NEW YORK » WineCare marketed itself as a high-security cellar that stores, catalogs and cares for 27,000 cases of wine in the basement of a Manhattan warehouse, charging substantial fees to safeguard collections worth tens of millions of dollars.
But there was one problem: The cellar was just 100 yards from the Hudson River. And when Hurricane Sandy struck, the water came rushing in.
Eight months later, WineCare has become the scene of one of the strangest stories to emerge from the storm, a classic Manhattan tale featuring boldfaced names, high-stakes legal battles and top-shelf luxury.
Shortly after the flooding, the owner sent customers a reassuring email: "We believe at least 95% of the wine we are storing is fine."
But since then, WineCare, which once offered a same-day delivery service from its warehouse in the Chelsea neighborhood, has steadfastly denied customers access to even a single bottle of Chbteau Rayas Chbteauneuf-du-Pape, Kistler chardonnay or Rousseau Chambertin.
Now, amid concern that century-old bottles have been spoiled or celebrated vintages rendered anonymous by lost labels, some of the city’s most prominent wine collectors – including Donald Drapkin, a hedge fund manager who estimated the value of his wine collection at $5.2 million – have sued WineCare, which is now in bankruptcy.
Hurricane Sandy killed 44 people in New York City and damaged or destroyed 305,000 homes in New York state alone, making the October storm one of the most destructive ever to strike the United States. So despite the extraordinary prices associated with the bottles in peril, the fate of a cellar of expensive wines has not elicited much public sympathy.
Even the federal judge hearing the case scolded lawyers for the wine owners for their level of urgency. "There were thousands of victims of Hurricane Sandy," he said, "most of which suffered a great deal more than your clients have."
But trying to ascertain the fate of the wine has become a relentless crusade for some of the owners and a matter of fascination within the ranks of wine collectors.
"Everyone in the New York wine world is aware of it," said Jamie Ritchie, president of Sotheby’s Wine, an auction house.
Meanwhile, Derek L. Limbocker, a onetime investment banker and society figure who founded WineCare and made it into one of the country’s largest wine-storage facilities, has publicly maintained that a vast majority of wine under his care is safe.
He did not return calls requesting comment.
But, under questioning at a creditors’ meeting in March, Limbocker revealed that floodwaters and humidity lifted the labels off as many as 100 cases; cardboard boxes containing the wines disintegrated, and thousands of bottles broke as they were lugged up or down the stairwells of the warehouse.
Customers do not know the extent of the damage, because their repeated requests to view video from the round-the-clock, 16-channel surveillance system featured in the marketing materials, have been denied.
"It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen," said William C. Carmody, a trial lawyer who stored about 29 cases of wine at WineCare that he says are worth $104,000. "I’m still being charged a monthly fee. But you can never get a straight answer."
In January, one day before Philip Waterman III, a real estate investor with $300,000 worth of wine at WineCare, was to conduct a court-ordered inspection of his 198 cases of wine, Limbocker blocked the maneuver by filing for bankruptcy.
His lawyer, Lawrence V. Gelberg, later told the court he needed "a proverbial breathing spell."
Waterman, Drapkin and others recently filed a motion asking the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Manhattan to appoint a trustee to oversee WineCare and block the company’s pending move to a warehouse in Jersey City, N.J.
They said in a legal brief that they had "lost faith in Derek Limbocker’s judgment, his management ability, and, most importantly, his integrity."
Judge Robert E. Gerber denied the request and expressed little sympathy for their plight. At a hearing this month, he said there had been no evidence of criminal conduct and instead portrayed them as overly eager to get their wine when they wanted it.
"What we have instead is a failure to meet predictions, not even promises," the judge said.
George R. Bunn Jr., a lawyer, wine collector and member of the Bunn coffee maker family, said Limbocker, his friend, was the victim of a natural catastrophe. He acknowledged that WineCare’s efforts to get its cellars in order had taken "an awfully long time."
"Derek is an honest, straight guy," Bunn said. "They tell me that 95 percent of the wine should be fine. We all hope we’re not part of the 5 percent."
A wine enthusiast who once owned a liquor store on the Upper East Side, Limbocker saw a business opportunity in 2005, when he opened WineCare in the cellars of a brick warehouse that covered an entire block, from 11th to 12th avenues, between 27th and 28th streets. He and his partners, including one of the warehouse owners, pitched their service to collectors, restaurants and wine shops.
WineCare featured everything the discerning oenophile would want. Coolers kept the storage cellars at a constant 55 degrees and 60 percent humidity, ideal conditions for preserving old bottles. There was a 24-hour security system and sophisticated software for tracking the location of each bottle.
As rare wine shifted from just a luxurious indulgence to an investment commodity, the company grew rapidly, until October, when the storm sent water gushing into the cellars.
Hortense Bernard, general manager of Millesima USA, a wine store that had 3,870 bottles at WineCare, said the storm waters should not have damaged the wine. But rapid changes in temperature and humidity can hurt wine. And, she added, "you can’t sell a $1,000 bottle of wine without a label."
In the aftermath, Limbocker, who is married to a member of the du Pont family, sent an email to customers saying that workers were carrying the 30-pound cases of wine from the temperature-controlled cellars to higher floors.
Two weeks later, with 50 cases of wine piling up at his Park Avenue co-op, Waterman asked Limbocker for advice on an alternative storage facility. Waterman also offered to give Limbocker temporary space in one of his buildings.
But relations turned sour in December, after Limbocker told Waterman he had "absolutely no idea" when he could get access to his wine. Waterman soon filed suit against WineCare in state Supreme Court.
"Fine wine, such as that in Mr. Waterman’s collection, is fragile and can easily be damaged if not kept in a climate-controlled environment," the suit said.
Some restaurant owners who stored their wine at WineCare, like Keith McNally, are also seeking damages, because they were forced to quickly buy hundreds of cases of wine at top prices in order to serve diners.
Two of McNally’s restaurants – Minetta Tavern and Morandi – filed claims for a combined $2 million worth of wine and $1 million in damages.
As the legal troubles mounted, Limbocker filed for bankruptcy protection. He pleaded for time, saying he did not want to stop the bottle-by-bottle cleaning of the inventory in order to find the wine of a select group of large collectors.
"It’s impossible without scanning thousands of cases of wine to find any particular client’s cases of wine," his lawyer told the court.
In May, some of the wine owners, including Waterman; Lucio A. Noto, the former vice chairman of Exxon Mobil, and Barry S. Volpert, a partner at Crestview Partners, an investment firm, filed motions asking the court to appoint a trustee and block Limbocker’s plan to relocate.
They were "no longer willing to tolerate the myriad excuses that the debtor has used to prevent some customers from seeing or recovering a single bottle of their wine," according to the motion. "Debtor is now putting the wine at even greater risk as a result of the planned move in a season of high heat and humidity."
The collectors lost on both counts; the wine is headed for New Jersey.