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Wine Auction Exposé

To find the real story behind big-money auctions, wine editor Lettie Teague visits an eccentric collector, sees a cellar that leaves her speechless, and observes a nail-biter of a sale.

As there are several Southerners among my family members, a fixation on origin is, to me, nothing new. Down South, "Where do you come from?" still trumps the question "What do you do?" Only the world of wine auctions seems to be more source-obsessed. "Provenance is everything" runs the favored phrase, repeated by every auction-goer and auction executive I know. Including Jeff Zacharia, whose family owns a big retail wine shop, Zachys, in a New York City suburb and a large auction business as well. Jeff's definition of provenance: "It's important to know where—and how—a wine has been stored."

Jeff and I were talking about provenance in the context of an upcoming Zachys auction, one that Jeff said was "all about provenance." On offer were sixty vintages of the legendary Sauternes Château d'Yquem, from as far back as 1816. All of the wines had come straight from the estate's cellars, where they had been perfectly stored for many decades—the ideal answer to any question about provenance.

Jeff invited me to the auction, which took place at Daniel, the four-star French restaurant on New York's Upper East Side. For only $50, auction attendees received Champagne and a buffet lunch that included chef Daniel Boulud's famed DB burger and fries. "Don't be late," Jeff had warned. Apparently the french fries disappear fast. (I pictured chef Boulud at the fryolator: "One more batch, but that's it.")

Despite Jeff's warning, I missed the bidding on the biggest Yquem lot (14 imperials and one jeroboam of 15 rare bottlings, which sold for $49,140) and the french fries as well. Jeff offered to introduce me to the buyer, a businessman from Boston. "Don't use my name" was the first thing the buyer said. "I love Yquem" was the second. "I'd decided I would spend up to $30,000 to get this lot," he added. I pointed out that he'd spent almost $20,000 more. Had he gotten carried away? The man waved a hand dismissively. "I don't get carried away," he replied. "And I don't consider auctions as a source of excitement; I think of them as distribution channels."

Though the Yquem man wasn't what I would call ebullient, Jeff, on the other hand, certainly was. The Yquem lots had far exceeded the estimates—by an astounding 74 percent. "It's the power of provenance," Jeff declared. There were plenty of other great lots for sale, including a double magnum of 1865 Lafite and some top Burgundies from an "East Coast Connoisseur." Was their provenance just as good?

The East Coast Connoisseur's collection sounded particularly interesting; apparently, he had so much wine he couldn't set foot in his cellar. He had consigned only "the wines that he could reach; the ones nearest the cellar door." That was a provenance I wanted to see. When I found out that Ben Nelson, a member of the Zachys team, would be going up to the Connoisseur's house in Rhode Island to appraise wines for a future auction, I wondered, would it be possible for me to go too?

Several weeks later I joined Ben and one of his colleagues, Matt Chung, at the home of the East Coast Connoisseur. Although appraising rare wines seemed like something that would take years to learn, Ben, it seemed, had been at it for just over a year. Apparently he was something of a natural (and he studied hard). But he didn't look more than 24. "Actually I'm 29," Ben replied, in the same polite but firm tone he doubtless employed to inform people how much (or little) their wines were worth—or, worse, that their wines were in such poor shape or so pedestrian that they were NFA, or Not For Auction.

The East Coast Connoisseur was also a deviation from type: He looked more like a hip college professor than a middle-aged man with a $5 million cellar. His house was similarly lacking in pretension: his garage door open to reveal broken bicycles, old baby carriages—and a few dozen cases of rare Burgundy. "I started pulling cases out for you," the Connoisseur said to Ben, "but I stopped because I was afraid of hurting my back."

Ben thanked the Connoisseur for his trouble and turned to me. "You probably want to see the cellar," he said. (Ben was young but intuitive.) The Connoisseur led us past the piles of semi-discarded belongings to a temperature-controlled room in the back of the garage.

When he opened the door, the scene revealed there simply defied comparison. Except perhaps in the story of the famous Collyer brothers, the "Hermits of Harlem," who during the first half of the 20th century collected so much junk—not to mention some 14 pianos—in their New York City town house that one of them was eventually crushed by it. (Being crushed by a few jeroboams of Jayer, however, didn't seem so bad to me—certainly compared with being smothered by a dozen or so Steinways.) I saw cases of wine stacked almost to the ceiling, with racks full of bottles in between. The few names I could make out were stellar—not just Jayer, but also Comte de Vogüé, Bize-Leroy and La Romanée—though a few broken bottles were visible too. "Sometimes I break things climbing on top of the cases," the Connoisseur explained, a bit abashedly.

"The second cellar isn't much better," the Connoisseur admitted, leading us behind bins of clothing and broken chairs to an almost identical scene. The second cellar had been his wife's idea. She'd thought he could use it to store the cases that were blocking the original cellar. But the Connoisseur just kept buying wine, and soon the second cellar looked like the first. "My wife put a telephone in the second cellar," the Connoisseur added. "She said, 'The next time you order wine, do it from there.'" Alas, the boxes had long since blocked access to the phone.

The Connoisseur was unique, Ben acknowledged, and not just because of his Collyeresque cellar. His wines had been purchased upon release—an excellent answer to the question of provenance—and had always been perfectly, if somewhat precariously, stored. The Connoisseur also had a deep knowledge of Burgundy and had met a number of the producers whose wines he admired. In fact, the only thing the Connoisseur had in common with most of Zachys' other consigners, according to Ben, was that he wasn't happy with the estimates on his wines. "We try to offer a true estimate range," Ben explained. "We don't want wines selling at reserve"—the lowest acceptable price.

Ben began checking the wines. He held up a 1990 Roumier Chambolle-Musigny with a label that was torn. "I'm sorry about the labels, Ben," said the Connoisseur. Ben shook his head: "You can't drink a label. The only thing buyers really care about is fill levels." (As a wine ages, the fill level in the bottle can drop; if it gets as low as the mid-shoulder, the wine may have been overexposed to oxygen and ruined.) "Bordeaux with low fills tend to be worse off than Burgundies with low fills," Ben observed. Why? I asked. "I don't know, that's just what Dennis Foley says," Ben admitted, naming a Zachys advisor.

I watched as Ben marked a group of 1993 Burgundies as a single lot and placed them together in a box. Matt, meanwhile, was packing up cases of 1999 Burgundies. The Connoisseur stopped him, horrified. "What are those wines doing there? I just bought them from Marty's!" he exclaimed, naming a wine shop near Boston. "Everyone thinks the auction business is glamorous," said Ben, watching Matt unpack the cases, "but this is what it's all about: cataloging the wine and knowing where it came from."

After all the wines had been shipped off, Ben said the next step was to calculate the estimates (based on market conditions and sales of similar wines). Zachys might photograph a few of the Connoisseur's most interesting bottles. Just then, the Connoisseur reappeared. He'd been on the phone, ordering more wine.

Ben left me a message a few weeks later. The Connoisseur hadn't been pleased with his estimates. In fact, he'd threatened to pull out of the auction because he didn't want to "give his wines away." But Ben managed to calm him down. The Connoisseur eventually changed his mind. "He even apologized to me," said Ben.

The auction itself was a two-day affair, featuring nearly 2,000 lots. The most impressive collection of the sale was perhaps that of a California family who had amassed an incredible range of wines—from three bottles of 1945 Mouton (estimated value $12,000 to $18,000) to a bottle of 1935 Simi Zinfandel (estimated value $300 to $500) that had pride of place on the auction-catalog cover. "We've never put a California wine on the cover before," Ben observed.

I took a seat at a table across from a woman who was busily marking up her catalog. It wasn't quite 10 o'clock, but there were quite a few people in the room already, almost all of them men in suits.

Then the Connoisseur appeared, dressed in black. Was he in mourning, I wondered, for his lost wine? He grimaced as he sat down beside me. At that moment, the auctioneer, Ursula Hermacinski, introduced his collection: "Here are some wines from a fantastic gentleman with beautiful taste and an excellent cellar." The Connoisseur just stared straight ahead, like a man awaiting a sentencing.

The bidding started out strongly. A magnum of 1969 Krug sold for over $1,700, several hundred above the estimate, as did three bottles of 1990 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC), which went for over $1,600. But then other wines, like a 1990 Georges de Vogüé Musigny, fell just within the estimate range. "They're giving it away," muttered the Connoisseur. Sometimes he simply said "Wow," employing the word to alternately register disgust or surprise. "They only care about labels; they don't care about the wines," he said at one point. "They all just want DRC."

But when a fierce bidding war broke out over two lots of his 1985 and 1986 Raveneau Chablis, he was shocked. He was a big Chablis fan but thought the wines were underappreciated by the rest of the world. Ben, who was sitting beside him, clearly knew otherwise. "I told you so," Ben said to the Connoisseur, who turned red.

The next lots went for some pretty fair prices, though the Connoisseur said "Wow" a lot and it didn't sound good. Particularly when he added "That's a joke" or "That's a gift." A little less than an hour later, it was all over. The Connoisseur looked spent. How did he feel? "It's just wine," he retorted, unwilling or perhaps unable to say more. And what was his take on the auction itself? "It's a very efficient system," he acknowledged, "like the stock exchange. But there's none of the romance of wine."

The woman across sitting across from us stopped marking her catalog and interjected, "I don't agree. I find a lot of romance just reading this catalog." What kind of wine had she been hoping to buy? Bordeaux and California Cabernet, she said—two of the Connoisseur's least favorite wines. But she also liked white Burgundy. "You should think about investing in the 2002 vintages," the Connoisseur replied. "I bought 40 or 50 cases last month."

Were the best wine auctions, as Jeff had suggested, "all about provenance," or were they about something more? Finding properly stored bottles with the right pedigree seemed fairly easy to do. But gaining the confidence of someone like the Connoisseur and inspiring him to share even a little of what he loved most in the world (even if he didn't always agree with the terms), well, that made for the best auction of all.

Published December 2004
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