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Heat Exhuastion 

Wine cellars suffer their own losses from Katrina.

New Orleans' area wine drinkers used to joke about a unique way to age a wine that wasn't yet ready to drink. "Sure, just put it in the trunk of your car and ride around for a couple of days," they'd say. "It'll be ready to drink in no time." Well, after Katrina, it's no laughing matter. Thousands of bottles of rare and irreplaceable wine were lost by individual collectors, by renowned restaurants as well as in retail stores following the power outages that left wine exposed to prolonged heat reaching into the high 90s. With the heat index, the temperature rose even higher with some cellars approaching 130 degrees. In many, damaging mold was also rampant.

"Room temperature" took on a whole new meaning. If you've ever been in the very cool underground cellars in France or even California, that's what winemakers mean when they say "serve at room temperature." With the ideal temperature for wine storage at about 56 degrees, many wines "cooked" or just plain broke down during the intense and prolonged hot spell.

The entire process of storage is designed to protect the fragile nature of wine as a delicate living liquid as it ages. It arrives bottled up and needs to be kept in a darkened place (like a cave or a climatized wine keeper or even your closet) with a cool, consistent temperature. Such stable conditions allow it to age slowly and gracefully. The caretaking is rewarded when you assume the wine has reached its peak, and you arrive at the ceremonious opening and tasting of your well-guarded treasure.

In many cases, collectors buy futures (wines that haven't been released yet) at lower prices and upon release, cellar their stash for a period of years while -- it is assumed -- they improve with age. Many collectors buy multiple bottles or cases and after an initial period of time, try a bottle every year along the way to see how the wine is progressing so they can enjoy the wine at its optimum peak. Other wines become so valuable, they remain in a holding pattern -- one hopes -- for perhaps some extraordinary occasion like a newborn, a 21st birthday or wedding anniversary. Some wines are never to be consumed at all, held only to be admired as trophy wines.

We're talking about sizeable investments that could run into several hundred thousand dollars. Although most businesses have insurance coverage to get through these kinds of losses, the money can never really replace the wines or match the current value of any such wines found in the marketplace, if they can be found. For example, if a restaurant cellar master bought a bottle of 1947 Cheval Blanc back in 1965, the restaurant would have paid only a fraction of today's asking price. Buying that wine today is also complicated by where it has been and how it has been stored. A restaurateur might not have confidence in the previous storage conditions and might not want to risk buying a compromised bottle.

Matthew Oussett, Antoine's wine steward, says that he estimates Antoine's loss of 16,000 bottles from its 165 foot long cellar of priceless collectables was worth close to $1 million at wholesale prices. The cellar held verticals of Mouton Rothchild, cases and cases of additional Bordeaux first growths, and other exquisite and valuable wines.

"We didn't even try any of the bottles," he says. "We just knew that the wine had been compromised by the intense heat during three weeks without power and would no longer be commercially acceptable."

The restaurant called in wine expert Max Zander to determine the value of the irreplaceable collection. Antoine's insurance company accepted the value submitted and then promptly sold the collection to a salvage company.

"They told us they were going to load the wines on a plane and send them overseas for auction," says Oussett. Meanwhile, Oussett, Antoine's family members, President Rick Blount and Marketing Director Colette Guste are rebuilding the inventory, replacing the most popular wines first. A shipment of highly rated Bordeaux is expected by July 1 with a fine Burgundy order scheduled to arrive in September.

"We're up to 115 different wines. It's a long wait, for some of these wines but we're working on it," Oussett says.

Harry Hill, the cellar master at Brennan's, laments the loss of the restaurant's fantastic 30,000-bottle cellar.

"We had many vintages from the 1800s," he says, "all the Premier Cru Classes from 1929, the '45s, large formats of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti (DRC), and many other extremely rare wines. It was just an amazing cellar."

Brennan's had to deal with more than heat damage. A large, third-floor walk-in meat cooler exploded, and the resulting domino effect involved destruction of a storage area that collapsed on the second floor, breaking bottles and causing serious mold. There was so much damage that no one even ventured into the wine cellar at first, Hill says.

"I eventually tasted a couple of wines, but found that even in the younger wines, the fruit flavors were dull and muted and the finish was diminished."

Hill evaluated the wines for the insurance company and the cellar was declared a total loss. The salvage company, which had hired a broker to resell the wines, hauled them away, promising that they would be sold oversees.

"I heard someone in England bought it," says Hill.

Brennan's is still working on reconstructing and renovating its building and is scheduled to reopen in early June. And Hill will be ready. "We're restocking, buying about 20-30 cases a week, and we recently acquired a cellar from a reliable company in Connecticut of Bordeauxs from the '80s."

Rick Hopper, owner of Hopper's Wines and Spirits, was asked by several friends to use his expertise to evaluate their post-Katrina cellars.

"I was just doing it as a favor for some friends," says Hopper. "Then I started getting calls from insurance companies who called me to evaluate claimants' cellars."

Hopper thinks his name must have trickled out because other insurers hired him for the same task. "It's interesting. I don't mind doing it, but it's very tedious work. Essentially, you're inventorying an entire collection," he says.

Some companies have asked Rick to sample a series of collectors' wines to determine the extent of the damage from excessive heat.

In a lot of homes, the cellars were out of power for four or more weeks, and many flooded as well. Whether or not an insurance company will pay claims for private cellars can be tricky, says Hopper.

"Some will pay only if you have a separate rider covering the wine. Others say that general outages are exempted from claims," he says. "It's a case-by-case thing and has a lot to do with who's the adjuster."

After filing a claim, some insured collectors want to buy back their cellars for pennies on the dollar from the insurance company rather than letting a salvage company resell it.

"Some collectors just can't pass up what they think is a good deal. Others have an attachment to the wine and feel that enough of it may be good so they just can't give it up," says Hopper.

In his own store, where power was out for a couple of weeks, Hopper tasted about 100 wines in his inventory and noted varying degrees of change.

"I decided to just slash prices and have a Katrina sale," he says. "I offered a full refund if anyone thought the wine was off and returned the empty bottle. Not one bottle came back."

One serious collector with a 3,000-bottle cellar was told by his insurance company that they required an independent expert to determine the cellar value. The collector was planning to buy the wines back, but a salvage company was also bidding on the collection. Certainly, the insurance company wants to maximize the return they can get for the wine, but the collector was insistent on keeping his compromised -- yet impressive -- cellar so he outbid the salvage company.

The collector is concerned, however, about unscrupulous people selling wines as "pristine" to restaurants or online, or donating it to auctions to take the full write-off without disclosing that it may be damaged. He noted that some restaurateurs are waiting for the pipeline to clear out to avoid buying Katrina-compromised wines.

Another collector with a 1,500-bottle cellar, who was able to write off a portion of his wines, elected to keep the majority of the collection since he was able to return to his cellar after two and a half weeks and move most of the wines to a climatized storage facility. After tasting through many of his wines, he cautioned that white wines would fade first and that Cabernets and Syrahs were not as affected.

He says that an important concern is what the wines will be like 12, 24 or 36 months from now. He says he rarely buys any replacement wine now because the aging of his wines was accelerated by Katrina. Wines he anticipated enjoying in seven to 10 years need to be consumed in probably half the time.

The most important thing, he says, is that these wines aren't going to continue to improve. He encourages drinking both reds or whites now since they are either already on a downward spiral or will reach prime much sooner than expected.

SIDEBAR

Cooked or Not Cooked?

Cooked is different than "corked" -- the nasty, wet cardboard stench derived mainly from contaminated corks. One or more of the following could be symptomatic of Katrina-cooked wines:

1. The fruit is dulled, muted or simply gone.

2. The wine exhibits the character of stewed fruit.

3. The flavors taste "baked."

4. The aroma is gone.

5. The wine's structure breaks down so that the various elements are no longer integrated.

6. It tastes burnt.

click to enlarge Matthew Oussett, Antoine's wine steward, estimates - Antoine's loss of 16,000 bottles from its 165 foot long - cellar of priceless collectables was worth close to $1 million - at wholesale prices. - DONN YOUNG
  • Donn Young
  • Matthew Oussett, Antoine's wine steward, estimates Antoine's loss of 16,000 bottles from its 165 foot long cellar of priceless collectables was worth close to $1 million at wholesale prices.
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