A Story That Will Move You to Tears

By / Magazine / July 29th, 2009 / 1

I have come to the point in my life when all wine lovers begin to break out in a cold sweat. My wife and I are moving lock, stock and bottles, along with Pinot the Wonder Dog and Nancy the cat. By the time you read this, my wines will be in serious transit — and I am dreading the thought. 

We have sold our three-storey brick house in North Toronto and are downsizing to a two-bedroom condo not far away. But I am leaving behind a climate-controlled cellar (capacity: 1,000 bottles), and my wines have to be braced for travel.

The last time we moved, I had cellar-withdrawal symptoms too, made all the more painful when I learned that the new owners of our old house were going to use my beautiful wine cellar as a cedar closet for the wife’s fur coats.

It is no accident I chose the end of October as a moving date: the weather (I’m keeping my fingers crossed) will not be too hot or too cold. Wine people have long memories, and I have been haunted by the fate of a library set of Mouton Rothschild bottles — every art label from 1945 to 1994 — that occurred in the winter of 1998. The wines had been purchased as a lot at a charity auction two years earlier by the Royal York Hotel in Toronto (before it became the Fairmont Royal York). The idea now was to display the unique set in a custom-made cabinet at the various Fairmont properties across the country.

In that winter of doom, the wines were on view at the company’s Whistler hotel in British Columbia. Their next stop was Mont-Tremblant, the ski resort in Quebec. The hotel had wisely made an inventory of the precious bottles with a description of the fill level and the condition of the label for each. As the collection left a property, notes were made to keep track of any deterioration. Each inventory sheet was signed and witnessed by the hotel and the shipping company. On January 8, the wines left Whistler in their polystyrene packing cases, a dozen wines in each container, standing upright, set in wooden cases. 

They were then transported in an unheated truck for three days across Canada in winter! 

By the time the truck arrived in Quebec, all the wines had frozen. Their corks had been forced out, and most of the bottles had leaked. In some cases, the corks were floating in the wine; in others, the corks had erupted through the lead capsules. Many fill levels were dramatically down and even those bottles that had no evidence of leakage showed that the hermetic seal between the cork and the neck had been broken. The possibility of oxidation was obvious.

Naturally, the hotel sued the shipping company — their collection was ruined. The insurance company balked at paying $40,000 to replace all fifty-three bottles (including the two Jean-Paul Riopelle labels on the 1978 vintage — Baron Philippe could not make up his mind which he preferred, so he used both — and the controversial 1993 sketch of a prepubescent naked girl by Count Balthaszar Klossowski de Rola, better known as the artist Balthus, a label that was banned in the US.) The insurers were only prepared to pay for bottles that were obviously ruined.

Now my collection is not worth $40,000, but I’m still concerned, because, at the time of writing, there is nowhere for them to go. Orphans! I am currently negotiating with the building I’m moving into to purchase a space to build a cellar or a least something large enough to accommodate two climate-controlled cabinets. Otherwise… there’s going to be one hell of a moving-out party for the neighbours. 


Tony Aspler has been writing about wine for over 30 years. He was the wine columnist for The Toronto Star for 21 years and has authored sixteen books on wine and food, including The Wine Atlas of Canada, Vintage Canada, The Wine Lover's Companion, The Wine Lover Cooks and Travels With My Corkscrew. Tony's latest book is Tony Aspler's Cellar Book.

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