Where wine and secrets are left to age

Storage site rich in vintages and, in some cases, intrigue.

Posted: July 15, 2007

What kind of business doesn't want you to find it?

The kind filled with millions of dollars of wine that is not for sale.

Scot H. "Zippy" Ziskind, a South Philly engineer who designs and builds elaborate wine cellars for rich people, also owns a small warehouse on the gritty fringes of Pennsauken. There, he keeps his 1978 MGB sports car, a basketball hoop, and 144,000 bottles of very expensive grape juice.

In 56-degree comfort, with 65-percent humidity and a backup electricity generator on the roof, Ziskind babysits 12,000 cases of wines for doctors, lawyers, bankers, restaurateurs and other oenophiles. It's part speakeasy, part clubhouse, and part safe house.

No sign gives away its presence. Through the dirty windows, nothing is visible except tools and scattered boxes. Only a few unwashed wine glasses on a side table give any hint that this is not just another refuge for industrial jetsam.

"Isn't that great!" exclaimed Ziskind. "Nobody has a clue what we're doing here!"

Behind closed doors are rooms full of rough cages made of two-by-fours and chicken wire, filled with cardboard boxes and wooden crates of Chateau Rothschild and Chateau Beychevelles and Chateau Latour. There are 4-by-4-foot cages that hold 50 cases, 8-by-8 cages that hold 200 cases. There is an expanse of 100 shrink-wrapped cases piled in the middle of the floor.

"That's a guy hiding the wine from his wife. She'll kill him if she finds out."

For a dozen years, Ziskind, 49, has been cellar-keeper to the rich and anonymous.

This is where cautious spouses hide expensive caches from their more frugal mates. This is where a doting father preserves his 8-year-old daughter's future wedding present. This is where divorcees-to-be stash their liquid gold to keep it out of the settlement.

"That belongs to a well-known orthopedic surgeon in the city," he said, pointing to a six-foot-high stack of wine cases. "He's never been here in 11 years."

Another client, Ziskind said, surprised him by bringing in 30 to 40 cases every few weeks and then buying the same amount at a wine store on his way home. It became clear after a few months, Ziskind said, that the client was covertly replacing his expensive wine collection with a much cheaper supply. By the time he divorced his wife a year later, he had exchanged $350,000 worth of wine for $50,000 worth.

Ziskind, a peripatetic chatterbox who created My Cellar with his wife, Marcie, defends his penchant for secrecy by pointing to a New York Times article posted on his wall: "In an Enclave of Serious Wine Lovers, a Mesmerizing Theft." It recounts a $100,000 wine burglary from an estate near San Francisco this year.

When a 2005 Chateau Latour can be worth $800 a bottle, can you be too careful?

Ziskind charges about $1.50 per case per month, depending on locker size. At that rate, 12,000 cases would be worth $216,000 a year in annual storage fees.

His warehouse is at 95 percent capacity, he said, with 20 people on a waiting list, hoping to get small lockers. He's about to expand, adding 400 square feet of storage space, he said.

"But it may already all be taken," he said. By one client.

Ziskind prefers not to see his clients here very often. This is a place to put wine one is not planning to drink for at least two years, he said. This is overflow storage, for people who can't accommodate all their wine at home.

Ziskind operates ZipCo Environmental Services Inc. (http://zipcowine.com; 215-625-3928), which installs wine-storage units in restaurants and homes. His customers have included golfer Greg Norman, Swift Boat donor (and new ambassador to Belgium) Sam Fox, former Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board chairman Jonathan Newman, and Le Bec-Fin owner Georges Perrier. He started the My Cellar warehouse after clients told him they were driving to New York to store wine.

He was also motivated, he said, by developers of condos and new homes who don't provide adequate wine storage for their affluent customers.

"Developers are morons. They advertise a 'wine cellar,' and you find out it has room for 24 bottles. That's crazy."

Every six weeks or so, Ziskind turns his warehouse into a meeting house for the Dead Guys Wine Society, a group of his friends and clients who share his interest in wine. Sometimes he provides the wine; sometimes everybody brings a wine according to the theme of the month.

Just don't call it a wine tasting.

"We don't do wine tastings. We drink," he said. "There's no spit bucket. You can smoke cigars. People play basketball. It's a very laid-back atmosphere."

And Ziskind and friends regularly assemble at South Philadelphia restaurants to sample some of their favorites. Last month, the star of the show was a $3,000 bottle of 1893 Chateau Margaux, corked when Grover Cleveland was president.

"It was very good. It was great," said Art Lassin, a Voorhees art-design business owner who stores his small wine collection with Ziskind and is one of the regulars at Ziskind's affairs. "One of the guys at the table got up and said, 'We should all stand up - this is a religious experience.' Well, it wasn't a religious experience, but it was very good."

Lassin said he had about 260 bottles, primarily Bordeaux, stored at My Cellar. His pride and joy is a case of 1982 Lafite-Rothschild that he bought in 1983 for $550 and could sell today for $21,000.

"I'm eventually going to drink this stuff, or maybe even sell it, and I want to keep it drinkable," Lassin said.

"This wine cellar stuff really works. . . . You store it cool and damp, with no vibrations and no light, and it becomes a great bottle of wine."

Lassin said both the advantage and the drawback of storing his valuable wine miles from home was that he couldn't drink it.

"I haven't seen my case of Lafite-Rothschild for, like, five years," Lassin said. "My only rule is that if I die before we open it, they have to bury it with me."

Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.

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