The fever has been broken. Washington's first wine auction, on Saturday, was so brisk and businesslike that it was hard to raise a pulse beat, let alone a temperature. And that's the way Christie's, the auctioneers, and the Washington trade and consumer set wanted it.
Here, in the dignified, chandeliered Dolly Madison Room of the Madison Hotel, over 400 wine enthusiasts sat through 5 1/2 hours of bidding. There was no hysteria, little excitement and only occasional humor to break the pace.
Michael Broadbent, director of Christie's wine department in London and Saturday's auctioneer, was impressed. "An English audience wouldn't sit through this long catelog with such patience. It was a very good turnout considering that there was no preview tasting of the rarities, which usually attracts the crowds. Our customers came to buy."
And buy they did. At this, the second of Christie's American auctions, the turnover was an estimated $450,000, well over the sales of the first in Chicago. Yet, prices were generally considered to be fair, rather than inflationary.
"The art market is in such terrible shape that we had no idea how the wine market would react to a recession," said Jackie Quillen, wine specialist at Christie's East, their New York office. "Prices were firm throughout."
Broadbent, unruffled and precise set the tone for the day. An occasional "beautiful, elegant, classic" or "great classic," was all he had to say as he romped through the morning's lots. At 10:30 British Ambassador Sir Nicholas Henderson slipped in, was briefly acknowledged, and bidding continued. Whispering that there were no bargains, the ambassador left after half an hour.
There were, however, enough bargains to keep the 137 registered bidders holding up numbered paddles. One of the morning's most active buyers was Dr. Joe Weinstock from Baltimore. Taking frequent smoking breaks in the lobby outside the auction room, he entrusted his paddle to his wife. Was he buying so heavily for long-term investment? "Definitely not," he said. "These wines are for drinking, of course."
The competition was coming from a handful of out-of-towners, restaurant owners from Atlanta, and Austin, Tex., who were happy with prices for the Bordeaux from the '60s.
Washington-area restaurant owners were also buying. Watch for half-bottles of the '59 Mouton at Le Lion d'Or and magnums of the '45 Mouton at Tiberio.
The afternoon started with the single most expensive bottle: an 1806 Lafite. Bidding was quick, increments went into the hundreds, and the lot was knocked down to a Washington wine collector for $9,800.
Why did Dr. Harvey Gralnic, of the National Institutes of Health, buy this collector's item? "I thought it was unique. My wife is still in a state of shock. When I went home and told her, she didn't believe me for the first half-hour."
That's a big sum for a bottle of wine, but $9,800 is by no means a record. Broadbent moved on with the business of the afternoon. But he was relenting a little. There were a few more anecdotes and longer descriptions of the wines.
Then came the unexpected excitement of the day -- from California. Special bottlings of the Stag's Leap Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon were for sale and winemaker and owner Warren Winiarski was in the room to hear Broadbent give fulsome praise to the '74 Cask 23. "Just like Petrus, a massively built wine." Perhaps due to the limited quantities available, or perhaps Broadbent's recognition, the '74 was sold at an average of $110 a bottle, depending on the size of the lot.
To cap it, a jeroboam (equal to six bottles) of the Stag's Leap '78 Cask 23, of which only 15 were bottled, went for $980. The buyer was Bill Rozansky, a Washington wine merchant.
Winiarski didn't blink. Described as being the most reserved and unassuming of the California winemakers, he merely commented that "prices were much higher than I thought they would be."
Have new standards been set for California wines? Will there be an inflationary spiral for such limited releases? Broadbent, better known for his classical affiliations to Bordeaux and Burgundy, felt it was deserved. "It was a feather in the cap for Warren."
At the day's end, the good buys had been the Bordeaux from '47, '49 and '53. Ports had been higher than estimated, showing an increasing interest from port fanciers elsewhere in the country. Only 10 percent of the lots had not achieved their reserve prices, which was considered satisfactory by Christie's. But the important point was that the sale had proved that there's room in the wine marketplace for auctions.
Will there be more auctions in Washington? "Definitely," said Broadbent. "I would like to see them here on an annual basis. Washington is a natural site."