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Millions of dollars worth of wines have been destroyed in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS—Searing heat and lack of electricity throughout New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina ruined hundreds of thousands of bottles of rare wines by degrading corks and cooking the contents.

Owners fear that even those bottles that appear to have survived the hurricane may hold spoiled wine.

This city's once-vibrant culinary industry, already beaten back by disaster, has been further injured by damage to its wines. Losses are estimated to be as much as tens of millions of dollars. Private collectors, restaurants and distributors are preparing to destroy much of their stock. Insurance companies are just beginning to assess the damage and deal with the tricky job of determining the wines' value.

For wine lovers, it's an incalculable loss.

Dr. Chuck Mary, a Metairie area resident, returned to his home weeks after the storm to find his 500-bottle private collection destroyed by flooding and heat.

Losing a bottle of 1946 Chateau Latour hit Mary the hardest, he said, but not just for its estimated $1,500 value.

"It was given to me when I got married in 2000, and I intended on drinking it on my fifth anniversary," which was Oct. 14, he said.

Many wine collections in this low-lying city, including in upscale French Quarter restaurants, were kept above ground in attics and storage rooms. When electricity and air conditioning failed, the temperature rose and ruptured corks, which allowed in oxygen that degraded the wine. Some were ruined just from simmering in 98-degree New Orleans temperatures.

"Like food, when you cook it, that changes it," said Gladys Horiuchi, spokeswoman for the San Francisco-based Wine Institute. Even subtle changes in taste can make a prestigious wine un-sellable, she said.

About 1,000 restaurants in the greater New Orleans area have wine collections and nearly all were affected, said Tom Weatherly, spokesman for the Louisiana Restaurant Association.

"I know we are talking about millions of dollars in loss down here," Weatherly said. Collections will have to be rebuilt and allowed to increase in value.

The value of wine can increase over time as bottles become more rare and sought after. The real financial blow is the lost appreciation, Weatherly said. A spokesman for Great Central Insurance Co. of Peoria, Ill., which insures many of the restaurants in New Orleans, said he couldn't comment Friday, but the company is assessing claims in the area.

These are already difficult times for the city's restaurant industry. Tourism is still only a trickle in the French Quarter and nearly nonexistent in the Warehouse District downtown. Restaurants such as Antoine's, Tommy's Cuisine and Emeril's New Orleans remained shuttered last week.

Rick Gratia, who co-owns Muriel's restaurant on Jackson Square in the French Quarter, said he hired an appraiser in anticipation that his insurance company won't pay or will low-ball the value of his wine collection. He estimated the restaurant lost about $143,000 in wine.

Bottles such as the 1989 Chateau Latour, which sells for $550, are likely undrinkable. Gratia said he may try to serve the wines, but if they're bad, he'll have to subtract the charge from customer bills and cover the cost himself.

"The bottom line is just about all of it is tainted," Gratia said. "Nobody can afford to take that kind of a hit. Now I have to do battle with my insurance company."

The companies that supply wine to New Orleans restaurants are hurting, too.

Cindy Johnson, president and CEO of East-West Wines Inc., said the company lost its entire wine stock—about 84,000 bottles worth $500,000—when Katrina blew over the building's compressors and punched 10 holes in the roof.

Wine was shipped statewide before the storm. Now, heavy equipment will be brought in next week to haul away and destroy the cases, which include rare and specialty wines, Johnson said.

But there's hope for wine lovers. Last Thursday, crews were scrubbing down and rejuvenating restaurants such as Nola, in the French Quarter, indicating that diners may have access to more wine menus soon.

Tommy's Cuisine in the Warehouse District will begin popping corks for customers on Nov. 1. The owner, Tommy Andrade, is even planning to expand his wine offerings. He bought the closed wine bar next door and plans to open it soon.


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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