Our column-tour through the five buildings that once housed my family’s Chinese Pagoda and Imperial Dynasty restaurants continues. I’d like to introduce you to a room that was an integral component to restaurant and its vaunted reputation. While you’re saying hello, I’ll be saying good-bye to it for the second time.
Let’s step through the Imperial Dynasty entrance, turn to our right and walk into the foyer. On our immediate right, hanging on the wall, are seven Grand Awards from the Wine Spectator dating from 1985 through 1991. The bottom of each award says, “For one of the greatest wine lists in the world.”
An article, written by noted wine writer Karen MacNeil, published in the “Visalia Times Delta” newspaper on Aug. 28, 1985, reported that the Imperial Dynasty won a Wine Spectator Grand Award for the first time. MacNeil wrote that 60,000 bottles were in the cellar at that time. The wine list featured 1,100 entries of different vintages. The oldest wine was an 1885 Dawson port. During the years the restaurant was winning Wine Spectator awards, the cellar was enlarged and the wine collection grew. Thus, once there were anywhere from 75,000 to a 100,000 bottle stored down there.
The door to the cellar is just outside the Emperor Room. Let’s go down to the wine cellar. Be careful when opening the door. The stairway begins immediately, eight steep steps to the landing, turn to the right, push open the metal gate and we enter into the building’s labyrinth, once known as the famous Imperial Dynasty wine cellar and before that serving as a mélange of gambling rooms and opium dens, if these walls in this divided space could talk, I’m sure there would be a plethora of stories to tell. But for now, let’s focus on the Imperial Dynasty history of this space.
Prior to the opening of the Imperial Dynasty, Uncle Ernie was working in a Northern California grocery store, owned in part by my grandfather. He regularly traveled to Napa to taste wine and meet with winemakers. As part of this process, he began to amass his wine collection. When the Imperial Dynasty opened in 1958, Uncle Ernie was instrumental in establishing the early reputation of the restaurant’s wine cellar, filling the Imperial Dynasty wine cellar with collectible California wines from Beaulieu, Charles Krug, Freemark Abbey, and Heitz Cellars, and French wines from Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, Petru, Lafite, Mouton, Latour, and Haut-Brion. When possible, Uncle Ernie aged the restaurant’s wines for four or five years before putting them on the wine list so they would be enjoyed closer to their peak.
After Uncle Ernie died in 1972, Uncle Richard maintained the extensive wine cellar. The Imperial Dynasty was one of the first restaurant accounts for several notable Napa Valley wineries including Stony Hill, Caymus, and Heitz Cellars. Uncle Richard continued to add to the restaurant’s wine list and was extremely proud of the Wine Spectator Grand Awards.
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The cellar is divided into four sections, denoting its growth over the years. I have many recollections of racing down the steps with a list of wines in my hands, scurrying around the cellar as I found the required bottles, then racing back up the stairs with an arm load of wines to serve to our patrons. Steve has fond memories of his birthday dinners at the Imperial Dynasty, of going down to the cellar and rooting around until he found a 1961 bottle that shared his own vintage. He has also prepared some burgundy beef meals using old burgundy from the cellar, and, yes, his dish was delicious. There was also an evening when one of the restaurant’s crew members accidentally locked Uncle Richard in the wine cellar. He put his sequestered time to good use by restocking and reorganizing the wine. I’m sure many of you have your own happy memories involving the Imperial Dynasty wine cellar, and I love to hear of them.
In an interview just before the restaurant closed in 2006, Uncle Richard said, “I’ve been depleting my wine cellar for about ten years. Before when it was well maintained, we supposedly had one of the top twenty-five wine cellars in the United States.”
Just weeks before the lights would go dark and the final curtain would come down on the Imperial Dynasty, someone purchased over half of the wine and others were buying up the wines by the cases. One evening I was chatting with a friend who was dining in the restaurant and we watched case after case being removed from the premises. Grasping my arms, my friend whispered, “How can you watch this collection being broken up? How can you say good-bye to that cellar?” Because I was in the deep emotional angst of saying good-bye to so much of what had been my personal and family life since birth, I could only shake my head and watch the famous Imperial Dynasty wine cellar disappear with tears streaming down my cheeks. It was a sad farewell.
And here we are today. There are one thousand, one hundred and fifty-three wine bins in this cellar. As you can see, quite a few of them still have wines stacked within. There are several thousand bottles remaining, most of them no longer drinkable. Soon after this tour, Steve and I will clear out this cellar. It’s time to sweep out the cobwebs, let go of the old, and move forward into a dazzling future. But for today, let’s complete our tour by raising a glass to the Imperial Dynasty wine cellar. It had a great ride.
The weather has changed, and it’s time for cooler weather braises, soups, and stews. I had some bison shanks in the freezer and opted to make a bison osso buco. I started to riff on the Imperial Dynasty’s lamb shanks, but as I started chopping and slicing, I decided to make this one my own, to step into the new, into the future. Feel free to swap out lamb shanks for the bison. I served the bison osso buco over a potato-cauliflower mash.