Wednesday, February 16, 2005

From war to wine

Storage facility is part of the changing face of Mare Island

By RACHEL RASKIN-ZRIHEN, Times-Herald staff writer

Grapes aren't the only thing growing in the Napa area. There is also a need for wine storage warehouses growing in the region - a need Jack Krystal aims to help fill with his new Wines Central, LLC facility on Mare Island.

Krystal, a San Rafael real estate developer and entrepreneur, was advised that wine-storage is a growing industry, and that the rapidly changing Mare Island is the perfect place to operate such a business. The building Krystal chose, 710 L St., Building 627 on Mare Island's northwest end, once had a very different purpose.

"I fell in love with the building, and I was informed it used to be used to store torpedoes and ordnance. And I thought this would be a much better use for it. It's construction and layout is perfect for this," Krystal said.

Wines Central's warehouse manager Glenn Coats, 47, said rumors among some Mare Island old-timers has the building storing either the Hiroshima or Nagasaki atomic bombs briefly during the war. The building's layout - huge, movable cranes, thick concrete walls, floors and ceilings and heavy steel doors that open to allow rail cars inside - seems to lend some credence to the possibility.

"Several people told me that, and I saw something about it on a documentary once," said Coats, who spent much of his childhood in Vallejo. "It's quite a facility."

Krystal said he's known Mare Island for many years, having developed several projects in Vallejo, including the Fairgrounds Holiday Inn and a number of homes in South Vallejo.
"Vallejo has been dear to my heart for the past 30 years," said Krystal, a 60-something father and grandfather originally from Argentina. "I go back to the days when Vallejo had 50,000 people; to the days when the mayor was Florence."

Krystal said his love of wines was born in his Argentinean childhood.

"I've been drinking wine since I was a child," he said. "In Argentina, it's like Italy and France. You drink wine with lunch, with every meal. It's like Coca Cola out here."

Krystal leaves the day-to-day operation of Wines Central to Debbie Polverino of St. Helena, its general manager who has been with the 3-year-old firm for just over a year. Krystal explained his business plans to Polverino and offered her the job. And it was a perfect fit, she said.

"He liked the building and he knew it would be great for storing wine. It's near the Napa Valley. Wine storage and distribution is a big business in this area," Polverino said. She said there are several area warehouses devoted to the industry, though Wines Central is the only one in Vallejo. The city's access to all forms of shipping options from truck to rail to sea, makes the Mare Island location especially desirable, she said.

Polverino, 42, said she was practically born into the wine business.

"I've been in the wine business for 25 years," Polverino said. "I've been the general manager of warehouses and wineries. I'm from the Napa Valley, so my history in the wine industry goes all the way back to my grandfather growing grapes. My whole family grew up in the wine industry. It's our life. We've never done anything else."

Polverino said her grandparents immigrated to the United States from Spain in the early 1900s. Wine has proverbially been running through her veins for three generations on her father's side, and even longer than that through her husband's, she said.

"It has to do with history - the evolution, the change in the community, the passion. I remember as a child playing in the vineyards," she added. "It's all there was. I love the vineyards, they're the most beautiful in the world. That's why you live here - because you love the wine and it's a passion. I love everything about it. Everything I've ever done has to do with the wine industry. I love that I'm involved in it. It's not hard to love this."

As familiar as she is with the various aspects of the wine business, Polverino said she immediately recognized the potential in Krystal's idea to store wine in a Mare Island building.
"Land in the Napa Valley is very expensive, so most of it is used to grow grapes. There are very few storage or distribution facilities there," she said.

Her vast knowledge of the various aspects of the wine industry permits Krystal to leave Wines Central's operation in Polverino's capable hands, she said. While whipping the place into shape after being hired, she engaged her marketing skills and contacts to let people know that the perfect wine storage facility was open, she said.

"I talked to people I knew about this great, safe building, the great prices. The police department and fire department are nearby. It's a great location for shipping," Polverino said.
Polverino said Wines Central now has about 80 winery clients and some 40 private collectors storing their precious bottles and barrels in its facility's various sized locked cages.

"Our clients include small collectors, marketing companies, overflow warehousing and wineries' library collections, which are the history of the winery by vintage examples," Polverino said. The Francis Ford Coppola brand of pastas and sauces, C&H Sugar, specialty olive oils and a variety of other merchandise is stored in the always chilly climate-controlled environment.

Wines Central employs eight local people and expansion is planned, Polverino said.
Besides storage of wines, bottled water, specialty food items and other materials on a lane address system, Wines Central processes orders, arranges shipping and distribution for clients and provides them space to do special projects like holiday labeling.

Everything is organized on a computerized software system designed specifically for the wine storage industry, Polverino said.

Polverino and Krystal said they especially like being involved in changing Mare Island's military image into a more peaceful one.

"I like that they're taking the old military buildings and converting them to civilian use like this," Polverino said.

Krystal said he hopes his new enterprise will add to Mare Island's renaissance.

"I hope it becomes an indispensable service business for small to medium sized wine makers, right at the front door to Napa and Sonoma, and helps make Mare Island an oasis of productivity and jobs for Vallejo," he said.

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