A fascinating book sheds light on one of history’s most infamous men and his relationship with wine.
© Penguin Edition
In the late 1990s, a once-in-a-lifetime adventure took two Australians from Sydney to Tbilisi in the hope of buying a multi-million dollar winery that once belonged to murderous dictator Josef Stalin.
With bottles of Château Lafite Rothschild 1877, Château d’Yquem 1891, Château Suduirant 1899 and 40,000 other old grand crus of the world, the cellar is unlike any other. Based on a true story, Stalin’s Wine Cellar book is part story, part travel and full of adventure, including some very expensive broken bottles.
John, you were working as a successful Double Bay Cellars wine merchant when you received this mysterious wine list; 30 weird name pages that needed decryption. Who sent you this list and where does it come from?
When I had wine merchants, I believed that you had to have a point of difference, otherwise we were just another wine merchant, and ours bought entire cellars. We would have a normal stock from a wine merchant and then a whole range of old vintages. And the more wines we had from older vintages, the more people approached us with old and interesting wines to sell. When you do that, there are always characters and for us, that was Harry Zukor. Harry got very excited when he had interesting wines. Although he had some fantastic offers that couldn’t be true, he also had some really good ones. One day the fax spat out something from Harry with a simple “interested?”. When an excitable Harry underplays like that, it means he’s got something good.
This list was 30 pages, but I couldn’t figure it out. The names in the left column weren’t the great wines of the world, they weren’t at all familiar to us, they were gibberish. The second column had some very interesting dates, 1865, 1847, 1910. These were wines that were a hundred years older than what we were used to dealing with. It sort of put me off, but it was definitely something interesting. And I strongly believe that if you have something interesting but you can’t make it, don’t worry, just keep living and the penny will go. [eventually] drop.
This is great advice.
In this case, it was a customer who had entered the shop to ask “do you and Chateau dee-eequem?” mispronouncing the great Château d’Yquem. Initially, when going through this Harry’s list, I remembered reading Chateau Ikem and thought “Ikem? Like Ikea? I don’t want Ikea wine…”. But when that customer mispronounced d’Yquem, that’s when the penny dropped. Someone read the French labels and transcribed them phonetically, which was then translated back into English. Château Margaux was Margot, Château Latour was Latur. Once we cracked the code, it was easy. This list included over 200 d’Yquems from the early 1800s and 1900s as well as other wines from top Bordeaux estates dating back to the early 1700s.
Once you realized, what did you think? Did you have any theories about who would have the ability to put together such an extraordinary collection of ancient wines?
Absolutely no idea. But obviously I was interested.
What was Harry’s connection to this cellar?
Harry knew a guy named Neville Rhodes who was involved in the mining industry in Georgia. Including a gold mine in Tbilisi, and that’s how he knew the cellar existed. It was in the late 1990s, when Georgia was once again becoming an independent country, a lot of things still belonged to the state. It was still unclear who owned the winery, but we were told the Georgians wanted $1,000,000 for 40,000 bottles.
How widespread was wine fraud at the time and how skeptical were you? It would have been long before Rudy Kurniawan; were you concerned about fraud?
Wine fraud has been around for a long time, once something becomes valuable and sought after enough, counterfeits will follow. I was incredibly skeptical. Before leaving Sydney [for Georgia] we saw pictures of the cellar and the volume of cobwebs told us that the collection had been there for a long time.
So a trip to Georgia becomes essential to check this cellar, what was your methodology to authenticate these wines? Was there anything different you did because the wines were so old?
So we methodically went through the original list sent to us and checked what was there, what needed to be added and deleted. We had these bright fluorescent lights we brought over from Australia to sit behind the bottles and illuminate the fill level – a wine of this age one would expect the liquid to have varying fill levels but some inconsistent with the age of the wine. We also used the light to check if the stamp on the cap matched what was stated.
| Stalin didn’t drink much himself, but he used wine to loosen the tongues of others.
What happened with Château Suduirant from 1899
Well, Mr. Revaz was the head winemaker showing us around the winery. Mr. Revaz selected a bottle from the shelf and as he walked back to us and in the process as he moved the bottle from hand to hand it slipped out of his hands. Luckily I did this before I had worked in wine cellars for many years, I quickly shoved my foot under it and broke its fall. The bottle broke, but I was able to save the bottom half with some of the liquid. But the silence was deafening. Mr. Revaz turned very red. But we got to taste the remaining wine and it was sublime.
You thought the whole cellar belonged to Stalin, what did he like to drink?
There are many reports that Stalin was not the biggest wine drinker himself. His collection was more about bribing people and stories they might not otherwise tell. He often kept his ministers awake and blindly drunk them to see what they would say.
So you managed to secure 12 bottles from the collection to take to the different castles for verification?
Yeah that was out of the deal before I got to the country I had arrived with my pockets stuffed with US dollars to buy bottles because checking these wines were genuine was crucial if we were to buy all the cellar. It was some time before I went to Bordeaux for business and thanks to a local contact I was able to get an appointment in d’Yquem to have one of the bottles checked.
My partner Jane and I traveled with Y’quem’s precious cargo swaddled in bubble wrap along with a jumpsuit-like sleeve in a wine bag from London to Paris, after a lightly wine-laden evening. At the hotel, in the tumult of the unloading of luggage and shopping bags from the car on the Parisian sidewalk, out of the corner of my eye I saw a bag, the wine bag, fall over. When I picked it up it was wet. The d’Yquem had cracked along the bottom and the sleeve of the suit was doing its best to keep the bottle intact. I was horrified. Here I am standing on the sidewalk in the middle of Paris, with a cracked bottle of Yquem from 1870 something. Thinking quickly, I reversed the bottle and rushed to the nearest store to buy two 250ml bottles of Perrier water with screw caps. We were able to save 500ml of the precious liquid and then some but at the same time we were faced with the daunting fact of having to arrive in d’Yquem with two bottles of water filled with their wine for verification.
I want people to read this book so I will give spoilers but I would like to ask you, how did it taste and have you ever thought, if it hadn’t broken would you have opened it ?
It’s a good question, and to be honest, I don’t know if I would have opened the bottle or not. Château d’Yquem now has a policy of not opening bottles dating back to 1945; instead, the cork, bottle, and cap are assessed for verification. So those Perrier water bottles I arrived with ended up being a great opportunity for everyone to sample the wine. If I hadn’t been in such a state of shock when the bottle broke in Paris, I would have sat down at the hotel and written up a full organoleptic analysis, but I remember the wine was remarkable – d’Yquem has a distinct signature character, a depth of richness, yet remarkable elegance.
Stalin’s Wine Cellar is available for purchase through Penguin Publishing.
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