An Atlanta architect noted for his avant-garde design of hotels and a passion for French burgundies staged a coup d'etat at the 13th Annual Heublein Auction of Rare Wines here yesterday.
Bidding through Fred Halimeh, the general manager of the Midnight Sun restaurant in Atlanta, architect John Portman scored a quartet of 1865 red burgundies from the cellars Bouchard Pere & Fils for a mere $8,800. "We got a good deal," Halimeh casually remarked after disclosing to reporters that Portman had authorized him to bid up to $25,000 for the four wines. More than 200 bidders and their companions crowded into the ballroom of the Royal Sonesta Hotel for the event.
Neither Heublein's auction director, Alexander McNally, nor Jean Francios Bouchard -- whose family offered the rare wines in celebration of the 250th anniversary of the founding of their firm -- were noticeably disappointed in Portman's achievement. McNally, who had estimated previously that the four bottles would fetch $10,000 or more attributed the modest bid for this year's "top" lot of wine to the lack of aggressive jousting between bidders, which in past years has pushed the price for a single bottle of French wine to more than $30,000. "This year," he stated, "we did not have two determined egos battling for the top prize. The 'deepest pocket' obviously did not have to go to the bottom of it."
Indeed, while selected wines from Bordeaux brought above-market prices and although two of the oldest dry red tables wines offered -- a pair of 1791 French wines from a lost cellar near Lyon -- brought $1,350 per bottle, this year's total sales dropped about $50,000 from last year's record $617,685. Auctioneer Michael Broadbent of Christie's in London attributed the drop to the deliberate change in emphasis away from the "Guinness Book" syndrome, where each year a different rare bottle commands a higher price than the previous year. In organizing this year's event around the burgundies from the Bouchard cellars, McNally conceded that Heublein purposely deemphasized "star" wines as one means of controlling recent runaway prices.
Washington wine merchant Addy Bassin, proprietor of MacArthur's Wines and Liquors in Northwest Washington, agreed that some of the burgundies had been sold at reasonable prices, but he was appalled at the "outrageous" prices paid for wines from off-vintages by "uneducated consumers." Bassin pointed out that a 1964 Chateau Lafite, which sold for more than $1,000 and which he terms "only mediocre," is available for $49.95 at his store. When Bassin last visited a Heublein's auction in 1977 in New Orleans he successfully bid on more than $10,000 worth of wines. This year he bought a few cases of young burgundies and left even before the afternoon session was over.
Bob Luskin of Washington's Bell Wine Shoppe also bid sparingly in New Orleans, terming this year's offerings as particularly weak in older wines from Bordeaux, Luskin concluded that the recent escalation of prices bid at these annual auctions has effectively precluded retail merchants from active bidding. "Prices here," he observed, "are too high for resale. I can offer my Washington, D.C. customers better prices on many of these wines than those being recorded here today."
Although a more modest year than in previous auctions, Heublein did set a record yesterday for the highest price ever paid for a single bottle of California wine when an 1891 Napa Valley Inglenook Zinfandel sold for $1,150 to a restaurateur from Boulder, Colo. In all, Heublein officials estimated that more than $50,000 was paid for 1,220 bottles of California wines at prices averaging nearly $500 per case. A bottle of 1892 Inglenook Pinot Noir sold for $1,050 and a single case of 1970 Beaulieu Vineyards Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon brought $1,150.
The day's highest bidder, a retailer from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., paid almost $50,000 for 35 lots of rare wines. Eleven top bidders, all from the Sunbelt, each walked away with more than $10,000 worth of wine. However, despite the half-million dollars worth of wine on the block, the most popular drink in the Royal Sonesta's Grand Ballroom yesterday was Diet 7-Up. Those who know claim that buying rare wines is a sobering experience.