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France Sells Presidential Wines To Update Palace Wine Cellar

Jun 1, 2013
Originally published on June 1, 2013 2:46 pm

Prized Burgundies and Bordeaux once served at the presidential palace in France were sold for the first time ever as the wine cellar at Elysee Palace gets an overhaul.

Some 1,200 bottles, or 10 percent of the palace wines, went on sale this week at the famous Drouot auction house in downtown Paris. On the block were vintages from 1930 to 1990, including famous names such as Chateau Latour, Chateau Mouton Rothschild and Montrachet.

Before the sale, one of the auction's organizers, wine expert Juan Carlos Casas, showed me the highest valued wine on the block — a bottle of Bordeaux Petrus that will fetch anywhere from $3,000 to $4,000 at auction, and retails for about $7,000.

"This is one of the stalwarts of the international wine code," he says. "It's a wine that everybody wants in their cellar." But he says the Elysee no longer wants to serve expensive, grand cru — first growth wines — at state dinners.

Proceeds from the auction will be used to reinvest in moderately priced wines from up-and-coming young wine growers. Any other profit will go back into state coffers. (The city of Dijon held a similar sale earlier this year and raised about $200,000, which went to a "social action" committee.)

Casas calls the Elysee's wine cave a "working cellar." It's there to serve the presidency of the French Republic, he explains. "Its goal is to be used and not to be shown. It's not a museum, it's not a collection. So what you have are wines that are solidly good, top-of-the-line wines. But they are made to drink, not to collect."

Whether to drink or collect, wine lovers the world over showed up, or weighed in by telephone and online to get a piece of French history. These are the bottles that have been served to kings and heads of government, often easing the way to compromise in many a diplomatic dinner. Each bottle bears a special sticker designating it as an official Elysee Palace wine.

The prices went up so quickly that collector Virginie Le Bac left the auction midway through. "It's incredible — the prices are flying," she says. "We thought we could buy something, but the bottles, 150 euros, are getting 800, 1,000, 1,500 euros. So we're definitely not going to buy anything. But it's great to see it."

Outside the auction house, a different scene unfolds. A couple hundred young people are pressing at the doors, but they aren't interested in the president's wine at all: They're here to protest his newly passed gay marriage and adoption law.

"Socialist dictatorship!" they chant. "We want Pinot, not marriage homo!"

Apparently not even the finest wines of the Republic can escape the white-hot politics of France's gay marriage debate.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. For the first time ever, the French presidential palace has sold off part of its famous wine collection. The proceeds from the auction, which took place over two days in Paris this week, will go toward replenishing the presidential wine cellar. Now, in more plush times, French presidents served prized Burgundies and Bordeaux. In these times of budget cutbacks, dinner guests at the Elysee Palace will sip more modest vintages. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley send us this report.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Some 1,200 bottles, or 10 percent of the Elysee Palace's wine cellar, went on sale this week at the famous Drouot auction house in downtown Paris. On the block were vintages from 1930 to 1990, including famous names such as Chateau Latour, Chateau Mouton Rothschild and Montrachet. Before the sale, one of the auction's organizers, wine expert Juan Carlos Casas, showed me the highest valued wine on the block.

JUAN CARLOS CASAS: And I am trying to show you - I am not wrong; this is the good one. This is one of those stalwarts of the international wine code. It's a wine that everybody wants in cellar.

BEARDSLEY: Casas says the bottle of Bordeaux Petrus will fetch anywhere from $3,000 to $4,000 at auction, and retails for about $7,000. But he says the Elysee no longer wants to serve expensive grand cru or first growth wines at state dinners. So, proceeds from the auction will be used to reinvest in moderately priced wines from up-and-coming young wine growers. Despite some of the big names being auctioned off, Casas calls the Elysee's wine cave a working cellar.

CASAS: It means it's there to serve the presidency of the French Republic. And its goal is to be used and not to be shown. It is not a museum, it is not a collection. So, what you have are wines that are solidly good, top-of-the-line wines. But they are made to drink, not to collect.

BEARDSLEY: Whether to drink or collect, wine lovers the world over showed up, or weighed in by telephone and Internet to get a piece of French history. These are the bottles that have been served to kings and heads of government, often easing the way to compromise in many a diplomatic dinner. Every bottle bears a special sticker designating it as an official Elysee Palace wine. The prices went up so quickly that collector Virginie Le Bac left the auction midway through.

VIRGINIE LE BAC: It's incredible - the prices are flying. We thought we could buy something, but the bottles, 150 euro, are getting 800, 1,000, 1,500 euros. So, we are definitely not going to buy anything. But it's great to see it.

BEARDSLEY: The noise behind Le Bac is from another scene unfolding outside the auction house. A crowd of a hundred or so young people is pressing at the doors. As it turns out, the preppy-looking youngsters aren't interested in the president's wine at all. They're here to protest his newly passed gay marriage and adoption law. They chant: Socialist dictatorship. And: We want Pinot, not marriage homo. These days, nothing, it seems, not even the finest wines of the Republic, can escape the white-hot politics of France's gay marriage debate. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.