By June naylor
Photos by Ron Jenkins
Wine lovers make it their business to help fellow enthusiasts with everything from storage to cellar design.
Ask Lisa and Mark Nelson who gets credit for the significant success of Classic Wine Storage & Services, a one-stop resource for wine connoisseurs, and they point at each other. The Southlake couple, who launched their small business in 2006 to service wine lovers like themselves, enjoys spreading the glory around. And why not? Their insightful venture has exploded. They can afford to be generous with their praise and have pride in their foresight.
“It’s all Lisa’s fault,” Mark says with a laugh. “She set us on this path.”
Lisa cops to the blame. They were newlyweds in 1996 when she gave Mark a wine 101 class as a birthday gift. Interest became intrigue. Finding a favorite wine shop near their home in Iowa, Mark would stop in every day to discover something new in their search for the next exciting wine. They remember their first big purchase, a bottle of 1991 Robert Mondavi Reserve, one of the more celebrated cabernet sauvignons made in California.
“We loved California cabs and then got into Châteauneuf-du-Pape,” Mark says, remembering their early romance with the beloved wine from the southern Rhône region of France. Soon, they upped their game with the world’s most famous bubbly, as Lisa recalls: “We bought our first Dom Perignon, a 1996, and thought we were so cool.”
Lisa’s job with Citigroup moved her to the company’s Irving office in 2005. They discovered, as do many relocated residents from the Midwest and Northeast, that few Texas homes have basements. The Nelsons, who settled in Southlake with their three young kids, needed proper storage for their wine collection. They found a facility in Dallas.
“I kept thinking, we could create a business like that and really enhance the experience for the customer,” says Mark, who landed a job in systems implementation for a local corporation. “There was so much that the wine collector could enjoy, beyond storage.”
Soon, they opened Classic Wine Storage, a 4,200-square-foot facility in Southlake. Within a year, Mark was working full time for their new business — just in time for the financial crisis to hit.
“We thought, ‘This will test us. We’ll see if this still works,’ “ remembers Lisa, who came aboard full time in 2011. “And it didn’t slow down a bit. It just kept growing.”
One of Classic’s first key services, aside from providing climate-controlled storage, was offering refrigerated vans for moving wine from one place to another. The spectrum of services now includes working with wine shipping companies on behalf of clients, taking delivery of wine at the storage facility, and organizing and managing wine inventory for collectors. The Classic staff even helps inventory collections at home cellars.
As clientele grew, Classic’s reputation expanded, as well. A total of a dozen wine experts now work at the three Classic locations. Dallas’ Classic Wine Storage — now at 15,000 square feet — opened in 2011 near the Galleria, and the 18,000-square-foot Fort Worth facility opened in 2013 in the Tanglewood area. After expanding the original Southlake location a few times, the Nelsons moved to a new 52,000-square-foot warehouse. Just since 2015, the Southlake staff has received 46,000 deliveries of wine, weighing more than 500 tons, for clients.
Not bad for what Mark calls “a small niche market.” Help for all the growth came from new partners Terry and Susan Perkins, Keller residents who joined the team in 2011. Terry soon retires from a 30-year career with XTO/Exxon. “I started out as a customer,” says Terry. “I needed storage and saw what Classic offered. I told Mark to call me if he wanted to expand.”
The Southlake facility isn’t fancy. It’s located in a warehouse district with plenty of parking and roll-up doors for loading and unloading.
Inside, there are common areas for clientele: a spacious social room with tables and chairs along with a wall-mounted flat-screen and a kitchen stocked with plenty of stemware. Venture through another set of locked doors and the temperature drops dramatically. You’re greeted with the aroma of wood and wine along with row upon row of “lockers” stacked three levels deep, with room for one more row. Storage locker options are for wines by the case; smaller lockers accommodate 12 to 144 cases, and the larger spaces (available in Dallas and Fort Worth facilities) allow for 288 to 576 cases. The slatted wood doors, padlocked, offer only a glimpse of the vintages inside, which are stored in racks made of heavy cardboard tubes. The warehouse is well insulated, and a backup generator ensures that inventory stays safe in case of a power outage. It’s function over form, and it works.
Although the greatest need is from clients who don’t have enough space in the home cellar or who need temporary storage while moving from one home to another, there’s concierge help that goes far beyond overseeing individual storage lockers. With its team of sommeliers, Classic helps clients find wines to match their tastes. Even the novice collector is a valued client.
“We help someone new to wine figure out where to start,” Mark says. “We work with a kid just out of college and wanting to get into wine or a CEO who’s been collecting for years. There’s plenty we can do. We believe wine collecting should be fun, so we say, ‘Let us do all the work.’ We do everything that makes collecting easy for the client.”
Sommelier Clare Gillette, who joined Classic’s team two years ago, counts among her tasks the job of wine hunter.
“When a client says, ‘You should try this wine I found on vacation,’ I go find it,” says Clare, whose recent searches included an elusive pinot noir from Patagonia. She found it, along with “head-turning” old-vine chardonnay from that region. The wine community right under the facility’s roof generates endless wine adventures. “There’s a lot of peer-to-peer discussion here, because wine is such a social thing.”
Classic clients frequently meet one another at their lockers and find out they’re from the same neighborhood. Soon they’re opening bottles and sharing their wines in the social areas at the Southlake facility and going out to dinner together. As Lisa notes, “People like being the first to discover something new and exciting, and they love sharing their finds with other collectors.”
Classic also purchases wine for clients from wholesale and importing partners, passing along good deals that help build prestigious collections. Gillette cultivates relationships with her resources that make special acquisitions possible.
“Just this year, we’ve been working out great offer prices on the highly anticipated 2008 Dom Perignon and a best-in-the-U.S.-price on a really delicious 2016 Bordeaux,” she says.
Classic employs designers for clients wanting to create a perfect cellar or storage space at home. Sometimes that means working with an architect who’s including an underground space for wine storage, but often the job involves fashioning a stylish, glassed-in wine space near the kitchen or converting a home office to a wine room — complete with a wine bar for entertaining guests.
Their success with their three locations raises the obvious question: Will they re-create this concept elsewhere? With such a good template in hand, why not? Lisa and Mark smile and nod slightly. Though noncommittal, Mark admits, “There are lots of underserved markets across the country that need this.”
BY THE NUMBERS
Size of Southlake facility 52,000 square feet
Storage available From 12- to 144-case units in Southlake, and in the Fort Worth and Dallas facilities,
288- and 576-case units as well
Constant temperature 55 degrees