THE ANNUAL Heublein national auction of rare wines celebrated its 13th birthday in New Orleans last Thursday. Like most teen-agers, it sported a few blemishes, revealed some unresolved contradictions and yet displayed a precocious personality that will continue to merit attention.
New Orleans' French Quarter -- colorful, quaint and decidedly slower-paced than such recent auction sites as San Franciso, Chicago and Atlanta -- was an appropriate choice this year, as Heublein officials consciously moved to change the style of their annual offering of rare wines. Auction director Alexander ("Sandy") McNally explained that Heublein deliberately eliminated "star" wines from this year's catalogue in an attempt to temper the recent trend of runaway prices. In past years, buyers had bid over $30,000 for single bottles of early 19th-century wines from Bordeaux. b
"The 'star' wine syndrome distorts the use of the auction as a public service to the marketplace by tending to inflate the prices paid for all of the wines we offer," McNally stated. "It also desserves the industry," he added, "by conferring on the high bidder a status of 'instant connoisseur' when really it only denotes the party with the deepest pocket."
Although McNally described the 1981 catalogue as more diverse than in previous years, the only significant departure from previous auctions appeared to be a wider offering of burgundies, particularly rare ones from the venerable cellars of Bouchard Pere & Fils, which is celebrating its 250th anniversary this year. Indeed, Heublein's "star" this year was a quartet of 1865 red burgundies that sold for $8,800 to John Portman, the Atlanta architect and restauranteur. The manager of Portman's Midnight Sun restaurant and his agent in New Orleans. Fred Halimeh, disclosed to reporters after the auction that he had been authorized to bid up to $25,000 for the four rare wines.
Local wine merchant Addy Bassin, proprietor of MacArthur Liquors in Northwest Washington, was not surprised tht the four Bouchard burgundies fetched approximately $1,000 less than even McNally had predicted. "There is a longevity question about old burgundies," he stated. "They just don't drink as well as clarets."
Bassin, who had paid $10,000 for a jeroboam of 1929 Chateau Mouton Rothschild at a previous Heublein auction, was nonetheless appalled at the generally high prices paid for many of the lots of wine on the block last Thursday. "There are too many amateurs here," he suggested. "They are paying outrageous sums for 'off-vintages.' The public's lack of knowledge -- particularly these young couples -- is truly remarkable."
The effect of such "uneducated" bidding in recent auctions has been to reduce the number of retailers who attend the auction. Bob Luskin of Bell's Wine Shoppe in downtown Washington attributed the decline in the number of retailers in attendance to the fewer clarets being offered this year, and agreed with Bassin and other merchants that indiscriminately high bidding has sent auction prices too high for resale at the retail level. Luskin also observed a greater number of bidders on each of the 699 lots of wine this year than previously, when a handful of bidders tended to dominate. "I am also fascinated," he added, "at how some bidders will travel hundreds of miles and patiently sit for hours just to bid on a single wine." Luskin, like Bassin, bid sparingly this year.
The reason for the absence of a "Guinness Book of World Records" wine and for the relatively fewer rare clarets generally available this year may merely be that attrition has taken its toll. The quantity of marketable 19th-century rare wines available for auction is very limited. Indeed, auctioneer Michael Broadbent of Christie's in London observed that some of Heublein's wines in New Orleans had been offered previously. Moreover, the competition to find rare wines for auction is certain to intensify with the increse in the number of wine auctions held in the United States. Christie's, which holds frequent wine auctions under Broadbent's gavel in London, staged its first American auction in Chicago six weeks ago. Other auctions may be held in New York or Washington.
Heublein's response to a shrinking universe of rare claret -- traditionally the most collectable red wines in the world -- has been to look beyond Bordeaux. Not surprisingly, it has focused heavily on offerings from two of the Heublein subsidiaries in California -- Beaulieu Vineyard and Inglenook Vineyards. This year, Heublein presented nearly 100 lots of its own wines.
Another means of combating the problem of a dwindling supply of rare French wines has been the inclusion each year of wines from more recent vintages. In earlier auctions, the youngest wines Heublein offered were wines from the 1950s. This year's catalogue listed "rare" clarets as young as 1974, sauternes as young as 1971 and just-bottled burgundies from 1978.
The changes in the annual Heublein catalogue during recent years are minor, however, compared with the changes in atmosphere. This auction has become one of America's newest forms of live theater. From the powdered wig and dramatic gestures of major-domo Henry Groot to the perfect diction and dry wit of veteran auctioneer Michael Broadbent, the day-long auction -- which followed an afternoon of tasting -- provided abundant "photo opportunities" for the seven televison crews and numerous photographers present. As Broadbent candidly stated, "After all, this is an auction, but it is also a Heublein promotion, an event." He dutifully added that at Christie's auctions there are no preview tastings and no media coverage.
As the ubiquitous camera crews packed their equipment, and while empty wine bottles and other props were removed from the Grand Ballroom of the Royal Sonesta Hotel, auction director McNally totaled the day's receipts only to discover that the 13th anual auction had been unlucky after all. Total sales dipped $50,000 from last year.
The teen-age years can be awkward.