It was Saturday night and Gary White, an avid cook and wine collector, had prepared a spectacular dinner for his girlfriend.
The 38-year-old Laguna Hills resident had saved a special bottle of white wine for the occasion, but the romantic moment when he poured it turned sour after just one sip. Suddenly he was out of his chair, opening another bottle, then another. . . .
Each tasted like vinegar.
"We'd just had a hot spell, and my white wine had gone bad," White recalled.
He had lost about 24 bottles--not to mention the glow a fine wine would have added to the evening with his girlfriend.
That was about a year ago, and White hasn't lost a bottle since.
Like many other wine enthusiasts who start by storing bottles in the coolest place in the house--usually a closet--he decided he needed more protection for his prized collection.
He discovered that manufacturers in the wine industry were a step ahead of him: They already had produced a variety of portable, temperature-controlled wine cellars for those who have outgrown the wine rack but don't have enough wine--or room--for a full-fledged cellar.
Bob Sizemore, president of Wine Chillers of California in Santa Ana, sells everything from a 60-bottle cellar priced at $795 to a walk-in cabinet that holds more than 2,000 bottles and costs $6,595.
He said the most popular model is one that looks like a refrigerator but contains a wine rack that holds 288 bottles. It sells for $1,985 and usually goes in the garage, though some put it in the kitchen.
There also is a demand for large oak credenzas that are attractive enough to dress up the dining room. Sizemore sells one credenza that holds 120 bottles for $1,940 and another that holds 625 bottles for $3,540.
"We have a lot of people with large storage systems in the garage or basement and a credenza in the house for daily use," Sizemore said.
Hi-Time Cellars in Costa Mesa sells portable, temperature-controlled cellars ranging from a capacity of 36 to 410 bottles and priced at $450 and up, and A1 Home Appliance and TV in Santa Ana offers a variety of sizes ranging in price from about $500 to $3,000.
Regardless of their size, the portable cellars protect fine wines by keeping them at a constant temperature and humidity level--55 degrees with 70% humidity is ideal for aging both white and red wines, Sizemore said.
Some credenzas also have a chilling plate that enables collectors to bring as many as eight bottles at a time to serving temperature (65 degrees for reds, 45 for whites) without affecting the temperature of the wines in storage.
Sizemore, who lost about 130 bottles of wine stored under his stairwell to spoilage before he discovered portable cellars, said that about 200 of his customers have bought as many as six different wine cellars as their collections have grown. They prefer buying the portable units to building their own cellar--as many high-end custom homeowners are doing--because they want to be able to take them along when they move, he noted.
Gary White, who owns a kitchen-design firm in Newport Beach, ended up buying three 65-bottle cellars with glass doors and making his own credenza by framing them with white plastic laminate. He spent about $3,500 on what he calls a "very attractive piece of furniture" for his kitchen.
White, who said his customers increasingly ask him to include small, portable wine cellars in their kitchens, decided to make his own credenza because he wanted something contemporary rather than the traditional oak models on the market.
Sometimes he has as many as 400 bottles in his collection, but as the hot summer months approach, he makes sure he doesn't collect more than he can fit into his temperature-controlled cellars, he said.
Many of the portable cellars on the market are miniature versions of the best cellars in the chateaus of France, said Michael Andrews, general manager of the Wine Spectator Collection, a firm based in San Francisco and New York that sells a variety of temperature-controlled wine cellars by catalogue.
"There's an amazing difference between wines stored under correct conditions and those that are not," he said. "It's not just a matter of having a place to store wine under ideal conditions so that when you go to drink that special bottle, it hasn't turned to vinegar. You can also pick up young wines at a good price and keep them in the cellar to bring them to their peak."
Although some collectors prefer to build their own cellars or rent a temperature-controlled locker--Hi-Time Cellars, for example, has lockers starting at $130 a year for 144 bottles--Andrews said the demand for portable wine cellars is growing.
"I thought we'd have saturated the market years ago, but it's a burgeoning industry still," he said.
That doesn't surprise Ron Loutherback, owner of the Wine Club, a large wholesale store in Santa Ana where wine lovers can taste as well as buy.
"Fine wine collecting is hotter than it's ever been in the 25 years I've been in this area," he said. "There's almost frantic buying when the most collectible wines are released. People take off work and rush from one store to another to buy them."
Loutherback, who sells about 15 refrigerator-size cellars a month at $1,399, said many of his customers still keep their collection in a closet because they would rather spend their money on wine than storage.
If the closet is insulated and the temperature doesn't get higher than 70 degrees, the wine is likely to be safe--though it probably will mature faster than it would in a cellar, he explained.
But, like Gary White, many learn the hard way that closets can be risky in this climate.
White doesn't plan to take any more chances.
"I'm breathing easier knowing my wines aren't going to spoil," he said.