New Orleans Landmark Lost $1 Million in Wine

Ted Brennan, co-owner of the landmark Brennan's restaurant in New Orleans, talks about damage from Katrina to the restaurant's extensive wine collection. The French Quarter mainstay lost more than 35,000 bottles of wine after Hurricane Katrina knocked out the electricity in the wine cellar for nearly a month. The collection was valued at $1 million.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

We've brought you many reports on how New Orleans residents are coping more than a year after Hurricane Katrina. On NEWS & NOTES' most recent trip to the city, I visited a landmark that suffered a different kind of loss after the storm.

Brennan's restaurant is in the heart of the French Quarter. It's famous for its steak au poivre and it's decadent bananas foster, plus its extensive wine selection. When Katrina hit, the electricity went out and more than 35,000 bottles of wine, valued at at least $1 million, went bad in the oppressive heat.

Ted Brennan, who co-owns the restaurant with his two brothers, recounted the night Katrina hit and what happened in his wine cellar.

Mr. TED BRENNAN (Co-owner, Brennan's Restaurant, New Orleans): Well, my brother stayed here with the chef for the specific purpose of guarding the wine cellar. They stayed here through the storm. And when the storm passed and before the levees broke, everybody thought everything was going to be all right and we'd be back in business in five days, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. But the power was out for over a month. And the first three or four weeks after Katrina it didn't rain, which was good for the city but the wine cellar back there without power got up to 130 degrees.

CHIDEYA: So the wine was vinegar.

Mr. BRENNAN: Vinegar and broiled.

CHIDEYA: Why is wine important? I mean most people drink it, not everybody. But tell us about the significance of a collection of wine that large.

Mr. BRENNAN: Well, number one, we think it's a good investment. And number two, for a restaurant like this, the quality you should expect at a restaurant like this, we invested a lot in our inventory in wine and we became almost like a wine destination where people were coming here to have the wine with the food and vice versa. And it was a very good system until Mother Nature came along.

CHIDEYA: What did you have in your cellar, what kinds of wines, what kinds of vintages, what kinds of prices?

Mr. BRENNAN: We had prices anywhere from $5,000 to $20. And we had some wines back there that weren't even on the wine list, like a magnum of 1870 Château Lafitte. That doesn't exist. I mean there might be three or four more in the world, and that's gone now, and...

CHIDEYA: I'm hoping that you drank it before it pickled.

Mr. BRENNAN: Oh no. No, no. During the storm and after the storm, they ate very well because the gas was still working in the kitchen. And they drank a lot of (unintelligible), but they didn't drink the old, old vintage.

CHIDEYA: That makes me sad.

Mr. BRENNAN: Yeah, me too. I wish I'd have told him about it on the phone from Dallas. I should've said: You ought to drink that 1870 Lafitte.

CHIDEYA: In a little bit I want to go and take a look at your cellars, but tell us on a broader level how a restaurant like yours is fairing post-Katrina. A lot of restaurants seem to be fairly empty a lot of the time. How are you guys doing?

Mr. BRENNAN: Well, during the week I'd say we're about 20- or 30-percent off a normal July-August, which are not great months anyway, okay? If we had more service help on weekends, we could be doing double the business.

CHIDEYA: I saw that sign outside saying that waiters could get $5.25 an hour plus tips. Why are you hurting for help when, you know, in other fields people are still looking for jobs? Have all of the experienced wait staff left New Orleans?

Mr. BRENNAN: No, but with so many restaurants pre-Katrina that are trying to get re-opened now, it's just supply and demand. The service help is just not there. Not coming back, number one, yet because of housing. And number two, a lot of them have told me they don't want to leave their jobs in other cities and have this place blow away and not have anywhere to come back to in September.

CHIDEYA: What did this place used to be before it was Brennan's?

Mr. BRENNAN: Well, it was built in 1795 after a great fire here in 1794. And at first it was the First Bank of Louisiana. And at one time it was owned by the artist Edgar Degas' great-great-grandfather - actually built the place. And it was used to do a lot of Creole entertaining, especially in antebellum days. Andrew Jackson was entertained here a lot. And I wish these walls could talk because it would be interesting.

CHIDEYA: So if these walls could talk, they would be saying money, money, money.

Mr. BRENNAN: They'd scream, okay?

CHIDEYA: Are you committed to this city?

Mr. BRENNAN: Yeah. I was fortunate. I didn't lose my home, but my two brothers did, and my three nephews did. And, you know, I just wouldn't think about living anywhere else. And, you know, New Orleans has been through a lot before. The Civil War wasn't fun for New Orleans, and yellow fever wasn't fun for New Orleans. So, you know, this city after 300 years has a comeback spirit to it. It might not be as quick as other places in the country, but it's still a comeback spirit.

CHIDEYA: Well thank you, and can you take us on a quick peek at the wine cellars?

Mr. BRENNAN: Sure. Let's go look right now.

CHIDEYA: So we're entering the wine area, and from what I understand this used to be the slaves' quarters of this mansion.

Mr. BRENNAN: Right. And right now we're back to about 9,000 bottles, which is a fourth of what we used to have. And we used to have what was considered probably the finest wine cellar between Texas and Florida, and Louisiana and Chicago. So when we lost it, you know, we were covered by insurance, but some of that stuff you just can't replace.

CHIDEYA: Right. What do you like?

Mr. BRENNAN: I like Pouilly-Fuissé, and I like California cabernet. And if I get a chance, I really like a great French red Burgundy or Bordeaux.

CHIDEYA: I don't know if you know how the wine is indexed, but if so, why don't you find us a bottle of wine that you think you'd enjoy.

Mr. BRENNAN: Okay, well let's see. Here. I really enjoy California chardonnay, and Matanzas Creek 2004 is absolutely superb.

CHIDEYA: Can you describe the wine at all, what it would be like?

Mr. BRENNAN: Well, whenever I've had it, it's had a buttery, nutty taste to it, and it just goes great with Louisiana seafood.

CHIDEYA: Being in the food business, and we're not just here to talk about the wine, but it just struck me as an interesting story about what New Orleans has lost. You lost a little bit of history too. How do you feel about having to rebuild at this point?

Mr. BRENNAN: Well, 30 years ago we had a fire that burned the whole roof off the restaurant. So we were lucky enough this time where the construction job compared to that was actually kindergarten. In that comparison it's fine. But as far as the city goes - I mean, the city got blasted, and it got blasted not by the storm but by a group of people that made some serious mistakes about not maintaining or upgrading the levees. Because that's what got the city was the levees. It wasn't the storm.

CHIDEYA: So the city is going to be back on the gourmet level as well as on the neighborhood level?

Mr. BRENNAN: Oh yeah. This city's got too much pride in its food and its history and its architecture and its music to not put out anything but the best.

CHIDEYA: Thank you very much.

Mr. BRENNAN: Thank you very much.

CHIDEYA: Ted Brennan is the co-owner of New Orleans' famous Brennan's restaurant.

(Soundbite of song, "Red Red Wine")

UB40 (Musical Group): (Singing) I have sworn that with time thoughts of you would leave my head...

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