Stalin's Wine Cellar is billed as 'the Raiders of the Lost Ark of wine'. It is a wild treasure hunt from Double Bay in Sydney to Tbilisi in Georgia, following the search for a cellar full of wine believed to be that of former Georgian revolutionary and Ruler of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin.
Join Stalin's Wine Cellar authors John Baker and Nick Place in conversation with Genevieve Jacobs on Friday 18 September. John recounts the intriguing tale of cracking the code of a historic wine list, having business meetings with men with guns, and accidentally dropping a particular bottle of wine.
Rich with history and flavour, this is a great dinner party tale about the search for a secret multimillion dollar wine collection.
Purchase your signed copy of Stalin’s Wine Cellar on our Online Shop with offer code ITSINAGLASS to receive a $10.00 discount on your purchase. Offer exclusively online, for local collection please select pick-up in-store at checkout. Offer ends 30/09/2020, no further discounts apply.
The adventure of a lifetime to buy Stalin’s secret multimillion dollar wine cellar located in Georgia; it is the Raiders of the Lost Ark of wine.
Stalin's Wine Cellar
*Speakers: Cathy Pilgrim (C), Genevieve Jacobs (G), John Baker (J), Nick Place (N)
*Location: National Library of Australia
*Date: Monday 31 August, 2020
C: Hello, everyone. My name is Cathy Pilgrim and I’m the Assistant Director General at the Engagement Branch here at the National Library of Australia in Canberra. From wherever you are watching welcome to this digital only event recorded at the Library.
Through the internet we can connect with people and places around the country but it’s important that we take a moment to connect with the people and the place we are in. I acknowledge Australia’s first nations peoples as the traditional owners and custodians of this land and give my respect to their elders past and present and through them to all Australian and Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander peoples. In this special online event journalist and ABC broadcaster, Genevieve Jacobs, is joined in conversation by former rock’n’roll promoter, wine merchant and author, John Baker, and author, Nick Place, to celebrate the release of John and Nick’s book, Stalin’s Wine Cellar.
This is an intriguing true story that is part history, part travel, part adventure that follows John and Kevin Hopko as they travel halfway around the world in search of a mythical wine cellar. Was it to be one of the greatest wine treasures on the planet or is it just a myth? While this is a story of very fine French wine here in Australia we also have a thriving wine industry. Just recently I spent a very cold Sunday afternoon at the De Salis Vineyards in Orange, New South Wales, a shoutout to owner and winemaker, Charlie, and son, Ben, who provided a wonderful experience as we tasted 10 of their beautiful handcrafted wines overlooking their lofty vineyard on Mt Canobolas. So inspired this weekend a road trip is scheduled to Mudgee with a viticultural history that stretches back to the 1850s. I hope that you too have a chance to explore, taste and delight in Australia’s winegrowing regions in the near future.
But until then pour a glass of your favourite tipple and enjoy this conversation between Genevieve and authors, John and Nick, as they journey through some of the details of this fascinating true story in Stalin’s wine cellar, a story as rich, luscious and complex as a fine Bordeaux.
G: Hello, I’m Genevieve Jacobs and it’s with great pleasure that I open this discussion with John Baker and Nick Place for a rip-roaring yarn about legendary figures, buried treasure, fast cars, international daring-do and the occasional handgun. The book is called Stalin’s Wine Cellar.
I’d like to acknowledge that we meet here in Canberra on the lands of the Ngunnawal people and I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging and I extend those respects to the Gundungurra people of the southern highlands where John is and to the Wiradjuri people of Melbourne whence Nick comes to us. Hello to you both, wonderful to have you with us here on the Zoom.
N: Hi Genevieve.
J: Good to be with you, thank you.
G: Nick, just before we dive in on the front cover of Stalin’s Wine Cellar it says based on a true story. Now how much of what we’re about to hear really happened?
N: Oh that would be a spoiler alert right off the top so I’m not going to fall into that cunning trap, Genevieve. But look, there were sensitivities with this story, it talks about a lot of real people. Its John’s account of what happened which other people might not necessarily agree with that account so we were a little bit cautious about things like that. I come from a novelist background as well as being a journalist and there was a lot of times in the story where John was concentrating on the deal which I’m sure we’ll get to in a minute so he wasn’t really thinking necessarily about what was the architecture like in Tbilisi or what food were they eating or anything like that, he was locked into what he was trying to achieve. So I had to add a lot of those elements, I had to really dig back and work out what would it have been like to be in Tbilisi in 1988/1999 and bring that place to life so it was fun for me. It was journalism which is what my whole career has been with just a weird little flourish of my novelist hat on as well, it was fun.
G: Okay, no, you’ve navigated that very successfully there, Nick, thank you. So John, let’s set the scene when this remarkable tale began to unfold. You were a successful wine broker with a nose for the rare and the unusual, happily running the Double Bay Cellars and one day the fax machine groans and spits out a mysterious list from a slightly mysterious character. Now what was it and who did it come from?
J: Okay, the character wasn’t mysterious although he was colourful. We knew him well, Harry Zuckor, would come to us with collections of wine and say oh yeah, John, they’re fantastic, it’s fantastic, you have to look at this and I’ll go yeah, okay, Harry. So he usually over spoke what he’d found shall we say so for him to fax me a list and on the cover the only word was interested was a ridiculous understatement for Harry so obviously he had something that was different and unusual. So it was 30 pages of a list that the names didn’t mean much to us, the dates were so old that they almost didn’t mean much to us because in our dealings in Double Bay when we used to buy cellars from people we’d be buying wines that were 1980s, 1970s, this sort of thing so to get dates of 1840, 1725 almost threw us off. Then the next column was supposed bottle size and they were 0.7, 0.75 then 0.4, 0.6, 0.8.
Well there’s no 0.4, 0.6, 0.8 bottles that we know of so again that notion really threw us off again until I finally worked out that the names did have a meaning if you considered them phonetically and what I’d worked out finally that when the list was compiled someone was reading out the French labels and someone was recording them in Georgian. Then when they finally wanted to sell this cellar they translated from Georgian back to English again so you ended up with a phonetic name so the great French wine that was in or one of the great wines in there was Chateau d’Yquem, the great dessert wine which is spelt small d, apostrophe, capital y, q-u-e-m, Yquem. But on the list it was Ikem, Ikea so when you go down the list you go, I-k-e-m, I-k-e-m, Ikea, Ikea so what’s that got to do with wine and then finally the penny dropped how it came about.
G: There’s another immense understatement here that the distance between Ikea and d’Yquem is a very, very large one indeed to say the least.
J: I don’t think Ikea’s selling wine at this stage.
G: No, quite. I mean, John, the dedication is to your mother, Norma, from whom you get your sense of adventure so it wasn’t just a matter of cracking the code, you were really driven to find out more about this mysterious list, weren’t you?
J: Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean when we were running wine shops and not just Double Bay, we had others but particularly Double Bay, our specialty was buying cellars from people. In retail what you want is a point of difference and we’d discovered or we worked out the point of difference, if you could have old wine, if you could buy a cellar with very good provenance, you could mark it as a - special events and that’s what we used to do. We dealt with some great wines in Australia and some great wines of France coming out of people’s cellars but when this list came along and I finally worked out what it is, this was no ordinary list of wine, this was a real wine treasure if it was true.
G: Just illustrate that for me. It wasn’t only the Yquem, it was a lot of other extraordinary Bordeaux appellations, wasn’t it? It was a treasure trove literally of almost unbelievable magnitude which is why there was a bit of doubt around this because it was literally too good to be true.
J: Oh yeah. Well we were certainly concerned that it could be too good to be true and the source it was coming through was colourful and who knows? But with these sort of opportunities, if you don’t pursue them you don’t go anywhere and you’re right, there was all the great Chateaux of Bordeaux, Moutin Rockhal, Lafite, Latour, Margaux, they were in there and it’s in the book and I can’t exactly remember but it’s something like I think there was seven vintages of Château Margaux from 1880 to 1911 or something and four cases of one of those which is unheard of. Chateau Latour the same so as a wine merchant and most wine people, you’d be lucky to see one bottle of that in your career let alone touch it or have anything to do with it. So when this is cases and cases of it, it was astonishing.
G: So there’s the wine in the first place and then there’s the story about how the wine was collected together and to do that you go onto another pivotal, mysterious figure in this story, Neville. Talk to me about the revelation as to what this wine was said to be and how it had come together.
J: Well Neville Rhodes, an Australian mining person, who had an interest in a gold mine in Georgia and his partner, George, who we dealt with, he told Neville, he said look, we’ve got this wine cellar we’ve bought. We bought a building, it’s a winery and underneath it we found all this amazing wine. This was not long after the fall of the iron curtain, fall of the Berlin Wall so this was Georgia becoming an independent country again. So these things were in existence but basically owned by the state or up until then. So Neville said to us that his information was that the wine was originally Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia and I think Alexander III before him and then when they were removed, shall we say, in Russian revolution, became Lenin and then Stalin in charge.
Then comes the Second World War, Stalin was very concerned that Hitler was going to overrun Russia so he divided this cellar, and imagine what he did with other artworks as well but we’re only interested in wine, he divided this cellar we’re told into three parts. One part went to Massandra Winery in Crimea which is a national winery and one part Stalin secreted off to Tbilisi in Georgia, his hometown or I think he was born just outside Tbilisi. So this was secreted away not to be found and he was right, it wasn’t found until we were introduced to it. So even Neville and George, they didn’t really quite know what they had but they knew – well they knew the story and they knew why it was there and where it had come from and they knew some of the bottles were valuable. So they wanted a million dollars US for supposedly 40,000 bottles.
G: Nick, let me bring you in here for some of that historical context. Now from what John’s described this is extraordinary. The wine firstly in and of itself is a huge artefact in its own right. You then lay out some of the history that John’s just suggested to us on top of that and the story around it is just dizzyingly rich. I mean what’s the significance of this wine in this place with these people?
N: I think it’s huge, I mean I should say I didn’t know much about any of this when I started the book. John has lived a lot of this and is much more versed than I am on a lot of these things but when I came onto the team I really didn’t know much about it, I didn’t know much about Nicholas II or Stalin beyond knowing Stalin was a major figure of history, the great purge but didn’t really know the details. So it was a lot of fun for me to research all this stuff. I mean I guess I approached it from the point of view we wanted the book to be a page-turner, we wanted it to be a really fun read. We didn’t want it to be some dusty archival history book and we also didn’t want it to be some very exclusive wine book that unless you’re into really top wines you weren’t interested. So I was trying to make a very accessible book really for people like me who would find it interesting, would find the adventure the amazing adventure it is but also just needed to be told a few things along the way.
So I had a very sophisticated method which was that I would research the hell out of St Petersburg or Nicholas II or Stalin or Chateau d’Yquem or whatever then I’d sit on it for a few days and then I would write it down as though I was trying to tell the story at a dinner party so that was my technique to try and make it very much – it’s not a university textbook, it’s just like you won’t believe how Rasputin fits into this, dot, dot, dot.
G: So John, you’re a man for an adventure. You’ve got this extraordinary story that’s been presented to you so you take yourself and the unflappable Kevin, your associate, into the post-Soviet Georgian republic and you refer to that as the Wild West. Tell me why, tell me what Tbilisi, what Georgia was like in those days.
J: Well the night we landed we flew Sydney, I think Singapore, Sydney, London, London back to Tbilisi which was 36 hours of flying or something as we Australians know and we arrived at 2 or 3 in the morning, I think something like that and did customs or George did customs for us. I don’t know how someone does customs for someone else but they do that in Georgia. Then we drove into town in a black Mercedes with tinted windows and we were driving along and there’s a red light and Nino, the driver, just swerves on the other side of the road and just goes through it. He says we don’t stop at red lights, that’s for Aboriginals which is how they refer to their locals, local people. That was fine – well not really ‘cause we’re going about 100km an hour in a city but that’s how Nino drives anyway.
We got to the hotel and that was fine so we went to bed and when we got up in the morning they came to collect us and as they walk in to the hotel there’s a metal detector like in an airport so as they walk in they just put their guns on the table, walk through the metal detector, collect us and then on the way out they just get given back their guns like they’re umbrellas like there’s no –
G: As you do, yes.
J: Yeah, no-one’s particularly shocked or anything like that but we were standing there going oh not so sure about all this but we were there and so I did refer to it as a wild west. We’d be sitting in a café or restaurant having lunch and they just put their guns on the table like someone might put a mobile phone so you’d be sitting there, Kevin and I, two of them and there’d be two guns on the table and we’d be sitting there making polite conversation, of course.
G: Thinking this is not the way one does lunch in Double Bay.
J: No, it was different.
G: So you arrived at the Savan Number 1 Winery and quickly realised that the people around the winery thought you were actually there to buy the whole thing but when you finally did get down into the cellars after a lot of talking and navigating it did start to seem very much like this fabled tale from Harry and Neville might actually be true. So describe for me what you found down there in the dank darkness in this Tbilisi cellar.
J: True. Well by the time we got down there – and we had a list and we’d gone through the list quite methodically ‘cause there were certain wines that represented the majority of the value that we really wanted to look at. See this was only a reconnaissance mission, this wasn’t to buy the cellar and move it, this was to try and authenticate it to say is this wine genuine? Is the Yquem or is the Margaux from 1890 a genuine bottle of 1890 Margaux and therefore does the story stack up? So when we got down there it was very dull light, they had a few bulbs hanging from cords sort of thing but we’d taken some lights with us and fluoros and we were a bit prepared for all that sort of thing. The cellar was very wet which was sort of good in that it was very good for the corks because a bit of moisture retains the corks but at lot of the labels or most of the labels were missing which of course is a problem but not a big – well it’s a problem.
There’s lots of other ways of identifying a wine and the label is probably not the most important. But it was damp and wet and cobwebs, some sections had just a mass of cobwebs all over them. There was certainly a mood that this was a relic of the past and I’ve been in probably a lot of cellars in France – well not a lot but quite a number and in Australia this was – this certainly smelt and looked genuine to us but we were very sceptical about the whole thing. I think we were on an adventure as much as we thought well if it doesn’t work out well this is going to be fun.
G: So what was the likelihood of all these incredibly valuable bottles being drinkable, being intact? I mean there were shelves that had collapsed. Where did you even start to tell if this was the real deal with a limited amount of time buried in a cellar?
J: Well an important point was to inspect the most important bottles. Well first of all whenever we bought cellars like in Australia as well we’d always have a list which is what we negotiate on for the purchase price. Some of the cellars we buy in Australia might be $100,000 or $150,000 or something and you have a list and when you go to pack the cellar up or take possession of it there’s always what we call unders and overs, there’s always bottles weren’t there and then there’s more of another wine that wasn’t there so you always have to do an adjustment. So we had the list that had been translated so my real interest was to authenticate the list so I would say – and Kevin, being quite clever as Kevin is, he worked out how the cellar book worked and the cellar book of course was written in Georgian and Potro who was very good and spoke quite reasonable English, they worked out how the cellar book worked because the cellar people were not a lot of help.
So I would say shelf 23, Chateau Margeaux, what have you got? I wouldn’t even tell them what vintage I was looking for and Potro and Kevin would – or Potro particularly would go down the list and find it and say oh I’ve got 1896 and I’d look at my list, sure enough, 1896. How many bottles do you have? He’d say I’ve got five bottles and I go five bottles. I’d say could you get them out, please? He’d get them out and we’d put them on a table and we had fluorescent lights that we’d brought which we put behind the bottles so you could see the fill level and sometimes the colour of the wine. If they didn’t have a label or didn’t have a discernible label, if you scrape a bit off the capsule off the neck and shine a strong torch which we also took, of course, you can read the label and it’ll have Margeaux, 1896. Again that could be forged and at the highest end sometimes that’s the sort of thing it is but we just went through wine after wine, shelf after shelf after shelf and wine after wine and there was just not a mistake which was extraordinary.
Kevin, he was more cynical than I was, turned around to me at one stage and said I don’t believe this, this is so perfect, it’s incredible. But there was a lot of staff wandering around with not a lot to do ‘cause the winery wasn’t operating so I guess they had plenty of time to look after the place and whatever. Also our purpose was to take 12 bottles home with us so we could take them to respected Chateaux and say is this your wine? I mean I didn’t need a chateau to tell me that – like we took a bottle of 1870 Yquem and I didn’t need Yquem to tell me that it looks like Yquem like it’s an Yquem bottle of that period, the capsule and the cork look – I needed someone to taste it and say this is our wine.
The wines we took we selected, they had no input into it, we didn’t get wines that they gave us, we got wines out of the supposedly 40,000 bottles that we chose so we couldn’t have been given dud bottles – well unless the whole lot were dud which we were pretty sure they weren’t.
G: Which would have been the greatest scandal of all time –
J: Oh yeah.
G: - describing your find there. I guess to the value of these which is absolutely astronomical because these are the great Bordeaux wines and as you say often during the book the wines are living, complex things and so if the fill level is high and the cork is intact and these are spectacularly good wines in the first place there’s every chance that there’s something extraordinary inside the bottles, isn’t there?
J: Yes but in the wine world, and I’ve been asked this question, would people drink these? Not many of them. They become collectibles and they become so valuable that – I mean I’d open one because I don’t believe a wine being still in the bottle, I mean you want to know what it tastes like. But a lot of these wines would never be opened and therefore often wouldn’t be tested. But the sweet wines, the Yquem, the Sudero, Chateau Coutet, which were some of the Chateaux that were there, sweet wine can last almost forever if it’s well kept because a bottle of dessert wine is basically alcohol, acid and sugar which all three are preservatives in a fashion. When we had Yquem taste the 1870 it was certainly drinkable.
G: We’ll come in a moment to the most valuable bottle of wine you’ve ever broken in your life, John –
J: There’s been a few competitions for that.
G: There’s been horrendous value here but Nick, just to you again as a civilian I mean as you researched this book you would have been struck as I was about this extraordinary thing that John’s just mentioned, that the international rare vintage wine markets, it’s not really all that related to whether anyone will ever drink it, is it?
N: No, it seems like it really is investors and it’s really like having a moose head on the wall, isn’t it? It’s like hey, I’ve got this bottle and you haven’t. I would suspect it’s a lot of men who probably collect wine and a lot of men who have made some money and want to show off how much money they’ve made. It’s a certain subset of people who seem to collect these things which one thing I found really interesting is in researching wine forgery because they’re a classic target for a wine forger. It’s all about ego and it’s all about money and if you can pull off the forgery it’s almost the perfect crime because if you do get discovered, the sort of people you’ve sold to probably don’t want to admit they got duped so they might not ever even say anything if they know they got duped. So I found that whole subject of the book absolutely fascinating.
G: John, the practical challenges, though, back in the Tbilisi cellar in Savan Number 1 you’re intending to take these 12 bottles of wine out of the country so you can have this absolute verification from the various chateaux, wasn’t actually all that easy to discover who in fact owns them, was it?
J: No, that was one of the tricks the whole time. My guess is, and I still actually don’t know to today but I think George was trying to sell the wine before he bought it. He wanted a million dollars which was a lot of money in those days, a million dollars US as well so he was trying to sell it before he bought it but there’s no doubt that he had a lot of authority when he was there, that the general manager of the winery and the chief winemaker, Rivaz, when we were in the discussion stages and talking about a whole lot of things and part of that was in Georgian so we didn’t actually know what the conversation was but George definitely held sway and his word carried a lot of weight.
But sure, we weren’t exactly sure who we were dealing with here and that’s therefore who was going to pass title to us which was one of the complications we had but there’s a number of complications like that. I think at one stage I realised that this is difficult but again I think as I said earlier my belief is when you’re pursuing something like this you just push on through and if it doesn’t work well you come to the point where you’ve got to say well this is not working but we didn’t actually reach that point or certainly not at this stage anyway.
G: I mean all the way through the book there are these characters who were exceptionally hard to pin down and you started with Harry and Neville, we’ve moved on to Giorgi, even Potro who is probably the hardest man you’ve ever met although thankfully mostly on your side. Did you ever feel that you really knew what was happening through this whole saga, whether there was a risk of you and Kevin being completely used by everyone?
J: No, that was always a possibility but again often in deals I think in business and things like this sometimes you got to not be distracted by the shrapnel and all the noise sort of thing, you’ve got to go well we want to buy the wine, they want to sell it, as far as I was concerned that’s all that mattered at that stage and you just got to push on through. If you pull it off you pull it off and if you don’t well you don’t. But if you’re distracted by the complications you probably wouldn’t embark on something like this in the first place and we were crazy enough to embark on it.
G: Nick, if I can just interpolate there, all this riveting story that John has, it’s a mass of illusions and evasions and dead ends and compromises and mysterious characters. How do you turn something like this into a coherent narrative?
N: With a lot of difficulty. One of the hardest things for me was actually that a lot had happened by lawyer letters and email. I mean once John and Kevin came back from Tbilisi a lot of it just happened by correspondence and so that’s not very sexy in a book. I didn’t want to just have a chart of emails, they said that, I said that, they said that, I said that. That was going to be incredibly boring so that was actually the biggest challenge for me, was to keep it bouncing through once it got down to legal negotiations which was quite a large chunk of the adventure, unfortunately. Yeah, it was a challenge.
G: So John, you did actually manage to get some wine out of the country, just that dozen bottles of wine out of the country and the purpose of that as you say was to take it somewhere like Yquem and find out whether this was the real thing with the people who are absolutely extraordinarily knowledgeable. I want you to share the story with us of what happened because this nearly makes a book in its right. What happened as you took that staggeringly valuable bottle of wine for testing?
J: Okay, this is one of the more embarrassing parts of the book but on the other hand if you read the book it was fortuitous that we did but we were in London the night before with some very good friends, wine industry friends and we had had a nice dinner and some bottles of wine and I think we had – I don’t know, 6:00 flight or something like that from London to Paris. We got up early and got organised and got to the airport and got on the flight and packed everything well as we thought and I had a special wine bag that I take when I go places that holds I think four bottles of wine, yeah, in that one it did.
So we had the wine in the bag to be looked after and preciously. We got to Paris, got to the airport at Charles de Gaulle and then we got a taxi into town and when we got to our hotel all the bags were being taken out of the taxi and I’d said to Jane just make sure you keep the wine bag on your shoulder and I’ll look after everything else. In the confusion and probably both of us not being quite as sharp as we could have been the hotel grabbed all the bags and put them onto the footpath and that hotel, the footpath was a bit uneven and one of the bags toppled over and I saw it out of the corner of my eye and I thought it looks a little bit like a wine bag.
So I raced over and grabbed it but the Yquem bottle which was in there with a few other wines was very well protected but it did break and it had broken right across the base of the bottle and it was in a wetsuit material which held it altogether so I quickly turned it upside down. So I still had most of the liquid but of course I had a broken bottle and of course I was in total shock but on the other hand one has to do something, one has to perform under this sort of situation because we had an appointment booked with Sandrine Garbay, the Chief Winemaker at Yquem to authenticate this bottle and fortunately I was still thinking well enough so I raced off and got two little Perrier bottles, we tipped them out ‘cause they had screwcaps which was what we wanted and then we poured the Yquem, the liquid into these little bottles and if you let them overflow a little bit you can screw the top on, there’s no oxygen gets in. I think we both just about collapsed then so I thought oh dear, now what am I going to do?
I’m not too bad in pressure situations, this what was I consider a pressure situation. So anyway we had the bottles, we had the two little Perrier bottles with the Yquem liquid and we had the bottle, we had the neck of the bottle with the cork still in it with the capsule on it so we had all the authentic parts. The point was would Yquem even see us still when we’re turning up with an antique bottle of Yquem not in a condition that they’d be expecting? So anyway and I spoke to my friend Jean-Francois in Bordeaux who’d organised our appointment and I told him and he really didn’t believe it and then he roared laughing because as I think he said well one of us in the wine trade have had an accident that we wish didn’t happen. He said look, we’ve got this appointment at Yquem so we’ll go anyway, look, we’ll see what they do and I thought oh dear, I was a bit nervous about this part because I knew Pierre Lurton who’s the head of Chateau d’Yquem, he’d be there. I’m almost certain he’d be coming to have a look and have a taste and all the rest of it.
So we got there and finally we went to Sandrine Garbay’s laboratory and took all the pieces out and put the little Perrier bottles on the counter. Anyway so there’s a bit of horror and a bit of laughing going on and so anyway they tasted the wine and Sandrine said to me what did the wine taste like three days ago? I told her and we had a discussion about the actual quality of the wine and she inspected the bottle and all the rest of it. She said no, this is definitely Yquem, no doubt about that. Pierre Lurton turned ‘round and said to me, he says well actually in a way you’re lucky you broke the bottle because we no longer open bottles older than 1945. Someone comes along with a wine like you have, we’d look at it and we’d give our opinion on the wine, on the bottle and say thank you, goodbye.
So the fact that we’d actually broken it meant that they actually tasted it and that was absolutely crucial to us because we valued the cellar at about 7 to $8m and probably half of that was the value in Yquem, there was 217 bottles of Chateau d’Yquem from the 1800s and the early 1900s. So it was absolutely crucial that these Yquems, although they certainly looked like it and they had stamped corks and all that but we needed someone to actually taste it. So as life has it sometimes a little bit of accident was the best thing that could have happened.
G: It is an irresistible image, you turning up at Chateau d’Yquem and decanting two Perrier –
J: Actually when Pierre Lurton told us about the 1945 he did say only you Australians would do this. I don’t know if he meant only we Australians would break the bottle, I think as much as only you Australians would actually attempt to get this wine out of Georgia etc because it does take a certain I suppose – maybe not devil may care but ambitious –
G: A certain larrikin spirit perhaps.
J: Well maybe.
G: I’m not going to tell people how the story ends because this is a bit of a thriller, it is a bit of a whodunnit and a page-turner so what I would love to hear from you is how the Ykem tasted.
J: Well you know I do remember but at the time I think I was in such shock that this had happened and I think I said in the book I should have stopped and sat down and done an organoleptic analysis of the wine and everything. Well I didn’t because I figured at that stage, by the time I – first of all Jane and I tasted it when we were in the hotel in Paris because I think we were both under shock and we needed something and it was delicious. I have never tasted Ykem that old, I’ve tasted some certainly mature Ykem shall we say but it had the depth that Ykem has. What differentiates Ykem from most of the other sauternes houses, it has a richness but it has this incredible depth of flavour, depth of character. You take a wine like [Sudero] which is one of my favourites, it’s much more elegant, it’s finer etc but Ykem’s got an incredible depth to it. Yeah but I don’t actually remember much more about the taste of it because my head was in a different space.
N: Genevieve, I think you summed it up when during the story by going like that as it was all happening. I think that’s where John was at the time.
G: It is a belter of a yarn and I think we shouldn’t reveal what may or may not have happened to the wine and I suppose, John, just to end, what did you get out of all of this? A book? Yquem, a taste of this very, very old Yquem. There’s a sweetheart along the way too because Jane sort of weaves her way into all of this. All in all it is just a great adventure, isn’t it?
J: Yeah, it was quite extraordinary to be there and with the pressure of the book and trying to tell the story properly as opposed to it just floating around in my head. The one thing that did take over very much, we went there to buy wine and sell wine and make a profit was our business but the longer we spent in the cellar and as the wines became more real and more authentic I started to really be almost overcome with the history and the culture of what’s going on. I mean I was handling bottles that possibly Stalin or Nicholas II had handled. You made the comment before about wine being alive and organic and to me a cellar like this is witnesses to history so while they’re sitting in St Petersburg in the Tsar’s cellar or when they go to Tbilisi the whole history of the second world war’s happening, you’ve got the Russian revolution, you got the first world war, the second world war, falling of the Berlin war and it’s an extraordinary century and these wines were sitting there witness to all this.
So when you’re down there handling it you're living history somewhat and by the end of the exercise, although I was of course still very interested in the wine I was amazed at the experience and the opportunity and what I was handling and what it actually represented. That was quite fascinating. So that was a huge reward, just to be able to do that and yes, we ended up with a book some 10 years later.
G: It is the most wonderful read. Fills one with a desire to go to Georgia as much as anything because you do both describe that beautifully. The book is Stalin’s Wine Cellar, the guests I’ve had with me, the authors, John Baker, to whom this all happened more or less, and Nick Place. Look, it’s a highly recommended read, I think you don’t have to know a great deal about wine to absolutely love the pace and the energy and the intrigue of this one and of course the big question at the end about what’s happened to the wine. Look, thank you both very much indeed for your time, it’s been a great pleasure to talk to you.
J: Genevieve, thank you very much, it’s been a delight to be on the program, thank you.