Last week wine fanciers here were given a taste - literally - of what's in store in Atlanta on May 25 at the 10th "Premier National Auction of Rare Wines." Heublein, the auction's sponsor, brought company executives, publicity outriders and sample bottles from 23 categories that will be put up for bids.
Despite the attraction of several hundred bottles of rare wine, a handful dating back to the 1870s, the preview did not draw very well. Heublein officials were talking of 300, but it is unlikely that number was reached by the end of a four-hour tasting at the Hyatt-Regency.
The scene was in marked contrast to a preview tasting at the Mayflower three years ago, when a large and sometimes unruly crowd was in attendance. Various tasters reported a contrast in the wines as well. A number of disparaging remarks were made about some selections and the condition of some of the wines.
What this will mean for the auction remains to be seen. Last year's take was $305,000. In a time of inflation, careless or overeager buyers could exceed that total, but it looks as though the horses just aren't strong enough.
"I'm a little disappointed," said Addie Bassin of MacArthur Liquors. "Last year there were more case lots in large volume. That was good for me as a retailer because I wasn't bidding against the consumer." Bassin led all bidders at New Orleans last year, coming away with more than $30,000 in wine.
Another merchant spoke more strongly. "It's one of the most uninteresting catalogues they've come up with," he said. "Some of these wines have been better days and if they sell at anywhere near the estimates, they won't be good values. We have better stuff available in this market - and for better prices."
Most comments focused on the crowd - or lack of it - its generally polite behavior and the intermittent pouring by a seemingly indifferent staff. "There's very little pouring," complained Jerry Sandler, a collector for 12 years. He recalled, "It was different at the Mayflower. There I could sample a lot of stuff at my own speed."
Alexander C. McNally is Heublein's "resident wine expert," but he could well have been a member of the nearby U.S. Senate as he professed himself satisfied with the turnout. It's a young, knowledgeable crowd," he said. "They are tasting carefully and taking notes. The real story of the wine business is the 25- to 35-year-olds from the baby room. They are laying down cellars and feel buying wine is as important as buying furniture.
"Over 10 years these tastings have gone from a curiosity to a zoo to a party and now to a haven for people who are interested in wine and know what wines they are interested in. Many of them have become educated over the years. They don't need to attend and taste to decide what they want to buy."
There were some marvelous labels on view. A 1969 Trockenbeerenauslese sat near a 1943 Mouton Rothschild, which in turn was a neighbor of a 1947 Beaune. At the roped-off area at the front of the hall, up to 40 tasters were given samples from a bottle of 1870 Lafite Rothschild, Mouton and a Chambertin of 1875 and other wines found in the cellar of a mansion in Albany, N.Y.
But there were younger wines for sampling, too. "Rare doesn't equal old, nor does fine equal old," McNally said. "We are going to auction off California cask wines from the 1976 and 1977 vintages. Because of the weather and growing conditions, these will be the rare great years of the future, the golden age wines of the next century."
Thus two trends of the recent auctions were being underlined. California wines have shown strongly in the bidding and interest has been split between the "antique" wines and the new, affordable wines that will become the antiques of the future. Both trends are healthy for a balanced wine market and seem likely to continue during this period of wine-price inflation.
Those who wish to bid on May 25 must obtain a catalogue from Heublein, Box 505, Farmington, Conn. 06032 for $15.Send check or money order. The catalogue holder may attend the auction or may bid by mail or telegram. Written bids should be addressed to I.C. Dubrow, Heublein, 3 E. 54th St., New York City 10022.
Successful bids of nearly $18,000 last year came by mail or telephone, Heublein reported.