Tracking down Stalin’s wine cellar

An Australian dealer receives a mysterious fax detailing rare wines languishing in a Georgian cellar. Jeni Port interviews John Baker to find out what happened next.
 

Stalin's wine cellar/Baker
Stalin's wine cellar/Baker

It was the stuff of myth and legend. During World War II, Joseph Stalin, fearing a German advance on Russia, arranged for valuable art and riches – including a magnificent cellar of wines, some said to have once belonged to Tsar Nicholas II – to be dispersed to far flung corners.

Now, an Australian wine merchant and importer claims to have found Stalin’s cellar in a winery in Georgia.

John Baker says he has not only seen the wines and taken an inventory of them, but was able to secure one priceless bottle of Chateau d’Yquem from the 1870s and have it tasted at Yquem He says it was pronounced by the Chateau’s winemaker, Sandrine Garbay, to be “definitely Yquem.”

But having found what he believed to be Stalin’s cellar, he lost it – or, rather, was prevented from bringing it out of Georgia by the winery’s owners and a group of people he describes as “shady”.

The astounding claims are contained in a new book, Stalin’s Wine Cellar, which Baker co-wrote. It recalls a wine adventure of a lifetime, which started in Sydney back in 1998. The book, published by Penguin, was released in Australia on August 18.

Baker, the then owner of Double Bay Cellars and known for buying and selling large cellars of wine, was faxed sheets of paper with numbers and combinations of letters. It came from a business acquaintance with a friend in Georgia and there was just one word attached: “Interested?”

The sheets, which turned out to be a cellar list, required some deciphering. “I agonised over that list for days,” says Baker. “I presumed the list was compiled by someone reading out the French labels to a Georgian who was writing it in Georgian and then when they wanted to sell it (the wines), the Georgian cellar book had to be translated back into English. It all happened phonetically.”

The list was a veritable treasure trove, including multiple bottles of wines from the great chateaux of Bordeaux, plus Chateau d’Yquem from 1854 through to 1940.  All together there were 217 d’Yquems from the 1800s and 1900s, along with other beauties from top Bordeaux estates, including Latour, Margaux and Mouton Rothschild.

Baker remained sceptical until he was put in touch with the owners of Savane Number One, a winery in Tbilisi, Georgia, where the wines were allegedly kept. The owners needed money to resurrect the winery and were willing to sell the cellar. It was believed that Stalin had chosen the place because it was close to the town where he was born.

Baker was hooked. 

“These wines have lived through the history of the 20th Century, and they almost represent the history of the 20th Century from the Russian Revolution to the Second World War,” says Baker. “These wines sat there in their sleeping state while all of this was going on above them.”

Baker and his general manager flew to Georgia. But, when they arrived, there was a hitch.

“A lot of the wines didn’t have labels,” he says, the result of being kept in a damp, humid cellar for a long time which was good for corks, but less so for wine labels made of paper. 
“You actually had to prove what they were.” They took a bottle without a label, but with a cork that read 187-, to Yquem.

The deal fell through, however, thanks to layers of intrigue, including oblique warnings against asking questions or attempting to contact the major players.  The story closes with a chance 2019 meeting with one of the Georgian protagonists that Baker had assumed he would never see again. 

Do the wines still exist?

“I’m sure a lot of the wines are still in existence,” says Baker.  “It’s just a question of how, where and when.”

Would he be ready for another shot at tracking them down?

“If someone really wanted to pursue them and they wanted to pay me enough – I don’t want to buy them again – I would help them pursue the wines. I’ve had my go.”

Jeni Port

Stalin’s Wine Cellar by John Baker and Nick Place is published by Penguin.

 

John Baker/Anna Webster

 

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