Delicacy stays afloat at "Fort Knox of caviar"

If you frequently dine on champagne and caviar -- and really, who doesn't -- you know how difficult and expensive it's become to buy the very best.

That's because the fish responsible for producing the best-tasting eggs are in short supply. But a decision to harvest fish in tanks is raising all boats of a caviar business once based entirely on the sea, CBS News correspondent Mo Rocca reports.

White sturgeon, once plentiful on both coasts of the United States, then threatened with extinction, now fill tanks at fish farms across the country.

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A critically endangered Beluga sturgeon
Getty Images/National Geographic Creative

"It kind of looks like a very pre-historic fish," Alex Petrossian said. "It's a pretty long, big fish with a pointy nose; a very beautiful fish."

It is also very valuable, since eggs from the sturgeon are used to make caviar.

Behind a security gate at a nondescript New York City location sits the country's most expensive cache of "black gold." Just one ounce of caviar costs between $40 and $400. It's commonly referred to as the "Fort Knox of caviar."

"You are in a world of craftsmanship," Alexandre's father Armen said.

Distinguishing which caviar is best are the refined palates of father and son, Armen and Alexandre Petrossian, second- and third-generation purveyors of the world's largest caviar distributor.

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Alexandre and Arman inside the "Fort Knox of caviar"
CBS News

"You are always using four senses," Alex said. "Your eyes, nose, ears and your hands."

According to Armen, good caviar is shiny.

"If you have caviar that is not shiny, it is not very good," Armen said.

It also has to be firm, but not too firm.

"You can feel it," he said.

Alexandre thinks caviar is best when eaten right from the tin.

"Straight out of the caviar tin, that's really the best way to do it," Alexandre said.

That simple approach isn't necessarily the rule at Petrossian restaurants, where caviar can be found in nearly every dish. Those dishes include a caviar martini: vodka with a boat made of a lemon peel and filled with caviar; and a beggar's purse: smoke salmon enveloping caviar.

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Petrossian caviar martini
CBS News

Though seen as an indulgence of the rich and exclusively Russian, caviar was so abundant in the early 1900s, the salted eggs of white sturgeon were served as free bar snacks right here in the United States.

The Hudson River was actually a large reservoir for caviar.

But it was the beluga sturgeon from Russia's Caspian Sea, which the Petrossians debuted at their Paris restaurant in 1920, that elevated caviar from bar food to delicacy.

But overfishing, pollution and poor management of the beluga population threatened the species and it is now banned from export.

Today, all Petrossian caviar comes from farm-raised sturgeon from all over the world, including tanks at Sacramento's Sterling Hatchery, where it takes seven to nine years before these fish are mature enough to produce eggs.

"It has changed the way our customers have been thinking of caviar," Alex said. "And I think only a handful of people were able to recognize which one's wild and which one is farm-raised."

The Petrossians say farm-raised sturgeon will not only stabilize the industry, but preserve the ancient fish in the wild. It will also protect a family business for a fourth generation.

"I want my grandson to see the fish in the sea," Armen said.

But don't expect prices to drop just yet.

"The farming process of sturgeon is an expensive process," Alex said. "Because it takes a long time, it takes a lot of people and knowledge and things like that. So it will never be cheap. But hopefully we'll be able to bring down the price one of those days."

Those days couldn't come soon enough.

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