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PARIS (Reuters Life!) - Hidden from Hitler's henchmen during the Nazi occupation of Paris, treasures from one of the world's largest and finest wine cellars are up for grabs in an unprecedented auction on December 7-8.
The illustrious restaurant La Tour d'Argent, a fixture on the Paris dining circuit since it was founded in 1582, will sell 18,000 bottles of wines and spirits from its vast cellars.
It is a first for the venerable institution, which still attracts celebrities from monarchs to movie stars to its sixth-floor dining room with a spectacular view of Notre Dame.
The cellars, a maze of dark, narrow alleys below the restaurant, are jammed from floor to ceiling with about 450,000 dusty bottles of red and white wines, champagnes and spirits.
"To wine lovers, these cellars are like Mecca, like a cathedral. It's the holy of holies," said Alexis Velliet, expert at the Piasa auction house that will be conducting the sale.
La Tour d'Argent hopes to raise at least 1 million euros ($1.5 million) from the sale. But some of the bottles on offer are so rare that no market price is available. Bids could soar.
The oldest items on sale will be three bottles of "Clos du Griffier" cognac dated 1788. The starting price is 2,500 euros per bottle. There is also a wide range of younger wines, some starting as low as 10 euros. (www.piasa-latourdargent.fr)
David Ridgway, head sommelier at La Tour d'Argent for 28 years, would not be drawn into giving any top tips for buyers.
"I consider the wines a little like my children. You can't have a preference," he told Reuters deep in the cellars.
"Even what some people might call the simplest wines are ones for which I have great affection. It's almost 30 years of my choices of the best wines made in France," he said.
Loved by French kings, pillaged during the Revolution, La Tour d'Argent passed to Napoleon's personal chef in the 1800s.
It still keeps a table laid just the way it was on June 7, 1867, when Czar Alexander II of Russia, King Wilhelm I of Prussia and Otto Von Bismarck, the architect of German unity, discussed Europe's future at La Tour d'Argent.
Perhaps the darkest hour for the restaurant was during World War II, when the German army forced owner Claude Terrail to keep it open so that the likes of Field Marshal Hermann Goering could enjoy its signature dish: pressed duck served in its blood.
But Terrail had taken the precaution of walling up the cellars just before the Wehrmacht took control of Paris.
He served his Nazi guests cheap wines and eavesdropped on their conversations, passing on information to the French resistance. After the war, fine vintages were back on the menu.
Since then, La Tour d'Argent has continued to attract the great and the good from all over the world.
U.S. Presidents John Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, assorted European and Asian monarchs, as well as movie stars from Grace Kelly to John Travolta and footballers from Pele to Ronaldo have left autographs or photos on the walls.
For the head sommelier, the quality of the wines is much more important than all the history and glamour -- though he says drinking in the right company is the most important thing.
"Saying what is the best wine is difficult. Wine is all about sharing. The greatest wine in the world will have a bitter taste if you drink it with someone who hates you," he said.
Additional reporting by Laure Bretton, editing by Paul Casciato