From mine to wine, how a military munitions dump became the Wiltshire-based Octavian cellar
It's the start of the 20th Century, you've quarried Bath stone and made a big hole, what to do with it now? One old mine in Corsham, Wiltshire, plumped for life as a military munitions dump, but at only 90ft below ground, it ceased to be fit for the purpose when the Cold War rolled around and brought with it difficultto- store nuclear weapons.
So in 1986, The CERT Group of distribution and storage companies had a look. Underground?
Big? Secure tunnel entry? They bought the whole hole with the dandy idea to fill it with wine. Not in the French ‘we have too much, let's pour it away' way, but in a ‘let's make one of the most sophisticated repositories of fine wine in the world' kind of way.
For restaurants that pride themselves on their wine lists, it's ideal: The Waterside Inn, The Seafood Restaurant, Rules and Marlon Abela's MARC restaurants, which include The Greenhouse, Umu and Morton's Club, are already using the facility.
The attributes that initially tempted Octavian, the wine division of The CERT Group, into considering the space an ideal storage facility were its depth (which helps to reduce any vibration), size, security and the potential for some serious air conditioning. Airflow had been necessary for the military personnel working underground, so fans drawing down air from the surface were already installed when the site was purchased. Octavian then invested £1million in upgrading them so that the temperature at the bottom could be regulated, and they installed systems to manage humidity, which, if left unchecked can damage labels, storage boxes and corks.
Twenty years on and they've poured another quarter-of-a-million into a computerised environmental control system, capable of completely changing air temperature in 29 minutes. In a storage facility of one million square feet of floorspace, that's a lot of air.
There are currently somewhere in the region of eight-and-a-half million bottles of wine in Corsham. They are brought in on a light railway system built exclusively for stock (human traffic has to contend with 157 stairs) and are individually bar-coded and allocated. There are nine districts that can be sealed off from one another in the event of a catastrophe and between 35 and 40 staff members work underground at any one time for shifts of up to seven hours.
The cellar is a bonded storage facility, which means a lot of people buy their expensive wine from overseas and can bring it into the UK and store it without having to pay HMRC Duty or VAT until it's removed from the site.
Investment in wine is a growing business and a bonded cellar means the initial outlay can be reduced so that tax doesn't have to be paid until your ‘liquid' assets have ripened and can pay for themselves.
Bottles can be retrieved and sent to their owners by next-day delivery throughout the UK, or faster if needed. The majority are Bordeaux and Burgundy, a recent shipment of which has doubled its value in one year.
The cellar contains cases valued in excess of £50,000, and recently sent to auction a bottle of sherry from the 1650s that sold for £36,000, despite being undrinkable. Octavian has the wine insured for many millions of pounds and routinely searches every vehicle that leaves the site. Staff are unlikely to be able to carry too much up the stairs and, for security reasons, are not allowed down them with corkscrews.