Holding History

Uncorking Pasadena’s wine storage industry

By Luke Netzley

Somewhere in a quiet storage facility, the whispers of a storied past echo from towers of endless shelves. Rows of meticulously labeled wine bottles hold liquid histories spanning across continents and centuries, waiting to be opened or sold by their owners.

Pasadena was once a wine haven with vineyards and wineries that helped make up California’s original wine country. Though development rapidly paved over the Los Angeles basin, this history has not been lost. It is survived by the ecosystem of wine storage businesses and their clients that thrives in the city today.

“Every bottle has a story,” says John Merriam, who has stored his wine at Pasadena Wine Storage on Raymond Avenue for the past eight years. “If you take a wine that’s not too expensive and give it some time in proper storage, it’ll get better and after five years you’ll find out you’ve got a better wine. In 10 years, it might have gone. Finding wine that’ll improve is the name of the game.”

Pasadena Wine Storage, which has operated for over 40 years, contains 14 walk-in lockers and over 500 stacked lockers with 27 cases each. The entire space is complete with security, cooling and humidity control systems to keep the bottles in optimal condition.

It’s a condition that, as Scott Toback, general manager at The Wine Grotto, describes, balances on a razor-thin edge and must be monitored at all times. 

“It’s very, very hard to duplicate the environment that we provide in your home,” Toback says. “We have redundant cooling systems. There’re two floors of wine storage. The first floor has two separate and distinct wine air-conditioning units that maintain the temperature at 55 degrees, so if one fails the other one would kick in. On the top floor, we have four separate distinct chillers, air-conditioning units. If one fails, No. 2 kicks in; two fails, three would kick in; three fails, four kicks in.”

While the temperature is kept at 55 degrees, Toback explains that the humidity must be kept at 70% so that the label can maintain its integrity and that the cork doesn’t rise.

Alongside the commercial humidifiers, the facility, which is “fanatically” guarded by a fingerprint-encrypted security system, also includes a commercial backup generator hookup so that, in the event of a “power-loss, end-of-the-world scenario,” Toback is confident that The Wine Grotto would maintain an acceptable temperature for up to five days.

The primary clientele for businesses like The Wine Grotto and Pasadena Wine Storage are collectors, who see wine as both a financial and emotional investment. At The Wine Grotto, Toback explains that some clients have stored their wine since the business’ founding in 2001. The current waiting list for a walk-in wine cage is two and a half years.

“This is investment-grade wine for the most part,” Toback says. “Most of the clients of The Wine Grotto aren’t really buying this to drink on Friday night. They’re buying wine that needs to be aged properly, that they’re going to drink down the line, wine that’s going to appreciate in value from the time they purchase it.”

For an enthusiast like Merriam, however, wine collection can also be a social endeavor. He founded a wine club that enjoys a weekly tasting session on Zoom. 

“Every week, we pick a couple of different cases from (Pasadena Wine Storage), so every couple gets the same bottles and we can compare them on Zoom,” Merriam says. “Frankly, it’s more social than it is about wine, but we have learned a lot about tasting the wines this way.”

Whether born from Tuscan vineyards, Bordelais chateaus or the rolling hills of Napa Valley, wine allows people to connect with a specific time or place with every sip. Through the efforts of Pasadena’s wine storage businesses, these connections may continue to be preserved and shared for generations to come.

Pasadena Wine Storage

421 S. Raymond Avenue, Pasadena

626-449-9215, pasadenawinestorage.com

The Wine Grotto

2233 E. Foothill Boulevard, Suite 200, Pasadena

626-275-2150, thewinegrotto.com