SOTHEBY'S, THE new kid on the auction block, has thrown in the gavel.

Christie's, still bidding vigorously for the "rights" to New York City, has settled for Chicago in April and Washington, D.C., in June. Heublein is returning to Boston, but absent its celebrated auctioneer.

In 1982, the campaign for the "Great American Wine Auction" is Wine beset by more than mere liquidity problems in a softening economy.

"The strongest impediment to the holding of wine auctions in this country is the legal morass that surrounds them," maintains Frederick Sholtz, senior vice president of Sotheby Parke Bernet Inc. in New York. Sholtz, who admits that Sotheby's first American auction last November in Chicago "didn't do as well as hoped," cites the obstacles presented by stringent state alcoholic beverage laws in explaining why his international auction house is giving up after only one wine sale in America.

The problem appears to be that auction firms cannot easily qualify with state regulatory authorities to sell their wines directly to the public. Because they do not hold state permits as either retailers, wholesalers or importers, they stand outside the established distribution network for alcoholic beverages. Some states require that a retail license be obtained before any wines can be sold to the public, and obtaining such a license can be a lengthy and costly exercise.

In Sholtz's view, the major obstacles are in New York--the center of the nation's wine trade and the headquarters of the major auction houses. It may be the Big Apple, but so far New York has been notoriously cool to auctioneers of noble grapes.

Christie's, which has auctioned wines in London for more than 200 years, has been seeking authority to conduct auctions in New York City since 1980. A scheduled sale in December of that year was enjoined by a New York state judge, in connection with a suit brought by wine retailers challenging the power of the state liquor board to grant auction permits to anyone. Attempts by Christie's last year to obtain favorable legislation from the state lawmakers in Albany were unsuccessful.

Christie's lawyer is now "optimistic that all factions can agree" on compromise legislation to authorize a New York auction by the end of June. Attorney William Maloney has met recently with representatives for importers, wholesalers and retailers. Early next month, he will circulate proposed compromise legislation among these three groups, each of which views the auction houses as invading their established territory.

At issue in New York, according to Maloney, is how to define the standards narrowly enough so as to prevent anyone who holds a $50 New York state general auctioneer's license from conducting wine sales. "The retailers are concerned," he explains, "that there could be wine auctions on every street corner."

While agreeing that auction opponents may be willing to compromise on legislation this spring, retail spokesman William L. McDevitt is "cautious." He claims that auction houses are "getting involved up to their eyeballs" in areas of the wine trade customarily reserved for importers and wholesalers. McDevitt is concerned that auctioneers like Christie's could "subvert the system of distribution" by cutting out various middlemen.

In addition, McDevitt is not altogether certain that the state legislature would rubber-stamp any compromise on the auction issue reached by the various wine factions. "There is a growing movement in New York," he asserts, "to restrict access to alcohol." The climate being established by the Moral Majority and other conservative groups, he adds, may not be conducive to broadening the alcohol distribution network.

The prevailing opinion in Albany, however, is that a favorable bill could be enacted this session if all factions reach a mutually satisfactory agreement. A key committee chairman, Assemblyman Roger J. Robach, has been speaking with all parties and is "optimistic" that a compromise will be reached this spring.

Choosing not to idly await the outcome in New York, Christie's is scheduling return visits this year to Chicago and Washington, the sites of its first two American auctions last year.

This time around, Christie's hopes to avoid the legal snarls that threatened to cancel last October's auction at the Madison Hotel here. A restraining order issued in New York was lifted just three days before the Washington sale, but only after Christie's agreed to halt the sale of catalogues and the acceptance of bids at its New York offices, and after the wines were moved out of state to New Jersey.

To prevent such last-minute legal hassles before the next Washington auction--tentatively set for June 26--Christie's is already negotiating with local regulatory officials for the right to warehouse and dispose of its wines in the District. Theodore Kligman, attorney for the auction house, believes the district may institute a for future auctions, but he is confident that the necessary arrangements can be completed before June.

Having also worked out legal arrangements again in Chicago, Christie's will return to the Drake Hotel on April 17 for an auction that will feature wines from the extensive private cellar of the late Dr. George H. Rezek, an internationally noted connoisseur. The sale--organized in association with the Chicago Wine Company--will be presided over by J. Michael Broadbent, a life-long friend of Rezek and head of Christie's wine department in London and a pioneer in international auctioneering.

Although Broadbent has withdrawn this year from his familiar role as guest auctioneer at Heublein's 14th annual auction, the sale will go on as usual at Boston's Park Plaza Hotel on May 27. Among the 30,000 bottles to be offered are an 1802 claret, various madeira dating from 1796 and Beaulieu Vineyard's last "library" bottle of 1945 BV Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Selected samples of the wines will be featured at preview tastings in San Diego on April 13 and in Chicago on April 27.

Replacing Broadbent at the Heublein rostrum will be Reeder Butterfield, of Butterfield's San Francisco auction house. In explaining his decision to step down last month, Broadbent cited a demanding travel schedule as well as Christie's growing wine auction activities in the United States. Nevertheless, Broadbent has found time this year to conduct the second annual Napa Valley Wine Auction on June 19 and 20 in California and will assist in the Sakowitz auction in Houston on March 10.

Whether wine auctions will become, as in London, routinely scheduled or whether they will expand to American cities other than Washington, Boston, Chicago, New Orleans and San Francisco is highly problematical. Christie's has looked at other states--such as Texas and Florida--and concluded that the legal obstacles preclude further consideration. The force of the 21st Amendment--which empowers each of the 50 states to regulate the sale of all alcoholic beverages independently--may render the holding of periodic wine auctions to be an inherently less viable proposition here than in Europe.

Christie's may deserve congratulations for its persistence. But Sotheby's may be right.