Wednesday, January 25, 2006
WINE CELLARS WITH HISTORY
At the venerable Tour d'Argent, where dining is spectacle and the restaurant a stage, the duck always gets top billing. But for the final act of the grand production, a select few can take the tiny, gated elevator downstairs to the Tour's famed cellars and visit one of France's, and the world's, most celebrated collections of rare and vintage wine.
The cellars today hold about 800,000 bottles, including rare ports from 1933 and 1934 and an 1885 Burgundy. Several bottles are there only as collectors' items, cherished as much for the ancient bottles as the wines inside. Among the most expensive: a 1947 Petrus, which would sell for 22,000 euro (about $26,600). There is a separate room for cognacs.
The cellars of the Tour are the preserve of Japanese transplant Hideki Hayashi, who as caviste , or cellar manager, has lovingly maintained these bottles for 20 years. His job is to make sure the cellars' temperature remains constant, between 12 and 15 degrees celsius (53 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit) with the humidity set at precisely 75 percent.
And then there is the wall -- or what remains of the wall. It was all that saved these wines from the invading German troops at the start of World War II.
Claude Terrail, the 89-year-old current proprietor and son of the late founder Andre Terrail, was a young airman stationed near Lyon when the Germans were closing in on Paris in 1940. He asked his commanding officer for the use of a plane and 24 hours' leave for a most secretive and desperate mission. He flew to the Tour and, with the help of its staff, hastily built a cement wall in the wine cellar, sealing off thousands of the restaurant's most precious bottles, including a pre-revolutionary brandy from 1788.
"All my life, I had heard about the cellar of the Tour d'Argent being the most famous cellar in the world," Terrail, graying but still dapper, said in an interview in his office atop the Tour. "They did not find the treasures of the Tour. I didn't save France -- but I saved the wine."
The remains of the wall are clearly visible today.
The husband-wife team of Don and Petie Kladstrup, contributors to Wine Spectator magazine, chronicled Terrail's effort to save the Tour's cellars in their book "Wine & War: The French, the Nazis and the Battle for France's Greatest Treasure" (Broadway Books, 2001), and the cellars became the most prominent stop on a "wine and war" tour of France that Don Kladstrup conducted.
The Tour, with its storied wine cellars, has been an institution in the French culinary world for centuries -- it is said that duels were fought over the choicest tables, and that it is where King Henry IV learned to eat with a fork. It won the Michelin guide's highest three-star rating in 1933, when its ratings system was introduced. Since then, the Tour has boasted among its clientele John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon (not at the same time), the royals of Monaco, Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia, Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood, Mick Jagger, Vladimir Putin and Rudy Giuliani.