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Drinking Disasters

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Most of us have lived through drinking disasters. Sometimes it’s the drinks themselves that survive catastrophe.

The Titanic was infamously launched in 1912 with an inadequate supply of lifeboats—and without a traditional christening of Champagne across her bow. She nonetheless carried an abundance of bubbly among thousands of cases of wine. Since the wreckage site’s discovery in 1985, a series of controversial expeditions has recovered nearly 6,000 artifacts, including unopened Champagne. Legal restrictions make their sale or consumption unlikely, but based on bottles salvaged from even older shipwrecks, their contents are probably well-preserved. Someone may know for sure: Rumors persist that six Titanic bottles have somehow been acquired by an unnamed Asian plutocrat.

Hundreds of items survived the Hindenburg zeppelin’s 1937 conflagration in New Jersey. Among them are scorched but otherwise intact bottles of Löwenbräu beer, six of which Leroy Smith, a fireman at the scene, buried there and later unearthed. Smith gave five bottles to associates. One was subsequently donated to the Löwenbräu brewery, where it remains on display. Another was purchased for $16,000 in 2009, making it “the most valuable bottle of beer ever sold,” according to its auctioneer. That bottle was again put up for bid late last year, but the sale price was not widely reported.

Hurricane Katrina did not spare New Orleans’ wine cellars. “Cellar” is perhaps a misnomer, since that city’s high water table generally makes underground storage impractical. What killed NOLA’s wine wasn’t floodwater but an ensuing heat wave and prolonged power outages. Brennan’s Restaurant stored its 35,000-bottle collection, one of the world’s finest, in a climate-controlled carriage house. In the storm’s aftermath, the bottles “cooked”—becoming so heat-damaged that they tasted like burnt sherry. Brennan’s collected $1 million in insurance, but given the appreciation for rare wines, the market value was probably far higher. Estimates pegged citywide wine losses at tens of millions of dollars.

A few years ago, a friend of mine whose late husband was an avid wine collector suffered a basement flood. The bottles survived in fine shape, but their labels were destroyed, leaving her no way to identify them. Ironically, this misfortune made tasting kinda fun. One wine we poured, rich and golden with deep flavors of hazelnut and citrus blossoms, bore the hallmarks of fine white Burgundy from a great vintage—but who knows? Of this I’m sure: It was the kind of wine that makes it great to be alive.

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