Stalin’s Wine Cellar

The Tang Dynasty in Kingston, Canberra, was one of the classiest Chinese restaurants in Canberra. It’s long gone now – I believe it closed in 2005, and I do mourn it a little still. For it had one of the best and most reasonably priced wine lists I have ever encountered.

It was a Shanghai style restaurant, decorated to look somewhat Art Deco, as Shanghai did in its 1920s heyday, before world wars and communist revolutions ruined it.

I have a very fond memory of a dinner I had there one Saturday night in late August 1999, just before I moved back to Melbourne after working in Canberra for seven months. I had become friends with two of my colleagues (we are still close friends now, over two decades later), and we were having dinner to mark my imminent departure.

On looking at the wine list, I saw that the Henschke Hill of Grace Shiraz 1977 vintage was available for $148 (there were a lot of other bottles on that wine list at relatively hefty but still, even then, reasonable prices given the quality and bottle age).

As a result, mindful that I was about to get my rental deposit refunded, I announced to the table that I was buying the first bottle and it would be the Hill of Grace. The response was that I would not, after that gesture, need to spend a further cent on drinks for the rest of the evening. (I suspect, given the subsequent amount we drank before I called time at 2am and grabbed a taxi from a night club, that the $148 I spent was much less than a third of our alcohol expenses for the night, so it was a shrewd move.)

Still now, 22 years later, I think that the 1977 Hill of Grace is the best wine I have ever drank. And I have (in company of course – fine wine is not to be drank alone) bought and drank several other quality premium wines, such as several vintages of Penfolds Grange (1971, 1985, 1994, 1995), Elderton Command Shiraz, Langmeils ‘The Freedom’ Shiraz, Wolf Blass Black Label, Mount Mary Quintet….

But beyond the extravagance of paying $300 for a bottle or three of the 1994 Grange (one still sits in what passes for my wine cellar), I do not think it sensible to spend more than about $70 normally on a special bottle of wine. And being lower middle class means that whilst comfortable, I am not wealthy enough to go all out in the extravagance stakes.

Nor have I gotten particularly curious about French wine or other foreign wines, even though there are many amazing wines to try from beyond Australian shores.

As for wines which are hugely expensive and collectible, they are best left to super-rich people, like royalty, dictators, and oligarchs.

Which gets me to the book I read this week, Stalin’s Wine Cellar, about a wine collection whose ownership passed from Czar Nicholas II to Joseph Stalin and probably now to some oligarchs or other kleptocratic types in the former Soviet Union.

The main author and narrator of this book, John Baker, was an upmarket Sydney wineshop owner who was approached in the late 1990s about a wine collection in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, which might be for sale. This sees him embark on an adventure where he visits Georgia, meets various shady characters, and inspects a giant wine cellar holding tens of thousands of bottles of wine.

Some thousand of those wines were from the Czar’s personal cellar and were imported from France in the 19th century. Others were Stalin’s personal favourites.

The story is an engaging one, and I finished the book almost in one sitting, which these days is rare for me. But it does illustrate to me that whilst I do know a lot more about wine than the average person, and probably drink a lot more of it and spend more on good quality stuff, there is still a whole lot that I do not know, and will never know. And that even if I wanted to know more, I would need an unlikely event like a lottery win or a major Poseidon sized share market windfall to make accessing and drinking such wines feasible.

Published by Ernest Zanatta

Narrow minded Italian Catholic Conservative Peasant from Footscray.

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