When Christie’s auctioned off "The Magnificent Cellar of Charlie Trotter’s" last December, the 357 lots, much of it fabled Burgundies and Rhones, fetched close to a million dollars, $918,027 to be exact.
Trotter, who was found dead Tuesday morning in Chicago at age 54, loved wine. And the successive sommeliers, some of the best in the world, who worked with him over the 25 years he owned Charlie Trotter’s had amassed a phenomenal cellar.
The Christie’s auction literature quotes the chef as commenting: "Seeing some of the rare gems from my cellar at auction today felt a bit like parting with old friends at times, but it was gratifying to see so much collector interest and demand from around the world. I’ve taken great pride in selecting and caring for these wines over the years, and I am confident their next owners will enjoy them just as much as I have."
Chris Meeske, now proprietor of Mission Wines in South Pasadena, was a sommelier at Charlie Trotter’s in the early 1990s. "The guy loved wine and was a big collector," says Meeske. "And he had an incredible customer base of wine collectors who would spend like there was no tomorrow."
Meeske remembers when he first arrived at Trotter’s to work with master sommelier Larry Stone and the two of them went to a wine auction. Stone started bidding and he was getting all these great wines at great prices. At a certain point, though, Stone was spending so much money, he was getting nervous. So he called Trotter, who said: "Larry, are you getting some great wines?" Yes. "If you’re getting some great deals, don’t bother me about petty details. Do what you have to do."
Joseph Spellman is another master sommelier (and only the second American to have won Best International Sommelier in French Wines) who worked for Trotter. He was at the restaurant from 1993 to 1998 and is now sommelier for Justin Vineyards on the Central Coast.
"He was always very proud of the wine program, which was essential to his concept of what a restaurant should be," Spellman said. "From the beginning, even when it was a humble list of 80 or so items, Trotter always attracted top winemakers and winery owners from California and the rest of the world because of the culinary excellence in the restaurant.
"His real coup and biggest investment was in bringing on Larry Stone to manage the cellar in 1989."
Says Stone, “The time I was working with Charlie was an amazing period of growth for the restaurant in terms of national and international recognition. Every important chef came into the restaurant. Charlie thought cuisine should be like jazz. It should be improvisational based on materials you had at hand on that particular day or time. And he would take into account what wine you were drinking as well as the season and the food he was creating. It was about the total experience.”
As for the wine, whatever Stone bought, Trotter would say, “you have the palate. You just buy it. If you believe in this wine, then let’s just buy it.” Very soon Trotter had to buy the neighboring house in order to have somewhere to put the wine.
Charlie Trotter’s was the first restaurant in America to offer a prix fixe tasting menu, Stone says, actually two. The second was a vegetarian tasting menu.
And he was, perhaps, one of the first to have a table in the kitchen. It came about, he remembers, for the restaurant’s first anniversary. Food editor Bill Rice decided at the last minute he’d like to come and the entire restaurant was already sold out, so Charlie put a table in the middle of the kitchen. “Rice wrote about it and from then on, Trotter’s had to have a table in the kitchen.”
After Larry Stone left for California, and Spellman got the job, Trotter "kept investing in wines, and investing in the cellar, building extraordinary spaces for wine storage.
"Charlie always insisted on excellence of the highest order, and integrity -- integrity of pricing. That is, the pricing was never greedy," says Spellman.
When the restaurant went to a tasting menu in the mid-1990s, an almost revolutionary concept for an American restaurant at the time, Spellman reveled in doing pairings for each course.
"The food was complex. The courses were many, and the wine possibilities endless," he said. "We were pouring Coulée de Serrant by the glass, using Grüner Veltliner when it was just emerging from Austria. We were always very fond of white Rhone varietals. And so we were introducing people to new tastes if they were willing to trust us."
Jason Smith, wine director of the Bellagio in Las Vegas, was sommelier at Charlie Trotter's from 2001 to 2004. He says what amazed him was the way Trotter was willing to change a dish for the sake of the wine. If a customer came in and ordered an important red to start off a meal instead of the expected white, he'd create a whole new menu around that wine.
"He was definitely about the overall experience of food, wine and service all shining together without one overpowering the others. Charlie would do anything possible, to quote, blow the diner's mind. His idea was to give every person that walked in the door the greatest dining experience they could possibly have."
An incredible number of well-known chefs trained or worked at Charlie Trotter’s and fanned out to restaurants across the country. It’s the same for the sommeliers who worked there, among them master sommelier Belinda Chang (now at NY Culinary Concepts Hospitality Group), master sommelier Ken Frederickson (now at Restaurant Terroir in Jackson, Wyo.), and master sommelier Steven Geddes (who owns Local 127 in Cincinnati and is the only working chef to hold the title of Master Sommelier).
One sour note: In June, well after Trotter had closed the restaurant, he and his corporation CHT Corp. (Dba Charlie Trotter’s) were sued by a pair of New York wine collectors in federal court who had paid more than $46,000 for a single bottle from the restaurant cellar at auction and later believed it to be counterfeit.
According to a Wine Spectator story, the wine was a magnum of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée-Conti 1945. The cousins took the bottle to a wine expert to be authenticated for insurance purposes and were told the bottle was a fake.
Trotter’s response was: "He bought a bottle from us that we bought 12 years ago. We bought it in good faith, and we've never had a complaint before that a wine was not authentic."
The plaintiffs’ lawyer Vince DiTommaso, reached today in Chicago, says the lawsuit is still pending, though he has had some settlement discussions with Trotter’s lawyers. They are now on hold.