Cellaring at Schaefer’s- A Half Century Tradition

Sterling Pratt, our Wine Director emeritus, opines on laying away wine and, in particular, the history of Schaefer’s cellar. A 35 year veteran of the trade, Sterling’s insights and commentary are a treasure. Pictured, Sterling (left) with George Schaefer in the store lot with their rides.

By Sterling Pratt      May 16, 2013

The very idea of having a wine cellar seems oddly quaint and somehow out of touch with the twenty-first century. Is it buried treasure? Is it a formal room where invited insiders get a glimpse of a lifetime’s collection? Many European homes and most restaurants have some space in the underground devoted to the cool preservation of a few, or many, bottles of wine. Most of those were built, though, over centuries of wars and reconstruction and additions that left cool spaces sometimes two stories below ground. At that depth, wine (and for that matter potatoes and pickles) maintains a constant 58 degrees with little or no mechanical help. Most American houses of course don’t have this natural advantage, and only a very few modern consumers can afford to set aside the space that would otherwise be used for a game room or media center.

Restaurants and wine shops all over the world have rescued wine lovers who thirst for the taste of a mature red (and white), but who live trapped in their bungalow or ranch. Famed, multi-starred restaurants have the cellars of dreams and cloud-high prices to match. In the seventies several restaurants made it their calling card to have a wine list of old vintages that weighed as much as the Oxford English Dictionary. Hundreds of dollars could be spent on a rare bottle held in pristine condition since it was first released by the winery. Several of those massive lists have gone the way of credit default swaps as restaurants found it didn’t make sense to hold the inventory, and diners kept asking for younger and younger vintages of hand-crafted Napa Cabernets.

Vivid Memories

Sterling Pratt

I can remember the weather and the light in the room the day I tasted the 1961Chateau Lynch-Bages. I can remember the plate served and the antique table the day I was poured the 1961 Chateau Palmer. I can still taste the pressed duck presented with the half bottle of 1937 Margaux. And don’t get me started about being able to stand in the kitchen at one of Chicago’s private clubs as I sampled each and every vintage of over thirty going back to the early 1800s of Chateau d’Yquem as they were trayed-up for a small group of auction bidders.

And the old Il Poggio. And the 1945 Poniatowski Vouvray. And of course more Pinots than I can name in a few paragraphs. Like the lineup in 1980 in the Romanée-Conti cellars, or the evanescent Dujacs in the early 80s. And the Rochioli at the River Café in New York over a decade ago.

And of course the shock of the 1944 Zinfandel in the mid-seventies.

If you’ve had a taste of an older wine you know what I’m mumbling about. If you’ve never had that experience, though, you’ve missed one of the great ah-hah moments in food and wine. Nothing you can buy off the shelf can match it.

The Schaefer Cellar

george_and_mom
George and his mom, Eileen,  on the wine floor in the late 1960s.

George Schaefer took it upon himself to convince his mother that he had seen something unique when he went to Europe in 1971 with his friend Gerry Hirsch. What he saw, no wine shop in Chicago had. It would set Schaefer’s apart from every other store, at first on the North Shore, and later in the United States. With her blessing, George started to buy new releases of classic wines that he fancied. He bought Bordeaux, and he bought California Cabernets. Cabernets! At a time when no one took California seriously, George bought Cabernets. What a brave soul! And he didn’t buy untested wines, he bought the classics of every period. And he also kept an eye on selling them, so there were few wines he deemed less commercially viable, notably Italian and Spanish reds. One by one, new vintage after new vintage, George socked them away. If a winery allocated Schaefer’s two cases, one went on the shelf and one went into the cellar.

None of his buys came from questionable sources – all came directly from the winery on first release – many bought as futures. Try finding a collection like this? Good luck. Some scrooge is probably chuckling as he decants bottle after bottle of his cache. But find these older wines for sale for you to try? Not easily.

George enjoyed a glass of Champagne with Michael Broadbent, MW Wine Director for Christies 1983
George enjoyed a glass of Champagne with Michael Broadbent, MW Wine Director for Christies 1983

 

And just when the small room in the store’s basement was growing too small to navigate, a new space was built out, much larger, with proper bins and state-of-the-art refrigeration. An amazing cellar! And still, George really didn’t like the idea of publicizing his collection. “They’re for our best customers,” he’d say. And if, after Michael Broadbent visited the space and pronounced it good enough for Christie’s burgeoning auction fulfillment business (same space – different wines), someone heard about the cellar and offered George a big check for a case of this or a half-dozen of that, he’d proudly repeat his mantra that good, regular customers get first crack.

And many have. One bottle at a time, the collection has been kept alive by individual sales here and there, and acquisitions that continue through George’s daughter Anje and the Schaefer’s wine team.

The cellar today
The store cellar today in underground Skokie.

That Big Year

Okay, okay, so what does all this mean for you? One of George’s favorite ways to sell individual bottles was to sell wines that matched certain anniversaries, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five. Can’t find that perfect something for a spouse or friend who really likes wine? It’s an anniversary? Consider the fact that nowhere else in the U.S. as far as we know does a collection of mature California classics exist for your plucking. Beware that these are older wines with sediment and will require decanting. We’re ready to coach you.

Sterling (left) with Schaefer's  Bill Graham & Mick Ter Haar visiting the old blocks at Mondavi that helped put Napa on the global wine map.
Sterling (left) with Schaefer’s Bill Graham & Mick Ter Haar visiting the gnarly blocks at Mondavi that helped put Napa on the global wine map. There’s a healthy supply of Robert Mondavi Reserve in the cellar.

I’ll provide several links to help get you started. All purchases need approval, just the way George did it, and we reserve the right to limit quantities. But this is where the fun begins:

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