Au Revoir: Restaurant Sells Part Of Wine Cellar

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A restaurant in France that owns one of the world's best wine collections is selling part of its stock to help see it through the recession. The restaurant owns nearly half a million bottles of fine wines, champagne and brandy — housed in a vast 27 room cellar under the streets of Paris.


It's been a tough time for many Paris restaurants. Fewer people are eating out. But one famous eating establishment had no problem coming up with a couple million dollars this week. All it had to do was auction off part of its wine cellar. Eleanor Beardsley sends this report.

Unidentified Man #1: (French spoken)

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ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Eighteen thousand bottles of wine from the legendary cellars of the Tour d'Argent restaurant were auctioned to the public on Monday and Tuesday in Paris. The four-century-old restaurant is undoubtedly the most famous in France, and people were eager to own a piece of it. The auction room was packed with professional wine collectors and private citizens alike. As hands holding number cards shot up and down, the auctioneers guided the bids ever higher.

Unidentified Man #1: (French spoken)

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BEARDSLEY: Parisian Bernard Farge(ph), who came to buy some old Bordeaux, says he's having second thoughts after seeing the prices being paid.

Mr. BERNARD FARGE: (Through translator) The Tour d'Argent is a legend. People may not even know where it is, but the name is mythical, and people are willing to pay more because of the reputation of their extraordinary wine cellar.

(Soundbite of bell chimes)

BEARDSLEY: Seven floors below the storied Left Bank restaurant, head sommelier David Ridgway opens the iron gates to the Tour d'Argent's damp vaulted wine cellar. In 27 rooms connected by winding corridors deep within Paris limestone are nearly half a million more bottles like those fetching such high prices across town.

For the past 30 years, Ridgway has hand picked many of the wines and spirits in what is said to be the finest cellar in France and the largest for a restaurant in the world. Ridgway says choosing the wines for the auction block was particularly difficult.

Mr. DAVID RIDGWAY (Sommelier, Tour d'Argent): Well, I always consider the wines almost like my children. You see them grow up. You see them get better. And then you see them leave. It's a brutal way to see so many leave at the same time, but that's part of the aging process.

Unidentified Man #3: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Passing 12-foot-high racks of burgundies, Bordeauxs(ph) and Alsatian wines, Ridgway points out rare marvels and some history.

Mr. RIDGWAY: This was where the wall was bricked up in June 1940. This part of the cellar was hidden for five years.

BEARDSLEY: Before that wall could be built, the Nazis made off with 80,000 bottles in the first chaotic days of the Paris occupation. The Tour d'Argent has overlooked the Seine River and Notre Dame Cathedral since 1582, when Henry III would stop off here after a royal hunt for some heron pate.

(Soundbite of glasses clinking)

BEARDSLEY: Ridgway says this week's sale was not to make money, but to make room for newer vintages and to move some bottles that no longer sell so well. He admits that habits are changing.

Mr. RIDGWAY: People seem to want to drink younger wines now. It's rather sad, because I think a well matured wine has a lot to say for itself.

BEARDSLEY: Back outside the auction hall, businessman Toka Fulakrey(ph) is slumped in a chair. He took the train over from London and had hoped to return home with one of his favorite white burgundies, until he was outbid.

Mr. TOKA FULAKREY (Businessman): It's Puligny Montrachet Referts Sauzet, the '92 was a lovely year. And I had this particularly wine last year for my 40th. It was really, really good. It would've been nice to get a case and, oh, drink that over the years. But there we are.

BEARDSLEY: You didn't get it?

Mr. FULAKREY: No, not today.

BEARDSLEY: One pre-French Revolution bottle of cognac sold for $37,000. The sale's enormous success surprised organizers and pleased sommelier Ridgway, who said it goes to show that people are still interested in something historic and traditional.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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