Savoring a Vintage Ritual : Wine: A representative of the renowned vintner Chateau Lafite Rothschild visits Burbank and recorks bottles to preserve their prized contents.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In less time than it takes to sniff a cork and frown, wine importer and collector Sonny Martin saw the value of his 1875 bottle of Bordeaux plummet from $2,500 to $100.

"Well," he shrugged, reconciled to drinking the wine now that it was no longer collectible, "we're going to have a good dinner tonight."

Martin's tale was one of the few sad ones Wednesday as wine collectors from throughout the West, chatting in the language of the grape about fruity aftertastes and undiscovered cellars, gathered in Burbank to have their valuable wines recorked.

A ritual that should be performed every 25 years to preserve old wines, the recorking at the Los Angeles International Culinary Institute was done by master winemaker Robert Revelle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild, one of the world's most famed vintners.

While his wife and an aide scurried about arranging the dusty old bottles brought in from as far away as Seattle, Revelle, a stocky, silver-haired Frenchman whose father was a cellar master before him, popped the cork on each bottle and clinically sniffed it.

If, as in Martin's case, he suspected something was amiss, he poured a little wine into a glass and tasted it.

No, he declared, he would not recork Martin's bottle and add the valuable Rothschild label. "The old cork was broken," he explained matter-of-factly in French. "So it's not like wine anymore. It's like tart grape."

One-hundred-and-seventeen-year-old tart grape, to be exact.

Martin disagreed with the verdict, but tried to keep a stiff upper lip.

"As a collector, you start to think of these things as objects of art rather than a food product," he said. "Now I'll actually do with it what is supposed to be done: I'll drink it."

Recorking is important to the health of wine because old corks can dry up and allow air to seep in. Air is the enemy of wine, turning it to vinegar.

Chateau Lafite Rothschild is the only one of the major French winemakers that sends its recorking team out on the road, according to Lina Gerometta, a spokeswoman for the organization.

The team makes its U.S. tour every four to six years, and although its stopovers may not compare with rock shows in drawing crowds, people who show up for the arcane ritual are enthusiastic in their own ways. They swapped wine stories and recalled movable feasts of the past, such as Martin's 30th birthday last year, for which he hired a French chef to saute a duck in cherry sauce and poach a salmon. A smile played over his face as he recalled the dinner and the white Burgundy he drank with it.

The response from the United States to this year's tour was so strong that the recorking team had to stop in New York, Washington, Miami, Tampa, Houston, and elsewhere before setting down in Los Angeles this week. Long lines of wine collectors, each of whom had already made a reservation, greeted the team when it began work Wednesday morning in a room inside the Classroom Restaurant at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center.

"We've been on the road since April 30," Revelle's wife, Marie, said wearily in French.

She thought she might be able to have a little vacation along the way. It had not worked out that way. The team had been corking 500 bottles each week, only Rothschild issues, of course. The vintages ranged as far back as 1806.

Revelle's great-grandfather and his grandfather, along with his father, worked for Chateau Lafite Rothschild, established by Baron James De Rothschild in 1868 on an estate that had been making wine since 1234. With such tradition behind him, Revelle had little choice, he said, but to be a winemaker. Still, he said, he likes the work and considers the recent vintages every bit the equal of those in the so-called golden era of winemaking in the mid-19th Century.

That golden era was represented Wednesday by a collection of five bottles from the 1870 vintage, owned by Westside dermatologist Brad Klein, who estimates that his cellar of 2,500 bottles is worth about $100,000.

He said the year 1870 is especially valuable to collectors, in part because the vintage was so powerful it was considered undrinkable for 50 years. Today, it's especially delightful, warm and fruity.

"It is the year collectors seek out the most," said Klein, who has judged wine at the Los Angeles County Fair. He said the single magnum of 1870 wine that he owns is worth from $10,000 to $15,000. And no, Revelle did not reject it.

Klein traced his magnum to a castle in Scotland owned by the same family from which William Shakespeare took the character of the Thane of Glamis in "MacBeth." He said the wine was discovered at the castle in about 1970, 100 years after it was bottled, and sold at auction.

Klein purchased his bottle later on.

"They're wonderful," Klein said of the wine. "I tasted a little of this one today."

Opening the bottles does not do any damage to the wine, according to Gerometta, because it is exposed to the atmosphere for only about 15 minutes while Revelle evaluates the product.

If he agrees to certify it, Revelle adds a little wine he brought with him of a similar vintage to eliminate any open space between the cork and the wine. To Klein's valuable wine, he added a touch of a 1964 vintage, a light wine that would not impose its own flavor on the rich red Klein owns.

The last step is to recork the bottle on a machine that injects carbon dioxide to drive out any remaining air.

Instead of the Lafite cork with the year 1875 etched into it, Martin went away with an ordinary, unadorned cork. In a way, he was relieved.

"I think I'm happier," he said. "With a $2,500 bottle of wine, I would have really had to talk myself into opening it."

Instead, he can look forward to his next sauteed duck and poached salmon.

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