PARIS (Reuters Life!) - The illustrious Paris restaurant La Tour d'Argent put up for sale on Monday 18,000 bottles from its vast cellars, offering wine lovers a chance to acquire treasures from one of the world's finest collections.
It is the first time in the restaurant's 427-year history that it has parted with some of the wines, champagnes and spirits carefully selected by generations of sommeliers to please the palates of guests from monarchs to movie stars.
"These are like children to me, I'm both happy and sad to see them go," said David Ridgway, head sommelier at La Tour d'Argent for 28 years, speaking in the packed auction hall.
Among the star attractions was a bottle of "Clos du Griffier" cognac dated 1788, starting at 2,500 euros. Bids soared and in less than two minutes, it was sold for 25,000 euros ($37,200). The proceeds will go to charity.
The buyer was Raphael Zier, a 38-year-old Frenchman who described himself as an Internet entrepreneur in London. He told reporters it was a good way to make a donation and he intended to drink the cognac with some friends.
The rest of the sale will raise funds for La Tour d'Argent to undertake renovation projects and acquire new wines.
The restaurant by the River Seine, where diners enjoy a dazzling view of Notre Dame cathedral, was hoping to raise at least 1 million euros from the two-day auction, though by the end of the first day it looked set to do much better than that.
"I am more than happy, I am ecstatic," said Alexis Velliet, the auctioneer and wine expert presiding over the sale.
"Wine lovers are prepared to pay more than they perhaps should to have bottles from these cellars because they know that each one has been chosen with care and stored perfectly."
Some aficionados hoping to pick up bargains, like retired wine trader Bernard Dumort, were less enthusiastic.
"The prices are well above market rates. It must be because of the prestige of La Tour d'Argent," he said.
Bidders ranged from experienced collectors to novices, like a man who had his heart set on a white Burgundy from the year of his daughter's birth. He got six bottles for 450 euros.
"It will be a gift for her 20th birthday. I wanted something special and this is a unique opportunity," said the man, who did not wish to give his name for fear of spoiling the surprise.
The sale includes only a fraction of the immense collection stored in a maze of dark, narrow alleys below the restaurant. The vast cellars are jammed from floor to ceiling with about 450,000 bottles of red and white whines, champagnes and liqueurs.
La Tour d'Argent fascinates guests not only with its signature dish of pressed duck served in its blood but also with its colorful past and guest list full of celebrities, from the late U.S. President John Kennedy to Brazil soccer great Ronaldo.
Founded in 1582, it was loved by successive French kings and pillaged during the Revolution. It passed to Napoleon's personal chef in the 1800s before the Terrail family acquired it in 1911.
The father of the current owner, Claude Terrail, famously walled up the cellars during World War Two in order to avoid having to serve fine wines to the Nazi occupiers of Paris. - The sale catalog is on www.piasa-latourdargent.fr