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Jun 20, 2005
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Garzarolis' fabulous cellar

Hotelier extraordinaire and his wines

Originally published WELCOME BAHAMAS - NASSAU, CABLE BEACH &amp; PARADISE ISLAND - 2005 © Etienne Dupuch Jr Publications Ltd<BR clear=all>

One of Enrico Garzaroli's many passions is telling stories. Usually, the joke's on him: the time he was arrested by the NYPD on suspicion of purloining the rare wine he had under his arm; the time he had to take half-price on an expensive bottle and the time his guests drank so much Dom Perignon in Garzaroli's pool they had to be hauled out with a garden hose.

Even after 30 years, Garzaroli still has a huge appetite for his chosen life: owning and running, along with his wife Anna Maria, son Paolo and daughter Roberta, the remarkable Graycliff establishment in Nassau.

The "establishment" is a decidedly boutique (29 rooms and suites) and decidedly upscale ($400 a night and up) hotel; a five-star restaurant, a second restaurant called Humidor (casual but elegant) and a cigar factory managed by Cuban torcedore Avelino Lara. Among other accomplishments, Lara created the award-winning Graycliff Crystal and the legendary Cohiba, Fidel Castro's favourite smoke before he quit.

And finally, there is Garzaroli's renowned wine cellar, a strong finishing touch to Graycliff's ?clat.

All of Graycliff''s delights are combined in a seven-day vacation for two or three that starts at $448,750 - one of 21 decadent "ultimate gifts" listed in the December 2003 Robb Report. Aside from everything else, the trip includes airfare by private jet from anywhere in the US and the "dinner of a lifetime," including vintages from the cellar and a precious bottle, an Otto Bismarck Chancellor Port, 1874, one of only six bottles left in the world. Guests return home with 1,000 cigars of their own label and memories that won't erase.

The finer things in life

For a man surrounded by the finer things in life, Garzaroli is a surprisingly down-to-earth and affable host. A large, (6 ft 2 in) voluble man, his idiomatic and somewhat Bahamianized English carries more than a hint of sunny Italy. His stories are earthy, sprinkled with expletives and punctuated by a booming laugh.

Sitting down in Graycliff's elegant drawing room, he agrees to talk about wine with a complete amateur, but first he orders flutes of champagne to lubricate the conversation, no matter that it's not yet noon.

"Some people think the glass should be chilled," he says, indicating the champagne. "Hah! What a (expletive) mistake," says Garzaroli. "It's the reverse. The glass should be warmed and the wine cold. Then you release the bubbles." Garzaroli does not sip. He takes a third of the glass in one swig.

We're surrounded by some of his other passions: opulent South American art, an elaborate Baccarat chandelier in the foyer, British colonial period furniture, Oriental carpets and unseen down in the cellar - aging quietly - the best vintages the world has to offer.

How many bottles? Garzaroli doesn't seem to care much; quantity being only half of the issue. But son Paolo (even taller at 6 ft 4 in), says there are 250,000 bottles downstairs. "There's one bigger cellar in Europe, one in Miami, then Graycliff," says the younger Garzaroli. "We're third in the world."

It's not only the number and the quality of wines that make this cellar famous, it's the depth. There are 50 listings for Chateau Lafite, for example, dating back to 1865 ($16,000 for that bottle), and many bottles of each vintage year, for those who order two or three bottles for dinner.

Strange as it seems, Nassau is not only a playground for winter-weary tourists, it's an epicentre for oenophiles - that being the odd dictionary word for connoisseurs of fine wine (from the Greek, oinos, "wine").

Exploring a rabbit warren

To step into the cellar, as we did earlier that day, is to enter a rabbit warren: low ceilinged, dimly lit, tortuous. There are unexpected passageways, steps up and down, cul de sacs; a large room with candles reflecting on a gleaming table. This is the cleaning and decanting room, which looks like it was removed as is from a medieval castle. The only sound is the whisper of air conditioners keeping the cellar at a constant temperature of about 70 degrees Fahrenheit, year after year.

And everywhere, from floor to ceiling, are stacked the famous bottles, row on row: Chateau D'Yquem, Chateau Gruaud Larose, Chateau Pichon Comtesse Lalande, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Latour, Chateau Beychevelle, Chateau Haut Brion, Chateau Lafite Rothschild?

Some of these famous vintages are impossibly expensive. You could save a lot of money by choosing something in a lesser range: a 1779 Verdelho Solera, for example. That's listed for $23,375. It's "an excellent wine to go with starters, especially soup," sniffs one authority.

When it comes to describing rare vintages, reviewers wax as poetic as the purveyors of expensive perfume, with their complicated base, middle and top notes. Oenophiles distinguish between "in the nose" and "in the mouth." In the "nose" one might find "notes of mint, bright cherry and super-ripe pinot fruit." Meanwhile, the "mouth" might yield an "amalgam of pepper, herbal scents, leather, tobacco and roasted game." There's much rhapsodizing about the quality and smoothness of the tannins (complex organic compounds that find their way into wine from the wooden barrels they are aged in) and the "finish" of the taste.

Not every bottle in Garzaroli's cellar costs a year's pay. There are wonderful wines that go for less than $20 the half bottle: a 1993 Macon Villages, Blanc, Sapin, for $18.50, for example, or a 1995 Chardonnay, Ardeche, Louis Latour, $16 the half bottle.

"You don't have to spend a fortune to enjoy a good wine," insists Garzaroli. "There are plenty of really good wines at $100 and less."

The very expensive vintages are only for well-heeled connoisseurs who can tell you what hillside the grapes came from. "I had a Texan spend $17,200 on a 1795 Terrantez. This gentleman knew exactly what he purchased and savoured every sip.

"I had an American, he was a young fellow, a very nice guy. Lots of money. The casino sent him over. His dinner was close to $60,000. This fellow came back two more times the same week and spent $70,000 the second time and then more than $80,000.

"Then he told me: 'Hey, Enrico, I'm coming back for New Year's with my mother and my girlfriend.' That was the best New Year's I ever had because his (expletive) bill came close to $190,000.

"On one bottle, we made a deal. It was a Roman?e Conti, which I retail at $50,000. This young fellow, he said, 'if it's good, I'll give you $50,000, and if it's perfect, I'll give you $75,000. But if it's no good, I'll give you $25,000'.

"(Expletive!) I took $25,000." Although it does happen, Garzaroli says it's very rare that a vintage wine from a famous chateau is bad. "That hardly ever happens."

A 150-year-old wine may have been recorked three times, to help preserve its quality. Garzaroli employs experts from an English firm periodically to recork his older bottles.

Vintages in transition

The business of running a world-class cellar has changed a lot since Garzaroli began assembling his collection back in the 1970s.

At one time, the best wines came from a handful of European countries, but now there are excellent wines from many countries, including Australia, Chile, the US and Canada, among others, and "you have to stock them all.

"I have a lot of people coming in from Miami and they want Spanish wines. Then there are Swedes, South Americans, Canadians, Russians? you understand what I'm saying? So you need many different wines."

Garzaroli estimates he buys from about 3,700 different suppliers. He travels, too, to buy special vintages when they become available from estate sales and at auctions.

Many wines are still made according to time-honoured recipes and methods, but just as it has affected all areas of life, the computer is changing winemaking, says Garzaroli.

"Before, the farmer would look at the thermometer and (mimicking) 'Oh my God! The temperature!' You know what I'm saying? Big panic! But today, everything - the sugar, the alcohol, the temperature - all that is handled by computers."

More and more wines are blended today, says Garzaroli, and this may make the vintages more predictable. But it's an open question whether modern wines will match the great vintages of the past; the Stradivari of the wine world. Only time will tell.

Then there are the fads, like "millennium" wines bottled in 1999 and 2000. "Anybody that had a wine that year, no matter if it was bad, garbage, the cost was 30 to 40 per cent above regular prices," sighs Garzaroli.

Lake Como to Nassau

Garzaroli was inducted into the world of rare wine at an early age by his grandfather, who owned a restaurant in Lake Como, Italy. By the time he was 12, Garzaroli swears he could already tell the difference between wines that were poor, good and great.

Later, he took courses at a school for hoteliers in Stresa, on Lake Maggiore. After graduating, he worked at a then upscale hotel that later became the rather ordinary Aerogolf Sheraton hotel in Luxembourg. It was here that he "learned from many mistakes," his own and others, he says.

For a few years he ran an inn near Zurich, Switzerland, that catered to a small but demanding clientele. Perhaps that's where the idea of owning a hotel like Graycliff was born.

Like any tourist, Garzaroli was awestruck by the beauty of The Bahamas when he visited Nassau on holiday in 1973. He did not come to scout out properties; had no idea he would immigrate to The Bahamas and buy the colonial mansion on West Hill Street, just across Blue Hill Road from Government House.

"There was no plan. Everything just happened," Garzaroli laughs today, admitting there was "a magnetism I will never forget" when he first stepped into the foyer at Graycliff.

After he bought the mansion he began changing it from a private home (although it had been used as an inn as early as 1844) to a commercial enterprise, without violating the outward elegance of the structure itself. In 1995, he bought the adjoining West Hill House, making it his home. Then in 1997, he acquired what used to be Postern Gate and is now the the Humidor Restaurant and cigar factory.

The sprawling complex includes the ruins of the oldest church in The Bahamas, built in 1694, destroyed by Spaniards in 1703, and now being preserved outside Garzaroli's kitchen window. No wonder Graycliff is listed prominently in The Bahamas' National Register of Historic Places.

A pirate's den

Graycliff was built during an interesting timeline in Bahamian history.

In 1718, Capt Woodes Rogers arrived in Nassau with a royal warrant from the King of England to end an era of piracy that had plagued The Bahamas for many years.

It was another decade before Rogers was able to declare that - as an early version of the Bahamian Coat of Arms put it - Expulsis Piratis, Restituta Commercia (pirates expelled, commerce restored).

One of those pirates was Capt John Howard Graysmith, commander of the notorious schooner Graywolf, who had long since become as rich as Midas plundering Spanish ships. Graywolf was scuttled off Nassau in 1726.

Graysmith must have survived Rogers' expulsion because he built Graycliff sometime in the 1720s, at least before he died in 1734.

More than 100 years later, in 1844, Mrs Nathaniel French placed an ad in the Nassau Guardian, offering board and lodging at Graycliff by the day, week or month: "accommodations are adapted for families or for single persons."

The name was later changed to French's Hotel, which rented rooms to "strangers and invalids?" By that time, French was offering "Breakfasts, luncheons, dinners or supper provided for any number on short notice being given."

Later, during the American Civil War, Graycliff was commandeered as a mess hall for officers of the West India Regiment. And later still, in the roaring 1920s, it was reopened to the public under the ownership of Polly Leach, reputedly a close friend of mobster Al Capone. History does not say whether Al helped Polly buy Graycliff. But one can only imagine the parties that must have taken place behind those walls in those days.

A Canadian, Walton Killam, and his wife, bought the hotel and completely refurbished it as their home, adding a large swimming pool surrounded by gardens. The widowed Mrs Killam stayed there until her death in 1964. It was purchased in 1966 by the third Earl of Staffordshire, Lord and Lady Dudley, close friends of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

Royals, millionaires and celebrities of all kinds visited and dined with the Dudleys during those halcyon days, including Lord Beaverbrook, Lord Mountbatten, Aristotle Onassis and The Beatles.

Many more, however, have visited Graycliff since Garzaroli bought the place in 1974. They include Caroline of Monaco, King Constantine of Greece, Prince Fahd of Saudi Arabia, Curt Jurgens, Paul Newman, Michael Cain, Kenny Rogers, Burgess Meredith, the wife of Martin Luther King, Brooke Shields, to mention only a few of hundreds. A recent visitor was actress Sharon Stone, who wrote "Fabulous Darling!" in the guest book.

Oldest wine in the world?

Even as Capt Graysmith was building his mansion on the hill in Nassau, 18th century monks in Germany were pouring the sweet white wine from their vineyards into half bottles.

One of these, an unprepossessing amber bottle, now rests in Garzaroli's cellar. It may be the last bottle of Apostolwein from 1726 in existence, and it may also be the oldest bottle of wine in the world.

The nondescript brown label shows a naked Baccus raising a flagon, seated atop a building, dated 1727 with the words "Rudesheimer Apostolwein," the region, "Rheinghau," and the place where it originally sold, "Bremer Ratskeller." Once listed for $12,000, Garzaroli says he's been offered $200,000 for the little bottle. So far, he's decided not to sell.

However, there is one glaring omission in Garzaroli's wine list and it irks him. So far, he has been unable to get his hands on a bottle, or rather a set of three bottles, of Screaming Eagle - wine from a tiny vineyard in the Oakville Appellation of the Napa Valley in California.

The Screaming Eagle Winery produces about 1,500 bottles a year, with varying prices, up to $1,000 a bottle. The annual production is sold, three bottles per customer, to a select mailing list.

The company advises: "We are not adding more names to the mailing list at this time, but will let you know? ( if and when this changes. We would love to include you."

Enrico Garzaroli, who has been in contact with the owner many times, would love it too.;currentDestination=1