Hidden vault yields vintage find Workmen break seal on Baetjer's superb wine cellar

February 06, 1992|By Michael Dresser

Edwin Baetjer, a celebrated Baltimore lawyer and bon vivant, couldn't take his wine with him when he died in 1945. But he made sure it was well hidden.

So well hidden that for at least 38 years, the people who parked in the small lot behind his Mount Vernon town house didn't know they were driving over a forgotten vault holding hundreds of bottles of the world's most celebrated wines -- Burgundy, vintage port and Bordeaux from as far back as 1911.

They know now.

On Monday, contractors L. R. Wagner and Jerry Cooper were preparing to repave the parking lot behind the house in the first block of West Madison St. that Mr. Baetjer, a founder of Venable, Baetjer andHoward, the city's largest law firm, called home.

They found that a rusty steel trapdoor embedded in the old pavement would have to be lowered to the level of the new parking surface. But first they had to see what was down there, to make sure it wasn't a heating oil tank.

When they pried open the trapdoor, which decades of busy workers had trod across without a thought, they found the door to a safe. Puzzled, they used a backhoe to tear the door off.

Behind it they found a set of steps leading down to a spacious, 7-foot-high subterranean vault filled with hundreds of bottles of wine. Many had broken as their shelves rotted away over the decades, but about 200 were intact.

"We were really surprised," said Mr. Cooper. "We didn't know what to think. We just figured someone had stashed it back in Prohibition."

But Phil English, president of Broventure Co. Inc., the venture capital and real estate development firm that has owned the building since 1981, says an archaeologist he called in thought it might date back even further.

Mr. Baetjer bought the house in 1907, Mr. English said, and probably had the vault built about 1910, a decade before the Volstead Act drove wine connoisseurs underground.

Mr. English said Mr. Baetjer, a bachelor, lived in the house until his death at 77. His brothers sold the building to a man named Harry Patz in 1953, and Broventure bought it from him in 1982. Somewhere along the line, the wine cellar was forgotten.

"Mr. Patz never mentioned it," said Mr. English. "Nobody ever called and claimed it."

On Tuesday, the contractors notified Mr. English of the find. Mr. English, who said he knows "enough about wine to get myself in trouble," called in Robert Schindler, owner of Pinehurst Gourmet and Spirit Shoppe.

"I've never seen a cellar like it, because it's a concrete tomb underground," Mr. Schindler said yesterday. He said it appeared to have been unopened for at least 50 years.

Because of the humidity in the vault, most of the labels had long since disintegrated, but it was still evident that old Mr. Baetjer had a fine palate.

The shape of the bottles and the lettering on the lead capsules indicate that most were French wines from Burgundy and Bordeaux, and some were among the best, including the renowned Chateau Lafite (before it became Lafite-Rothschild) and Chateau Margaux.

Among the few bottles that could be positively identified was a 1911 Chateau Margaux, and Mr. Schindler speculated that some of the Lafite might date to the 19th century.

While the labels were long gone, Mr. Schindler said, the wine inside could still be drinkable because the vault kept the wine under 60 degrees through many a torrid Baltimore summer

Pointing to a bottle of Chateau Lafite whose contents nearly reached the cork, he said, "That wine is in some kind of good shape for being that old."

Arthur Machen, a lawyer with Venable, Baetjer & Howard who has written a history of the firm, said he was not surprised by Mr. Baetjer's elegant taste. Besides being one of the finest corporation lawyers of his time, Mr. Machen said, Mr. Baetjer was a colorful character.

"He was quite a bon vivant and connoisseur of fine wines," Mr. Machen said, and an avid hunter who once shot one of the largest moose ever bagged in North America. For years, its stuffed head hung in Venable's office.

When Mr. Baetjer went to Johns Hopkins Hospital during his last illness, Mr. Machen said, he had dinners sent in from the Maryland Club rather than dine on hospital fare.

Mr. English said he was not yet sure what he would do with the wines. He expects to donate some to a charitable event, and he's thinking of organizing a tasting for local connoisseurs.

And, unable to resist the temptation to tasting history himself, he let one of the wines -- "one we thought was not significant" -- be opened yesterday. Contractors and journalists passed a glass around in the parking lot.

For drinking, the old Burgundy was shot. The fruit had dried out completely. But it smelled wonderful.

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