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Missing Vintages

At the Pitcher Inn, a wine list and cellar fell victim to Irene; only one has been rebuilt


Published April 25, 2012 at 6:42 a.m.

Spoken in quick succession, their names can sound like gibberish: A 1995 Château Mouton-Rothschild. A 2004 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Montrachet Grand Cru. A 1991 Bodegas Vega Sicilia Unico. First cru Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet.

To wine geeks, though, the names sound like music, or sacred chants. These are the nearly impossible-to-replace bottles that became casualties when, during Tropical Storm Irene, the swollen brook behind Warren’s Pitcher Inn swallowed its bottom-floor pub and inundated a wine cellar filled with hundreds of bottles.

That collection was a 14-year labor of love and passion for Ari Sadri, the inn’s general manager and sommelier, who had expanded the list from 80 or so bottles to 525 just before Irene hit. By the time the storm departed, 70 cases had been ruined. Together, they had a street value estimated at a quarter-million dollars. “And about 100 bottles constituted about 50 percent of that,” notes Sadri.

Of course, suffering can’t always be measured in dollar amounts. The polished, bearded Sadri is quite aware of how much his neighbors endured during Irene, and he uses his words carefully. “The reality is, considering what so many people lost in Vermont and the dire straits this storm put people in, you’d have to be pretty self-absorbed” to focus on lost vintages, he says.

The Pitcher Inn itself is still recovering from millions of dollars’ worth of damage. Yet, as the staff and contractors continue to make repairs to the inn’s doors, electrical systems and even its antique pool table, Sadri finds himself in limbo. He and the inn’s owner, Maggie Smith, are still waiting for their insurance company to decide how much it will pay out for the wine cellar’s loss. Until that figure arrives, Sadri can’t begin to rebuild the collection — and even when he does, it won’t look as it did before.

If a wine list is a work of art, the Pitcher Inn’s might be compared to a Rodin. It was rooted in old-world classics but touched on almost every wine-growing region in the world, from Nahe to Le Marche to Condrieu; from California’s Central Coast to southern Australia. With one exception: South America was entirely absent.

When Sadri arrived at the newly rebuilt inn in 1997, he began as a server, then worked alongside then-chef Tom Bivins until he was hired to manage the increasingly busy front of the house. He also took over the wine program, which at the time consisted of 80 “mostly American” bottles with a sprinkling of French and Italian wines.

Curating the inn’s list was the culmination of a passion that had been sparked years before, when Sadri was 22 and working for St. Louis restaurateur Andy Ayers. “He would sit the staff down with a half-dozen bottles and ask, ‘How does it smell? How does it taste? Which food would you pair it with, and why?’” Sadri recalls.

His wine epiphany — Sadri says every sommelier has one — arrived when he sampled a complex 1986 Silverado Limited Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. After that, “I started tasting everything I could, and traveled everywhere I could” to taste, Sadri says. “I was a nerd at heart. I love minutiae.”

As well as educating his palate, Sadri spent a season learning wine making with David Ramey at Ramey Wine Cellars — and did his homework. “Tasting is great, but you have to understand where wine comes from,” he says. “You need to understand how a wine is made. There’s a lot to take in, and there’s no substitute for cracking the books.”

At the Pitcher Inn — a Relais & Chateaux property — Sadri was given free rein (and deep pockets) to build the list. He corralled sought-after bottles that would build value over time. He bought a menagerie of German Rieslings — “I’m a huge fan. They go with a huge variety of foods,” he says — and the requisite Bordeaux, including Château La Mission Haut-Brion and Château Mouton-Rothschild. His sweet spot, then and now, resided with the Volnays, the Nuits Saint Georges and the Gevrey-Chambertins. “My personal interests are Burgundies,” he says, and those dovetailed well with the ever-changing, seasonal menu at 275 Main, the inn’s restaurant.

“The idea was to have enough variety on our list, have a really diverse cellar that allowed us to meet people with a variety of tastes,” Sadri says. “I like to think a good list meets the customer wherever they are,” whether craving a fruity Zinfandel or wanting to splurge on a first-growth Bordeaux.

By the time Irene came, the Pitcher Inn’s wine list had reached 525 bottles, with 30 or so always offered by the glass. “I lack a base of self-restraint,” quips Sadri. His robust list continually earned accolades, as well as Wine Spectator’s “Best of Award of Excellence.”

Much of the wine was stored in the climate-controlled cellar, in the basement beside the bar Tracks. Because that had originally been built for just a few hundred bottles, some 1200 resided in off-site storage.

That was a tiny boon on August 28, 2011. As the waters rose, Sadri says, he saw a young friend and outdoor enthusiast, Whitney Phillips, standing at the inn’s door. Phillips asked Sadri a question he remembers fondly: “Dude, are you going to try and save some of that wine?”

Phillips suggested he break out his kayak so they could ferry bottles to safety, and Sadri thought it was a workable idea. “We were in the cellar in chest-deep water,” loading cases into the kayak, he recalls. Over 45 minutes, they saved a few hundred bottles, though Sadri eventually realized he had more pressing matters to attend to — such as cutting the inn’s power systems.

The next day, he found “muck, grime and water” everywhere, with a bonus surreal touch: A cherry dining table stood in the wine cellar still fully set, as if untouched by the chaos. “Cherry must float really well,” Sadri notes.

As the extent of the loss sank in, Sadri had little time for reflection or emotion. All around him was unfathomable destruction. “I was terrified the day of the flood, but for other reasons” than wine, he says. The inn was luckier than many of its neighbors: “We were still going to be able to do business,” Sadri recalls realizing. The staff began rebuilding immediately, including structurally restoring the cellar.

Nine months later, a heavy, arched wooden door opens to a darkened room that smells of newly sanded wood and finishing oil. Sadri flicks on an industrial lamp on the floor to reveal shelves filled with unscathed bottles — American Cabernets, German Rieslings, red Chinon from the Loire. Cases of wine wait to be catalogued and shelved.

But many shelves are still empty and may remain that way for a while. Sadri is holding off on significant purchases until he receives the insurance company’s verdict, which could determine how, and how fast, he will beef up the collection. He hopes the insurer will properly calculate the wine’s worth, which has shot up over the years. That 2004 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Grand Cru, for instance, wasn’t even on the inn’s list when it was lost; it was still waiting to come into its prime.

No matter how large the payout, much of what was lost is irreplaceable — such as the vertical (or collection of contiguous vintages) of Ridge Monte Bello from 1992 to 1999, or another vertical of Château Montelena Magnums dating back to 1979. Since Vermont law does not permit the inn to purchase wine at auction or from private collections, Sadri will have to rely on what state distributors can sell him. “It will be hard to find the wines that we lost,” he says, with typical understatement.

Sadri has had nine months to think about how he might approach rebuilding his list. While he’ll strive for a diverse cellar, with a strong spine of small producers, he says he may concentrate more on “subappellations,” for reasons of both variety and affordability. “We might have some great Gigondas, and not just Châteauneuf-du-Pape,” he says.

The list’s vital virtue will remain its power to expand the guests’ palates. “We have a hard and fast rule here: You can return any wine for any reason, or no reason at all,” Sadri says. That policy offers drinkers freedom to experiment. “If people can return it, and they’re not married to it, they’re more likely to order something they don’t know.”

Sadri envisions his customers’ tastes evolving through the process of trial and error, just as his own have. As a young man, “I used to value wine that made big statements,” he recalls. Asked to name a current personal favorite, he points to a bottle of 2005 Ghislaine Barthod Chambolle-Musigny ler cru “Aux Beaux Bruns” — a red Burgundy that he compares to “pretty elegant, rose petals. Maybe it’s a sign of age, but now I like wines that can sidle up and whisper in your ear.”

And with that, the dim cellar feels alive with voices.

CORRECTION: The original version of this article misstated the monetary value of the damage to the Pitcher Inn's wine collection, and misidentified the man Sadri learned to make wine with.

  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Ari Sadri