that make snow and rain appear to fall inside the apartments. A 24-hour concierge, an aromatherapy system that perfumes the lobby, professional-caliber kitchens, trash chutes that separate garbage from recyclables and a newly landscaped sidewalk form the rich icing on an already lush real-estate cake.

The Loft's wine cellar is just a quick private-elevator ride from each apartment. Residents immediately realize that they have entered a dedicated wine realm. Although the building's overall aesthetic might be described as "minimalist deluxe" (thermostatically controlled nickel showers share space with polished concrete floors, acres of windows and wood-burning fireplaces), the basement Enoteca, as it is called, evokes rustic central Italy.

Designed by Christine Hawley, the wife of Michael Aaron, CEO of Manhattan wine merchant Sherry-Lehmann, the Enoteca achieves its cozy effect through precise detail. The basement has been revamped with false vaulting, iron gates, wood-inlaid flooring, cement rinsing sink, limestone fireplace, reference library and a tasting room that residents can reserve for personal use. Temperature-controlled storage options are tied to individual apartments and included with the purchase price. The maisonettes and most of the lofts get large cabinets, each of which holds 1,000 bottles, while the penthouses and one of the lofts receive spaces that can accommodate 3,500 bottles. All told, the Enoteca can accommodate 20,000 bottles.

A maisonette buyer indicated that the Enoteca was one of the property's chief attractions, second only to its location. Laurence Isaacson, a former classmate of Mick Jagger and cofounder of Groupe Chez Gerard, which operates over 30 restaurants in London, said, "I bought a duplex because I intend to spend more than a few months each year in New York. I loved the fact that the building is only a block away from Balthazar and a few blocks away from Dean & DeLuca, as well as having a great wine cellar and tasting room, which certainly attracted me. It's so sophisticated, and very European. I intend to use it as my dining room."

Actress and musician Courtney Love and rocker Lenny Kravitz have also reportedly signed contracts for 30 Crosby. These are exactly the kinds of buyers developers Stephen Touhey and Edward Baquero, of Landmark Development, had in mind when they came up with the idea for the Enoteca. Both have clearly poured a lot of thought into the wine cellar's amenities.

"I'm kind of a wine geek," reveals Baquero. "My father was a collector, and we always had a cellar in our house, back before people knew what a wine cellar was." He explains that Landmark auditioned several wine consultants and designers before settling on Hawley, whose renderings spurred the partners to consider a more spectacular concept. "At first," Baquero says, "people thought we were crazy." Crazy like real-estate tycoon foxes, it seems. According to Baquero and Touhey, another developer who toured the Enoteca during construction returned to his own Tribeca project and announced that he intended to include similar wine-storage facilities in the property.

Baquero is determined to "educate people who don't know anything about wine." For him, the Enoteca represents a means of separating the Loft from the pack by offering something special and intimate for buyers. "Residents will collect differently," he says. "We have taken that into account, providing storage options for individual bottles, for larger formats, for cases and even cigars. There will also be places for residents to store their own glassware, their own corkscrews and so on."

The Loft isn't the only luxury building in Manhattan that offers cellaring facilities. Developers Will and Arthur Zeckendorf included 15 1,000-bottle wine cellars in a project completed two years ago at 515 Park Avenue. According to Will Zeckendorf, the cellars appealed to several buyers who had already been bitten, as he has been, by the collecting bug. "The units are functional," he says, indicating that they have thermostats and locking systems, but adding that the cellaring space itself is intended for storage, not tasting.

According to several real-estate agents, wine cellars are a clear sign of the economically booming times. Andy Gerringer of Douglas Elliman, one of New York's most prominent real-estate brokers, says that these days nearly every building he recommends to clients has some sort of wine storage. "At least a wine refrigerator," he says. "It's like health clubs were in the 1980s -- a very attractive amenity."

Bret Bobo, the director of sales for a ten-condo building at 838 Fifth Avenue on Manhattan's Upper East Side agrees. The apartments in this new building are priced between $9 million and $18 million, with wine storage included in the purchase package. There are nine cellar spaces, each with temperature and humidity control features, but thus far, even though most of the apartments have been sold, only two buyers have chosen to pursue the wine-storage option.

From Bobo's perspective, wine cellars in super-luxury buildings have begun to appear more often during the last four years. Prior to this, buyers would undertake cellar-construction themselves. "But now providing wine cellars has become a requirement, in order to remain competitive," Bobo says. "Besides, we wanted to do something with the space."

The mild rush to construct cellars doesn't appear to have made any developers, agents or buyers even slightly self-conscious about the extension of affluenza to the relatively private realm of wine collecting. The obvious question is whether anyone really needs his own private tasting room in the basement. Many Manhattan basements offer perfectly adequate wine-storage opportunities without the construction of underground Tuscan grottoes and backup cooling systems that would kick in to rescue threatened jeroboams of aging Bordeaux.

Still, wine is clearly on the ascent as a symbol of both status and taste, so it should come as no surprise that developers have finally discovered that they can use showcase cellars to woo apartment hunters who think they've seen it all. At Trump World Tower, going up near the United Nations, the cellar will be a relatively conservative 360 square feet, but according to the architect, Craig Smith of Smith Palmer and Famulari, it will feature no shortage of luxury details: distressed pine flooring salvaged from demolished buildings, an Italian tile wall, electronically keyed wine lockers, a vaulted ceiling and a specially designed lighting system. He estimates the eventual capacity at 6,000 bottles.

There are skeptics. Douglas Elliman's Helene Luchnick, who brokered a sale at 30 Crosby, isn't convinced that shared amenities, such as cellars or roof gardens, make much difference in the end. "Unless it's general storage, people couldn't care less," she says, offering a tart dissenting perspective.

Nevertheless, for many wealthy New Yorkers, posh cellars do represent a way to announce the advent of Château Chez Moi. "A cellar that's going to be used to do more than simply store wine is a pretty substantial investment," says William O'Neill, a residential architect who was originally slated to design the large cellar at 838 Fifth Avenue. "It's not something that a typical middle-class family would do."

However, the Loft's Baquero doesn't believe that his Enoteca is an outlandish luxury. His view is that he and his partners must offer a "very cool" wine cellar in order to remain competitive in Manhattan's ferocious real-estate market. Planning the Enoteca merely added an edge to his and Touhey's thinking. "We didn't want it to be a cliché," he says. "We wanted it to be a 21st century wine cellar in New York City."

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