The Spirits of Edwin Baetjer

February 10, 1992

It's not exactly on a par with finding the lost city of Ubar, but in the wine community, the discovery of Edwin Baetjer's cellar is an event of awe and mystery that has focused discerning eyes on Baltimore.

Last Monday, contractors readying a parking lot for resurfacing behind a Mount Vernon town house, where the famed attorney once lived, stumbled across an old metal trap door, pried it open and discovered hundreds of bottles of fine, aged wine stored in the concrete vault.

Time and humidity had disintegrated most of the labels. But among the bottles that are still identifiable are an impressive array of Burgundy and Bordeaux, a few coveted bottles of Chateau Margaux, circa 1911, and Chateau Lafite -- forerunner of Lafite-Rothschild.

It is a not, wine experts say, a world-class collection. But it is a good one. And to most of us, whose palates are usually treated only to the aromas and tastes of an $8 bottle of chardonnay, there is great majesty in contemplating what it might be like to sip an 80-year-old vintage and experience the rarified tastes of Baltimore's old elite.

The problem now, however, is who will be chosen to have that experience. Phil English, president of the firm that now owns the building which was once Baetjer's home, is thinking about donating some of the wine to a charitable event, perhaps, or holding a tasting for area connoisseurs. Both are worthy ideas.

Whatever Mr. English ultimately decides to do, however, those who try the wine may find it more a sampling of history than a true epicurean experience. The journalists and contractors who tasted a bottle of the wine on the day of the find were disappointed: Sadly, time had taken its toll, and the fruit had dried out completely.

If there's a lesson to be learned from all this, it could be that it is commendable to amass a great wine cellar, but one should try to drink the contents in his or her own time.

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