Gone with the Wine

Hurricane Andrew and a protracted legal brawl uncorked The Forge's world-class wine list

This Saturday marks the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Andrew's unwelcome visit to South Florida, a devastating rampage that traumatized thousands of families and resulted in billions of dollars in damage. For many people in Dade County, Andrew's depredation has yet to be fully resolved. One extraordinary example of that has just recently come to light.

The current issue of Wine Spectator, one of the bibles of oenophiles nationwide, includes the magazine's annual presentation of its "Grand Awards," a recognition of restaurants from around the world whose wine cellars are judged to be superlative. This year six new restaurants were added to the highly exclusive roster, but nine were dropped. Five of those cut from the list had gone out of business; the other four were "demoted" after a periodic review. Among the losers was The Forge in Miami Beach, whose 300,000-bottle wine collection for years has been considered one of the world's finest. It had been a Grand Award recipient since the honor was instituted in 1981.

"The Forge is a special case," senior editor Thomas Matthews wrote diplomatically. "Its wine list is still of Grand Award caliber, but because of a legal dispute, much of the wine list is not accessible to diners. We received numerous complaints from readers about this. When the dispute is over and diners can order from the whole list again, we will reconsider The Forge for a Grand Award."

The cause of the legal dispute: Hurricane Andrew.
Like many other parts of Dade County, The Forge's neighborhood on 41st Street (also known as Arthur Godfrey Road) was left without electricity following the storm. According to The Forge's lawyer, Robert Shupack, damage to the building itself also rendered the restaurant's air-conditioning system inoperable. In addition, the sprawling wine cellar -- several vaults a few steps below ground level -- was flooded.

Though an electrician was called immediately, he could do nothing until Florida Power & Light restored the area's power grid. By that time, temperatures in the cellar were estimated to have topped 100 degrees. For five long days the stellar wine collection -- which includes some extremely rare bottles that are priced at an astounding $100,000 -- did without the cool air that prevents spoilage.

Upon returning from South America several days after the storm, The Forge's sommelier was horrified at the condition of some precious wines: corks partially popped out, leakage around other corks, and receded liquid in the bottles -- all indications of ruination.

Shareef Malnik, who had only recently taken over Forge operations from his father Alvin, feared the worst regarding the wines that didn't show obvious signs of damage. According to Shupack, father and son couldn't bear to face the possibility that one of the world's most extensive wine collections had been destroyed. "They had a feeling the wines were spoiled," Shupack recalls, "but they couldn't be sure until the sommelier went through them as they were ordered."

Over a period of a year, the sommelier kept a list of bottles that he and diners had rejected, and it became increasingly clear that most of the rare old wines had been hopelessly degraded. Further evidence of the disaster's scope was provided by renowned British wine expert Clive Coates, hired by The Forge in November 1993 to sample approximately 50 select bottles, some of which dated from the early Nineteenth Century.

"I don't think these bottles are in as fit a condition for selling at the price they were selling at before the hurricane because the air conditioning was lost for a period," Coates says cautiously from his home in London. "The wine has to be stored at a particular temperature, i.e., in the low 50s Fahrenheit. And if the temperatures are too high, the wine gets cooked, it gets boiled, it gets stewed.

"It was a fairly colossal wine list," Coates adds. "In terms certainly of its depth and breadth, the greatest in the world."

Most of the cellar's 300,000 bottles were spoiled, attorney Shupack asserts, including many thousands of bottles in the $25 to $35 price range that were not precisely accounted for and therefore could not be documented as part of an insurance claim. A claim was indeed filed, however, seeking compensation for the loss of approximately 25,000 bottles of classic Bordeaux and Burgundies valued at an estimated $1.2 million. But four years after Hurricane Andrew blew through town, 38-year-old Shareef Malnik has yet to collect.

Transamerica Insurance Company, the restaurant's "supplemental" carrier, balked at The Forge's wine claim, and now disputes the interpretation of a phrase in the insurance contract that states the insured is covered for damages at "cost plus 100 percent." Faced with this, Malnik took the insurance company to court.

According to Shupack's interpretation, Transamerica owes The Forge double the cost for replacing the wines, approximately $2.5 million. (Some wines are acknowledged to be irreplaceable.) Joel Adler, attorney for Transamerica, states in court documents that The Forge is entitled to the cost of replacing the wines, period. This past January Circuit Court Judge Leonard Rivkind settled the "cost plus" debate by ruling that it should be interpreted as "acquisition plus" -- that is, the amount The Forge originally paid for the wines plus 100 percent of that cost. A jury trial is set for November. (Adler declined to comment about the case for this story, saying he is not permitted to discuss pending litigation. Malnik did not return numerous telephone messages.)

Many of the lost wines have been replaced, but Shupack says not until Malnik has received his insurance money will The Forge begin the process of trying to rebuild its vast stock of old, rare vintages.

 
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