My August "In the Cellar" column in the New York Sun takes a break from the restaurant scene in Gotham and spotlights one of the oldest and historic cellars in the nation, the bowling-alley-like wine hall at Antoine's in New Orleans. The generations-old restaurant is busy rebuilding its list after the complete destruction wrought by Katrina. At present, they're at 8,000 bottles, up from zero, but not near the 24,000 bottles the cellar can hold. Read and enjoy:
Starting From Scratch
The wine cellar at the New Orleans restaurant Antoine's, a 167-year-old, family-run establishment located on St. Louis Street in the French Quarter, is a spacious, 165-foot long corridor that ends at a small window looking out on Royal Street. Frequently, surprised strollers peering through the pane of glass will catch a sommelier pulling a bottle from one of the many bins. But anyone who happened to glance in during the days following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 would have unknowingly witnessed something heartbreaking. For two weeks following the storm, temperatures in the electricity-deprived cellar reached 105 degrees during the day, dipping a bit at night, and then bouncing back into the triple-digits each morning. By the time the owner of Antoine's, Rick Blount, finally returned to New Orleans to crank up some generators and self-contained air-conditioning units, he was the proud owner of 14,000 bottles of vinegar. "We tasted a bunch of them," Mr. Blount, who is the great-great-grandson of the restaurant's founder, Antoine Alciatore, said. "We just sat back here with a corkscrew. Every 10th bottle wasn't actually good, but you could chug it down. But nine times out of ten you couldn't even drink it."
The same scenario played out in other cellars in New Orleans, a city blessed with many old restaurants equipped with rich and rare wine collections.
Since the cellar's contents were insured, Mr. Blount loss was not a financial one Â-- well, not entirely. The restaurant's policy covered wines lost to spoilage, but it reimbursed only the bottle's original cost, not its value at the time the hurricane struck. "For every bottle of wine we had, we got paid what we bought it for," Mr. Blount said. "It had nothing to do with what it was worth." The difference between the inventory Antoine's had on the books and the provided replacement funds was about $100,000, he said.
What happened to the cellar contents after that is something of a mystery. According to Mr. Blount, the spoiled bottles were collected and carted away in a dump truck. They were then sold to an unknown buyer, put into two shipping containers and sent off to parts unknown. "Somebody's got that wine in a collection somewhere," he said. "It didn't get thrown away."
Mr. Blount was not allowed to bid on or buy back any of the old bottles. "We had a really nice collection of old Bordeaux," he said. "I would have liked to have bought at least one of every one of them and just put them on display."
One might assume that Mr. Blount, faced with an empty cellar, used the insurance money to frequent auction houses in hopes of replicating the decimated list of classic French wines. But he did exactly the opposite. Fearful of buying somebody else's junked wines, he treated 2005 as Year Zero and restocked his cellar with brand new vintages. "I said, Â'Let's start with wine that was bottled after Katrina. That way, I know,'" he said.
Mr. Blount and wine director Matthew Ousset also decided to venture beyond the Antoine's old stomping grounds of Bordeaux and Burgundy and purchase New World wines from all corners of the globe. The cellar, which has a 24,000-bottle capacity, is now one-third full, and growing. Of course, in a city as bound by ritual and loyalties as New Orleans is, tradition cannot be completely thrown out the window. "I have made exceptions to the general rule," Mr. Blount said. "I have a few customers who have specific interests. So, if there's one particular customer who wants one particular thing and has asked us to stock that, we've gone out and bought some stuff."
Antoine's has been up and running since December 29, 2005, but has faced significant challenges since reopening. At present, Mr. Blount is engaged in a battle with the city over the zoning of the restaurant's real estate holdings, which cover much of a city block. The dispute includes the long, narrow cellar. "It goes under several lots," he said. "My great-grandfather and my grandfather bought the majority of the property. They cut this tunnel through a bunch of buildings. In the 1800s nobody cared. My great-grandfather owned it all and he built his buildings wherever the hell he pleased. There was no such thing as a building code. Today I'm fighting with the City of New Orleans because the buildings aren't built with respect to the lot lines."
On top of that, Mr. Blount has an "egress problem." Fire codes say that no point in a storeroom can be more than 100 feet from an exit. The window on Royal Street sits 107 feet from the cellar door. Mr. Blount can only laugh. "I'm seven feet out of compliance," he said.
Well, can't he just move the door, which is positioned a few feet down a small side hall, seven feet closer? No, he answers. The building, its door included, is a landmark, and can't be altered.
So, there you have it. Antoine's wine cellar is not only one of the biggest and the oldest in America; it's also the most complicated.