Heublein took its 15th annual national wine auction to a posh Beverly Hills hotel May 26 where would-be Hollywood startlets and young men in designer jeans watched as a Florida liquor dealer who drinks "only iced tea" bid $45,000 for two bottles of 1806 Ch. Lafite.
More than 150 bidders from throughout the United States, Mexico, Canada and England, refreshed by just goblets of ice water, recently bid more than half a million dollars on 17,000 bottles of European and California wines.
Somehow, though, it seemed that central casting had not quite done its job. Compared to previous auctions, it was a staid affair. Particularly considering that the locale was trendy southern California.
Public wine auctions, a recently acquired American phenomenon, have up to now attracted the glitterati, the Texas millionaires and the "instant connoisseurs" from the local country clubs. It appears that the novelty is wearing off.
Heublein, the granddaddy of all wine auctions, now faces competition from Christie's, the internationally famous London auction house. (Christie's fifth U.S. auction since April of last year is set for June 25 in Chicago.) Moreover, special local and regional wine auctions have sprung up in Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, and for a variety of worthy causes, from Boston to Baja.
Whatever the reasons, this year's marathon session attracted proportionately fewer of the high-brow crowd and more of the nation's retailers, restaurateurs and other members of the wine trade.
So why did Carl Mayhue of Fort Lauderdale spend $83,015 when he doesn't even drink wine? "I like to possess it," he said, without directly mentioning that the national television and newspaper coverage would not hurt his southern Florida liquor business. For the third year in a row, Mayhue was the auction's top spender. He doesn't plan on tasting a single bottle. Buying rare wines is a sobering business.
Although the record price for a single bottle was not broken ($31,000 in 1980 for an 1822 Ch. Lafite), prices were firm to strong for bordeaux, burgundies and most California wines. The California wines that brought low prices, many from very recent vintages, had no place in a "rare wine" auction in the first place. But Heublein--recently bought by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.--traditionally has used the prestigious national auction to push certain of its own subsidiaries' wine products.
Older claret continues to command staggering sums. A single bottle of 1844 Ch. Lafite was knocked down for $27,500; a 1878 Mouton-Rothschild went for $2,100; and a 1903 Ch. Latour was bought for $400. Cases of "first growth" bordeaux from the best vintages of the 1940 to 1960 period generally were sold at $100 a bottle or higher.
Prices for Ch. Petrus, a distinguished but earthy vineyard in France's pomerol district, continued in the cosmic range. Three bottles of the 1959 vintage brought a total of $950; two magnums of the 1955 vintage went for a total of $1,100 to private collector Lloyd Flatt of New Orleans. "I needed them to fill in my little collection," he said. Noting that he already has a half-bottle, regular bottle and imperial of the same wine, Flatt said he wanted the magnums for a planned comparative tasting in order to determine the effect of bottle size on the aging of a particularly fine wine.
Bidding for the "local wines" last week was notably spirited. A record-setting $2,100 was paid for a single bottle of a 1936 California wine, the first vintage of BV's private reserve cabernet sauvignon. Cases of BV's stellar 1968 private reserve went for up to $1,600, and bottles of the 1970 private reserve--said to be President Reagan's favorite wine--were purchased for $100 each.
Roger Berkowitz, of Boston's Legal Seafood restaurants, withdrew at the $44,000 level for the two prized bottles of 1806 Ch. Lafite, but obtained two rare California wines for his collection. He bought a second bottle in as many auctions of an 1891 Inglenook Vineyards zinfandel. He also paid $1,600 for an 1897 Inglenook cabernet sauvignon.
"My strategy is to buy unique bottles to display in my restauant," he said. "People in Boston are interested in the older California wines."
Not all the bidders are interested only in winning trophies for their cases back home. For wine retailers, the auction is an opportunity to obtain bottles that are unavailable through the normal trade channels. Dan Stathos, one of Texas' largest wine dealers, concentrated on big bottles of recent vintages of California cabernet sauvignon. Oversized bottles (magnums, double magnums, jeroboams and imperials) are extremely popular on the auction circuit. Because they contain less air in the bottle in relation to the total volume of wine, the aging process is slower. Thus older wines in such containers are not as likely to have gone "over the hill."
Dallas restaurateur William Burford has a different plan. One of the top 10 bidders last week, he spent $10,350 for a variety of older wines. He plans, however, to resell the bottles at a comfortable profit.
In contrast to sales at some recent Christie's auctions in Chicago, few real "steals" were recorded at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel last month, though one smart bidder landed a jeroboam of 1959 Ch. Lafite for $2,000--it had been estimated by Heublein's Sandy McNally to bring up to $3,500.