Well-heeled oenophiles - wine connoisseurs - gather here today to bid on wines so costly it would be far cheaper to drink pure gold.

The occasion is the annual Premiere National Auction of Rare Wines.

In preparation for the auction, about 800 wine buyers paid $15 a head to stroll around a ballroom of a French Quarter hotel yesterday, sniffing and sipping in a "tasting."

About 200 of the 700 lots of wine to be auctioned were available for tasting - though none of the truly rare old ones were among them. But tasting is such serious business that most tasters discreetly spit out the sip after swishing the wine around their taste buds. Otherwise, after 50 or 60 sips even apple vinegar tastes good.

The record single bottle price came from David Lyons, a Los Angeles oil man who paid $14,200 for an 1806 vintage Chateau Lafite, which he has yet to open or sip. At 24 counces a bottle, that works out at roughly $591.66 announce, or about $100 a sip. In contrast, pure gold sells for about $145 perounce.

In this auction, the big bottle, in more ways than one, is a jeroboam of 1929 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild.

A jeroboam is the equivalent of four 26-ounce bottles. Experts figure only a dozen of them were put up from the splendid wine produced in 1929 at Chateau Mouton, whose cellar records were destroyed during World War II.

The last jeroboam of 1929 Mounton-Rothschild put up for sale went for $11,200 several years ago. Auctioneer J. Michael Broadbent of London expects this one to be somewhere between $16,500 and $18,500.