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Historic Paris wine cellar to auction bottles

By Jim Bittermann, Senior International Correspondent
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Bottled history for sale
  • Historic paris restaurant La Tour d'Argent to auction 18,000 bottles of wine
  • Auction includes cognac dating back to 1788, before the French Revolution
  • Restaurant hopes to raise more than $1.5 million to update cellar
  • Acknowledges some wine sold will be past its best but hold historical value
  • France
  • Wine

Paris, France (CNN) -- One of the most extensive wine cellars in the world is about to sell off thousands of items from its prized collection -- allowing buyers to own a piece of bottled history.

The wine cellar sits beneath La Tour d'Argent, a historic and celebrated Paris restaurant whose dining room enjoys a stunning view across the river Seine to the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

Some food writers visiting the glittering restaurant in recent years have not always been so kind, but they could never criticize the view -- or the treasures that lie in the basement wine cellar.

Some 450,000 bottles of wines and spirits dating back more than two centuries sit in the dark corners of what the restaurant calls its "technically perfect" cellar.

According to La Tour d'Argent, the bottles were saved from the German occupation during World War II by Claude Terrail, whose family still owns the restaurant. He personally walled off part of the cellars on the night of June 14, 1940 -- the day the Germans entered Paris, the restaurant says.

The restaurant's wine list runs 400 pages and details a wine selection that is considered the best in France, if not in Europe.

The collection includes a cognac from 1788, the year before the French Revolution, and a bottle of champagne from the first shipment to break through the British blockade of the American states in 1815.

La Tour d'Argent acknowledges that the contents of its dusty bottles from the 18th and 19th centuries are well past their best, but they still drip with history.

"Every one of these bottles would have been used to reward a feat of daring or as currency for an illicit transaction," the restaurant says. "This is the 'vin des Corsaires,' the pirates' wine, and and this collection was the trophy of a defeated buccaneer."

Now, about 18,000 of those bottles will be auctioned in Paris on December 7 and 8, as a way to update the restaurant's collection.

"There is a moment in time when you have to say enough is enough," says David Ridgway, the restaurant's chief wine steward.

Some of the bottles could be a bargain -- a set for three bottles of Chateau Dalem from 1970, or six bottles of Gewurztraminer from 1998, are expected to sell for 30 euros ($45).

But others will cost dearly. The most expensive lots are expected to sell for 3,000 euros ($4,500), such as six demi-bottles of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild from 1982, or six bottles of Chateau Latour from 1990.

Buyers can own a piece of history, too, choosing from a champagne from 1810 (expected to sell for 1,200 euros, or $1,800), three bottles of Armagnac from 1875 (1,200 euros), or a bottle of Chateau Gruaud Larose from 1870 (900 euros, or $1,350).

"Obviously it's a bit of a shame to see them go, but at the same time, we're not consuming them so they've got to be drunk," Ridgway said. "That's the finality of any wine. It's to be drunk. It's not just to be looked at."

The owner of the restaurant, whose family has run the Tour d'Argent for nearly a century, emphasizes that the sale will not affect the selection since no single vintage will be sold entirely.

"The important thing is to have it as a reference, so we want to keep maybe 12, 18, or 24 of this reference," said owner Andre Terrail. "This is more than enough for us and we can keep on buying."

Because the wines have been kept under the best conditions over the centuries, the restaurant says it expects the auction to raise at least one million euros, or about $1.5 million -- liquidity it plans to use to modernize its other liquid assets.