Horse Ridge Cellars has plenty of space to rent to wine collectors, with all the right qualities for storing those special bottles: it's dark, cool, moderately humid, vibration-free. But the cellar wasn't originally built so that wine could age safely -- it was built so that people and their financial records would be safe. It was built as a fallout shelter during the Cold War.
Finding the new wine storage facility, which opened in the northern Connecticut town of Somers in January, can be difficult if you don't know what to look for. Located next to a picturesque horse pasture, the cellar's entrance looks like a small shed tucked discreetly into a hillside. But walking through the door of that shed is a blast from the past, from the former decontamination shower at the entrance to the escape hatch hidden in the back.
A consortium of banks and insurance companies from the Hartford area originally built the fallout shelter in 1962 to store their records. In theory, when World War III ended, the consortium's members would be able to pick up business where they left off, ensuring that capitalism would live on even if the Soviet Union dropped the bomb.
But with the end of the Cold War and the shift to digital record-keeping, the consortium lost interest in its facility and sold it -- along with 150 acres of surrounding property, including a farm -- in February 1993 (ironically, on the same day that the World Trade Center was bombed). The land was purchased by a Connecticut developer, who sold the farm to a rancher who raises Belgian draft horses but didn't quite know what to do with the bomb shelter.
After tossing around a few ideas, the developer's son-in-law, Jed Benedict, realized that the shelter would be perfect for storing wine. Aside from clearing out the old documents, it wouldn't even need renovations before opening.
"It already had storage space for the papers," said Benedict, now co-proprietor of Horse Ridge Cellars along with his wife, Amie. "The physical integrity is perfect, considering the 15-inch-thick concrete walls, a backup generator and a vault door for security."
The air filtration system in the cellar was approved by the Atomic Energy Commission, which deemed the system adequate to pull radiation out of the air. The good news for Benedict's clients is that this system also filters out mold spores, so the wine labels don't deteriorate, as well as dust, leaving the floors and shelves spotless.
As the facility was built 10 feet underground, the temperature remains naturally cool, but the shelter's climate-control system ensures that it stays at a constant 55 degrees F and 70 percent relative humidity. The shelter also came equipped with a backup generator in case of a power outage, guaranteeing that storage conditions are stable no matter what. The cellar is kept in complete darkness when no one is inside.
For security, the alarm system in the shelter automatically alerts the local fire department in case of a fire and law enforcement in case of a break-in. But with one look at the 12-ton, 19-inch-thick steel vault door, any notion of danger from a masked thief wielding a crowbar is quickly dispelled.
Perhaps the biggest downside to Horse Ridge Cellars is its isolated location. The facility was placed to shield it from nuclear attack, and the closest metropolitan area is Hartford, about 30 minutes away by car. However, Benedict -- who is marketing the cellar to collectors as well as to retailers and restaurants, ranging from Boston down to New York -- does not see this as a disadvantage.
"Most storage areas in [New York] are either full or in a seedy neighborhood," said Benedict. "It's better to have your wine age in a secure area near a beautiful horse farm. If people want to lay down a wine for five or 10 years, then driving a few hours isn't a problem." However, for clients who can't make it out to the cellar, Benedict will personally pick up and deliver cases of wine for a charge of 50 cents a mile.
With 10,000 square feet of space and an estimated capacity of 50,000 cases, Horse Ridge Cellars still has plenty of room. Storage costs a little more than a dollar per month per case for up to 25 cases, and the fees get lower the more you store.
An added benefit is that, with each bill, Benedict will mail customers a financial portfolio stating how much their collectible wines are currently worth, based on recent auction prices. He also includes tasting notes and recommendations on how long the wine should be aged.
Musing over the six months' worth of food rations and canned water still left in the facility, Benedict joked, "We can add a clause to a client's contract: If the big one hits, the owner of the wine can come stay here. That way they know they'll be safe too."
For more information on storing wine at Horse Ridge Cellars, call Jed Benedict at (860) 763-5380, or go to the Web site at www.horseridgecellars.com.
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