Wine pairs with anything; Tabasco pairs with anything. And the person pairing both together is McIlhenny Co. CEO Tony Simmons, whose passion for the fruit of the vine—and the fruit of the pepperbush—led to his 3,000-bottle cellar on Avery Island, La.
Simmons represents the fifth generation of his family to helm the ubiquitous hot sauce brand, a dynasty he likens to that of a storied winemaking clan—plantings, bottles, barrels and all.
"Every morning, I'm at Avery Island at 9 a.m. I go down to the blending area where we make the product, and the team will have up to 96 barrels open for me to inspect," he says. "And I check each of those barrels—smell it, inspect it, and I taste some of them. I try to finish my coffee first."
When Simmons was a teenager, his father would send him to grab a bottle of wine from the small cellar he kept on the island. "All he had was first-growth Bordeaux," Simmons recalls. "It would be a Lafite Rothschild. And I'd go pull the cork on it for dinner. I had no idea what it was."
From the unwitting enophilic peaks of his childhood, Simmons returned to earth as a young adult, paying little attention to wine, drinking casually but not collecting. In the 1990s, with his children high school age, Simmons moved with his family to Charlotte, N.C., and planted the seed of his cellar.
"Some of the first wines I bought were Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cépages," he says. "I started a vertical, from 1995 up to 2003. It was fun for me to have a couple of friends over, open three or four bottles from different vintages and see if we could taste the differences."
A decade later, Simmons relocated to Avery Island to work full-time for the family business. Further following in the footsteps of his father, he set about constructing a wine cellar, contracting a Houston designer to build it off the garage of his new house.
Accommodating 3,200 bottles total, the room features floor-to-ceiling racking 24 bottles high, bins against the back wall for case storage, and a central column bearing close to 1,000 wines. A WhisperKool Extreme Series temperature-control system battles the oppressive Louisiana heat, keeping the collection right in the target zone of 55˚ F.
When it comes to buying decisions, Simmons' agronomical pedigree shines through. "My philosophy has always been: Who has good wine this year? Who hit it right? Whose weather was the best? I focus more on which region was having a good year than any one particular wine."
There are exceptions, of course. Simmons holds a coveted spot on Pride Mountain Vineyards' reserve list, closed to newcomers since 1999, and takes annual allocations of everything from Cabernet Sauvignon to Viognier from the cult Napa producer.
He also has first dibs on a case of white Drouhin Clos des Mouches, sourced every year just for him by Rick Hopper's Carte des Vins wineshop in New Orleans. "It's my favorite wine, so it's mine," he says, laughing but deadly serious. "He can't sell it to anyone else. If he gets two cases, he can sell one of them, but he better not sell my case."
Building on a tradition established by his father, who laid down a 1951 Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve for Simmons' birth year, Simmons cellars Bordeaux first-growths, bought en primeur, vintage-dated to the births of his three grandchildren. "When they get to a certain age, I want them to have a wine they can try and say, ‘This is as old as I am,' " he explains. "I don't buy wine to invest in it; the investment is sharing it with the people you love."
His immediate family isn't the only recipient of the gifts of Simmons' passion. Avery Island hosts dozens of gatherings for food professionals, oftentime bringing in outside chefs to craft multicourse meals showcasing Tabasco in a range of dishes and preparations. Simmons selects the wine pairings for each event, sitting down with the chef and sampling bottles to work out matches.
When it comes to selecting a wine to stand up to the peppery twang of Tabasco, Simmons' recommendations are as flexible as his family's signature sauce. "When you cook Tabasco, the heat tends to cook out, and what you end up with is flavor," he says. "A lot of Cajun cuisine has Tabasco in it that doesn't come out as heat—étouffées and gumbos."
Asked to choose a favorite match, though, he opts for a classic: white Burgundy with raw oysters, a little bit of lemon and a hit of Tabasco. "I just think white Burgundy complements it to the moon," he says.
As his wines come of age alongside his 66,000 barrels of pepper mash, he scrolls through his inventory on CellarTracker, noting bottles entering their drink window and ready to be enjoyed from the collection.
"A pepper bush doesn't come ripe all together," Simmons says. "The only way I can control the quality is to only pick the reddest, ripest pepper."
He knows that in Tabasco, as in wine, finding the right time to pick, to sip, to share, is everything. He lives in the heat of the moment.
What's in Tony Simmons' cellar?
Cellar location: Avery Island, La.
Number of bottles: 3,200
Favorite wines: Joseph Drouhin Beaune White Clos des Mouches; various bottlings from Pride Mountain Vineyards
Oldest bottle: Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve 1951
Vertical: Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cépages 1995–2003
First wine memory: Pulling a bottle of Château Lafite Rothschild from his father's cellar to have with dinner
Cellar temperature: 55° F
Cooling system: WhisperKool Extreme Series
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