Tomorrow, Christie's in New York will auction off the top bottles from the collection amassed over 25 years by Chicago's legendary Charlie Trotter's restaurant. (The remainder will be on sale online through the end of the month; you can see the collection catalogue here.) Master sommelier Larry Stone was Trotter's most celebrated wine director, working at the restaurant from 1989 (when it was two years old) to 1993, and then returning for its last few months. But more than that, he was Trotter's collaborator in developing an American way that wine and food could go together in contemporary fine dining, largely responsible for building the restaurant's celebrated cellar and setting the direction that it followed after he left. Stone recently took a new post as dean of Wine Studies at the International Culinary Center in Campbell, California; we caught up with him via e-mail in Burgundy and asked him about the collection, which Christie's buyers will be bidding on tomorrow.
How did the collection get started? Was there a particular plan, or how did it evolve?
When I came to the restaurant in 1989, there was a modest but well-chosen program of mainly American wines from the Central Coast and elsewhere. After a little while, we expanded the list to include many Bordeaux classified growths, Burgundy and Rhone. This was very successful, so I expanded the list to include interesting wines from Italy, the Loire, Spain and Austria. I started to buy wines at auction when the prices were modest and there was no concept of counterfeiting. The only worry was the condition of the cellar it came from.
When the 1989 vintage of Bordeaux became available, I bought a lot of wine as soon as it was offered, and also the same with the 1990 vintage, both for Bordeaux and Burgundy. We had at the time 1845 Lomelino Bual Madeira by the glass and Moulin Touchais 1964.
So it was a combination of experiments that were successful as well as an idea of what the next steps would be so that we wouldn’t overstep what the restaurant guests wanted or could handle.
What was your philosophy about what wines went with Charlie Trotter's food?
Well, the idea is that Charlie was able to be spontaneous and improvise dishes to match the wines. His menu was always creative and stretching the boundaries of what connoisseurs thought made a good match. We tasted the food and the wines together, collaborating on what kind of ingredients would work best and, more importantly, how the sauces should be structured concerning intensity, acidity, sweetness, etc.
However, if a guest wanted to drink first-growth Bordeaux from the beginning and end with a Northern Rhone Syrah-based wine, then the normal prix fixe menu would be completely adapted to the wines. We did the same kind of iconoclastic work with wine dinners. It was astonishing for most winemakers to see their big red wines, whether from Bordeaux or Napa, served with fish or vegetarian dishes.
Once, May Eliane de Lencquesaing of Chateau Pichon Lalande objected on principle to having an artichoke in a dish with one of her big red wines from a major vintage. Then we told her how we had altered the chemistry of the artichoke by par-boiling it, throwing out the water and then braising it in wine before adding it to the dish. When she tried it, her objections turned into admiration, and she never questioned our experiments again.
How far back did you want to go in terms of vintages?
The oldest vintages we had at my time came from Madeira and were in the early nineteenth century. I didn’t buy a lot of wine from prior to the second world war from Bordeaux or Burgundy because I knew it would be hard to discover how it had been transported and how received.
Until the nineties, and even now, many shippers and merchants do not take the care necessary to insure that the wine is transported in a rigorously temperature-controlled fashion from beginning to end. Even if they go with a reputable logistics company, like Hillebrand, sometime customs holds it up on a hot dock or the distributor has no refrigeration in the delivery truck. But I was able to get a lot of good wine from 1945 onward. I also had some 1927 Port.
All of the wines offered in this auction come from reputable sources and are, in many cases, direct from the estate or chateau. This is especially true of the large-format bottles, many of which were assembled at the winery especially for Charlie Trotter.
Was there anything that you thought people should be drinking with the food that you had a hard time getting them to drink?
I never have had a hard time educating people about new regions. We did a remarkable business with Austrian wines and helped to spark the interest in Burgenland and Wachau, especially with Grüner Veltliner. We also exposed people to Viognier, at the time a practically unknown variety to the public, even in its incarnation as Condrieu.
What's something overlooked in the auction lot that you would be excited about picking up?
If I told you, I wouldn’t be able to get it myself! I intend to buy as much as I can afford. These have been impeccably stored wines with unimpeachable provenance, and they are all good, down to the simple country wines.