Having 1,590 cases of grade-A wine just out of reach sounds like a wine lover's spin on the Greek myth of Tantalus, who was condemned to spend eternity with food and drink just beyond grasp, but it's a headache all too real for two of Keith McNally's Manhattan restaurants, Minetta Tavern and Morandi. Lawyers for the restaurants filed a lawsuit on Jan. 21 against WineCare, a downtown storage facility that suffered damage from Hurricane Sandy in late October and has yet to resume operations—or allow clients to access their wines. On Jan. 30, the company filed for bankruptcy, leaving not just McNally, but all of WineCare's customers wondering when they'll see their wine again.
The complaint, filed jointly in a New York state court in Manhattan by Minetta Lane LLC and Morandi LLC, alleges that "the plaintiffs have first requested, then demanded, the return of their wines held by the defendant. The defendant retains the wines without the consent of the plaintiffs."
"Since Hurricane Sandy we have not had access to our wines. We can't get them. [WineCare] won't return our phone calls, they won't return e-mails. Our wine director has gone up there and they have not let him in," a spokesperson for McNally told Wine Spectator. "It looks like they're hiding something. You can only imagine the worst."
Each restaurant claims that its wines held at the facility are worth more than $1 million, according to the complaint. The plaintiffs are seeking either the return of the wines or $2 million, plus an additional $1 million for the operational costs of losing the ability to serve the wines since November.
CEO and founder of WineCare Derek Limbocker disagreed that his company has been incommunicado or that client wine is damaged. "We've talked to the wine people [at the restaurants]. All their wine is here, it's safe and it's good, but we can't give it to them. We've tried to explain it to them, and it's a situation beyond our control." According to Limbocker, after the storm, WineCare's landlord and the New York City Dept. of Environmental Protection ordered that the cellars be cleared and certified safe to work in, and the wines moved to temperature-controlled rooms on higher floors. "[That's] 27,000 cases," said Limbocker.
But the challenge appears to be figuring out to whom each bottle belongs. Each case was affixed with a barcode linking to a digital database that recorded its place in the cellar, but a burst drain pipe during the storm flooded WineCare's offices, and the cases had to be moved before the database could be recovered. Limbocker said it will be "like looking for a needle in a haystack" to identify any specific cases until all are returned to the cellar and re-indexed. He estimates it will take three to four more months.
Limbocker argues that lawsuits—the restaurant suit is the second by a client—are slowing WineCare's progress and wiping out its coffers. "The legal bills, we're a very small little company, and we don't have the finances to do all that. It's just killing us."
In a letter to its clients dated Jan. 30, the company announced it had filed for bankruptcy, "to enable the Company to devote the time and resources required to deliver wine to our clients as timely as possible and to resume our regular operations in an orderly manner. The company needs to focus on restoring systems and delivering wine rather than fighting off time-consuming lawsuits."
McNally has steadily built an empire of fashionable bistros and bars since opening the Odeon in 1980. He owns 11 now. Morandi opened in 2007, and McNally bought Minetta Tavern in 2008. Minetta houses 807 cases at WineCare and Morandi houses 783 cases, 6 percent of the facility's 27,000-case inventory.
According to court documents, among the Minetta wines locked up are seven bottles of Château Cheval-Blanc 2002, six bottles of Pétrus 2007, 56 bottles of Turley Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, six bottles of Sine Qua Non Grenache California Turn the Whole Thing 2009, 30 bottles of Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2008, four magnums of Montelena Estate Cabernet from 1993 to 1996, not to mention 73 cases of Marcel Lapierre Morgons from the past three vintages.
The list at Morandi skews Italian and WineCare holds 93 bottles of Antinori Solaia and Tignanello from vintages back to 1995, six Bertani Amarone della Valpolicella Classico bottles from the 1964, 1967 and 1968 vintages, three cases of Aldo Conterno Bussia Soprana Barolo 1996, seven cases from Gaja and 114 bottles of Sassicaia (including 18 magnums).
"In addition to just not being able to access our wine and to know where it is or what's going on, we've lost all of this wine we were meaning to sell, over the holiday season," said McNally's spokesperson.
In the first case against WineCare, a judge ordered WineCare to open its doors and allow its client, a collector, to look over his cache to the best of the facility's ability to cobble it together, by Jan. 31. Now, the company is on the hook for a collection eight times bigger. "But the good news is that all—I say 95 percent because I can't be 100 percent sure—but I am sure that the wine is fine," said Limbocker.