Wine storage business lures couple out of retirement
After 40 successful years as a banking executive, Roy Whitehead retired and was looking forward to a leisurely life of cruising the east coast of Florida and the Bahamas, with his wife Rhonda, aboard their 68-foot motor yacht Parker Blue. “Somebody told me that you should retire to something, not from something,” Whitehead observed. “And I thought that was really good advice.”
The plan was to spend much of the year on the boat, then return to their Seattle home for the summer months. The longtime Chairman, President and CEO of Washington Federal happily hung up the coat and tie for the last time.
And it worked. For a while.
The Whiteheads are back in business. Residents of St. Petersburg as of December 2019, they’ve recently opened St. Pete Cellars, a climate-controlled wine storage facility, members’ club and wine event center.
“We were living on the boat,” Rhonda said, “and I’d kind of decided I was ready to not live on the boat eight months out of the year. And we didn’t have any family in Seattle. Roy’s family is in Florida, and our daughter lives in Atlanta. So we said ‘Let’s start looking for a place.’ And we decided that when we found a place to settle, we’d sell the boat.”
Roy’s career had taken them to the bay area before – in the early 1990s, he was the Tampa-based regional president of First Union Bank.
“Shockingly,” he said, “we found St. Pete to be very different than it was when we lived in Tampa 30 years ago. We just kept coming back here saying ‘Wow, this is what we’re looking for. This place is clean, it’s nice, it’s safe …’”
So St. Pete it was. As longtime collectors of vintage and fine wines, they looked around for a professional facility to store and look after their bottles. Aging – at the proper temperature, humidity and levels of light – is a crucial factor in wine appreciation.
“Where we come from, which is where all the vineyards and the wineries are located, there are lots of places like this where you can keep your wine,” Roy explained. “We’d been collecting wine for about 25 years, so we thought ‘We’ll just move to St. Pete and we’ll find a place like that there to keep it.
“Wrong! There was no such place. There’s a wonderful place over in Ybor City that’s been full for a long time. There are a couple of self-storage facilities down in Sarasota. But there was nothing in Pinellas County. So we kept waiting for someone to open this business, so we could stay retired.”
Out of “desperation,” the couple decided to do it themselves. They purchased 1501 22nd Street North, a solid, 10,000-square foot building that had been the home of Southern Supply, makers of stainless steel cutting instruments (scissors, scalpels and the like).
“Truthfully,” said Roy, “we wanted more hard assets. Because those were the days when you could get all of .0001 percent on your cash, and being retired, we didn’t want to speculate with the stock market. We wanted to play it safe.
“Meanwhile, this inflation thing looked like it was going to take off and we thought ‘We’d better get some hard assets.’”
With the constant influx of new arrivals in the city, the Whiteheads figured, there had to be a lot of other people like them, collectors and aficionados who needed a reliable storage facility. Through consultation with wine retailers and industry people, they discovered it was true. Boy, was it true.
Enter Kory Lynn, wine expert and certified sommelier, a longtime statewide wine buyer and the co-owner of the informal Cellar Masters wine bar in the Edge District. Roy and Rhonda were impressed with his knowledge of wines, and the wine business, with his enthusiasm – and with his gift for gab.
“Kory’s got the depth of knowledge that I’ll never have,” offered Roy. “Rhonda and I are more the kind of wine people who say ‘Do you like this stuff or not?’ But he can wax poetic about it. He can tell you how the phases of the moon affect the juice, and so forth.”
Lynn became the third member of the team. He is general manager, cellarmaster and somalier of St. Pete Cellars.
“We store art,” he said. “We store treasures. And it was a need that I didn’t realize was not being supported in St. Petersburg. At Cellar Masters, people were asking about once a week where they could find a cold storage facility.”
The center of St. Pete Cellars is the “cellar” itself, kept at a constant 55 degrees Fahrenheit, and 70 percent humidity. There are numerous power-backup systems – ensuring the consistency of conditions that the proper aging of wine requires.
It’s also on some of the highest ground in the city, with literally no risk of flooding. “It is exactly how we saw it in our minds,” Rhonda explained. “We looked at a lot of properties; there were two others offers on this that beat us, but they fell through. So third time around, we got it. The other buildings we looked at, we could have done it but it wasn’t going to be THIS.”
Added Roy: “The other thing is security. You want to know that your wine is safe. We’ve got 17 cameras in this building, we’ve got motion controls everywhere, digital access controls … we know every door when it opens and closes, and who went through there.”
Along with the peace of mind that comes with knowing their rare bottles have been extensively catalogued, photographed and stored correctly, wine connoisseurs have the option of calling ahead – or, of course, using the internet – to have any desired bottle or bottles from their collection waiting for pickup. They can “check in” at any time using a members’ portal.
St. Pete Cellars’ “concierge service” also includes several cozy rooms for private wine-tasting events, or even dinner parties (the Whiteheads had a state-of-the-art catering kitchen installed).
Word is getting around. Some local collectors, Lynn said, are waiting for their contract to end at the Hillsborough or Sarasota County facilities before having everything moved here.
“We really want to do this right,” Roy announced. “We’re in this for the long run. We wanted to make sure we got the operations right, so we’re really now just starting to introduce ourselves to the market. We think we can get 150,000 bottles in our storage facility, when all is maxed out. And we’re on our way. People are finding us.”