* Stalin’s Wine Cellar, by John Baker & Nick Place. Published by Viking, $34.99.
The word that caught John Baker’s attention was, “Interested?”, written at the top of a list of wines that made no sense and looked like some sort of secret code. That word launched a series of events and an often risky adventure that took many strange twists and turns and involved some weird and shadowy characters, often with guns tucked into their belts. Churchill once described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. No doubt Winston would also have applied that description to the story of Stalin’s wine cellar.
The story covers nearly 30 years and without giving too much away is still not concluded. The main author and protagonist, John Baker, was a wine merchant in Sydney who often dealt in rare and old wines and in buying and selling special collections and what are called “museum wines”. When given the incomprehensible list, he and his trusty offsider in the wine business, Kevin Hopko, went to work and figured that they were dealing with a collection that contained some of the oldest existing French vintages in the world, including Château d’Yquem, Château Margaux and Château Lafite Rothschild, as well as some old Georgian wines.
The author of the word “Interested?” was another wine merchant who was given the list by an Australian who was doing deals in Georgia mainly in gold mining and who had formed a company with a shady Georgian businessman, called George (yes, I know), who also supposedly had part ownership in a winery where the collection was cellared. The four of them formed a partnership to purchase the wines for US$ 1 million and John and Kevin set off for Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, to establish their authenticity and their actual ownership.
The Russian aristocracy loved most things French, even adopting it as their language at court. This love extended to French wines, especially from the Bordeaux region, and the collection in Tbilisi was said to have been started by Tsar Alexander II and continued by his grandson Tsar Nicholas II, before it was “inherited” by the Bolsheviks. Considering the lavish lifestyle of Nicholas and his regime and the way in which the Russian people were cruelly oppressed and kept in poverty, it’s no wonder he didn’t survive the revolution. What is surprising, is that his wine cellar did survive and that Stalin not only preserved it but added to it.
The story goes that when the Nazis pushed into Russia in the Second World War, Stalin moved the collection to Tbilisi for safety. At the time Georgia was well out of the way of Hitler’s advance and Tbilisi was also Stalin’s home ground where he first operated as an enforcer and fundraiser for the Bolsheviks. His fundraising activities mostly involved armed robberies, extortion and blackmail, skills that came in very useful for him in later life as dictator of the USSR. While reading this book it occurred to me that Trotsky may really have been killed with a corkscrew rather than an ice pick.
Riddle in a cellar in Georgia
In trying to establish the authenticity and ownership of the wine, the experiences of John and Kevin in Georgia are not too far distant from the world in which Stalin operated in his early career. Led astray and continually frustrated and delayed by the Georgian mafia and the owners of the winery, as well as being double crossed by their Australian partners, this story is full of surprises and intrigue. It really is a riddle and an enigma contained in a wine bottle covered in cobwebs and sitting in a long-forgotten cellar in Georgia.
In the end the only people in this story who seem to have any integrity are our heroes John and Kevin. That fact probably helps to win the respect and friendship of the Georgian mafia, who really take a shine to our heroes with their Australian humour and casual approach. There are some funny moments in Stalin’s Wine Cellar and Baker writes with a laconic and sometimes self-deprecating sense of humour, especially when describing the interactions and banter with his partner, the very knowledgeable and philosophic Kevin. His journey to Bordeaux to have a rare bottle authenticated at Château d’Yquem is one of both tragedy and triumph and a lesson in how not to handle a rare old bottle of wine.
John Baker’s narrative probably benefits from the co-authorship with Nick Place, who gives it an immediacy and provides a good flow and pace to the action. Baker includes some historical background as well as some great information on wine making, wine appreciation and the classics such as Château d’Yquem. He also includes a glossary of terms which, for the reader unacquainted with French and Georgian wines and various terms in the industry, gives the story context.
This is a fascinating story which will appeal to both wine buffs and those who are intrigued by quirky bits of history. In the end I found that I had a soft spot for some of the Georgian mafia figures in the story, especially the infamous George, who turns up unexpectedly some years later in London, just to rekindle the mystery of Stalin’s wine cellar and uncork the enigma once again. There could be another book to follow, because who knows what can happen in Tbilisi.
This book could be a good read over the holiday period while sipping on a glass of red. See if your bottle shop has any Georgian wines, but just be careful when you uncork them.
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