Charles F. Mara bought his way into the record books here yesterday when he paid $28,000 for a single bottle of vintage 1806 Chateaux Lafite, the most famous of all French wines.
"I'm going to keep it. I'm part of history," Mara said after his purchase at the 11th Annual Heublein Rare Wine Auction. Only four bottles of the 1806 are known to exist, and the bidding was heated - driving the price well above a pre-auction prediction of $18,000.
The previous record purchase was by Washington wine merchant Addy Bassin, who bought another bottle of the 1806 Lafite two years ago for $14,350. A third bottle of the 1806 held the previous Heublein auction record, $14,200.
Mara, a 31-year-old liquor and grocery merchant from Syracuse, N.Y., who said he collects antique cars as well as wine, told reporters that he came to the auction specifically to purchase the Lafite. He said he had previously paid "hundreds" for a bottle of wine, but never before had bid in the thousands.
In recent years, wine of such antiquity has been opened and deemed good. However, the life-span of a wine even as great as the Lafite would normally not exceed 50 years. Anyone who buys such a wine is taking an enormous risk that air has seeped around the cork, oxidizing the wine and making it undrinkable.
In a sense, the wine's extraordinary value exists only as long as the cork is not removed. And in fact, none of the three bottles of 1806 purchased recently for record prices has yet been opened.
But "if it doesn't work out, I'm not worried," Mara said.
"Just think, Thomas Jefferson could have drunk the same wine."
The man Mara outlasted in the bidding. Michigan restaurateur Don Vargo, had his moment later on in the auction. He purcased a collection of "outside bottles" - double magnums, jeroboams, imperial and other larger than normal bottles - for $22,000.
More than 350 persons attended the day-long auction in a ballroom of the Continental Plaza Hotel. As the bidding drew toward a conclusion, the total hit $514,000, breaking the previous record of $482,000 set last year.
Early in the day, more than $90,000 was bid for California wines, nearly $20,000 more than a similar number of domestic wines sold a year ago.
According to Bassin, a veteran of several of these auctions, there was a lack of continuity in the bidding. Despite the records, some wines sold below expectations - and others, of questionable vintages, drew brisk competition. "It's like Lewis Carroll," commented Fred Luskin, another Washington merchant. Luskin said several wines sold for twice the price he had come prepared to pay.
There was much spirited bidding from abroad. One Englishman, identified as Graham A. Lyons, of London, purchased
,000 worth of California's Inglenook, some of it dating from the 1800s.
Among the highlights at the auction were: 19th-century wines discovered in a cellar in Albany, N.Y.; wines from the library of Chatuax Latour in Bordeaux; Sauternes from the Hawaii estate of Doris Duke; and bottles recently raised from a British ship that sank off Savannah, Ga. in 1830. CAPTION: Picture, Charles Mara signals his winning bid, by UPI