HDH Wine

Fall Wine Auctions Tap Sinatra’s Bordeaux, ‘21’ Club Cellar

Review by Elin McCoy


Sept. 11 (Bloomberg) -- A meat skewer slides through a crack in a brick wall to open the creaking secret door of the ‘21’ Club’s Prohibition-era wine cellar. From this historic warren of rooms 640 bottles go on sale tomorrow at Christie’s International Plc in New York.

With prices rebounding, Christie’s head of North American wine sales, Charles Curtis, hopes the restaurant’s speakeasy past and connections with gangsters, Ernest Hemingway and John F. Kennedy will inspire wine lovers to raise their bids.

A dozen September auctions and sales later this fall contain plenty of what buyers usually crave: prize Bordeaux and Burgundy direct from chateau cellars, top restaurants and celebrities.

Last fall, with the financial crisis, prices plunged as much as 50 percent. A November Christie’s auction was only 31 percent sold, the firm’s worst result ever for wine in New York.

During the first half of 2009, however, lower estimates for wine at auction attracted those seeking bargains while live online bidding drew newcomers.

Prices at auction have only partially recovered and are still 10 percent to 20 percent below last year’s high. Meanwhile, prices for the 100 most sought-after wines rose 4.6 percent during August, normally a quiet month for the trade, according to London-based electronic wine exchange Liv-ex. The improving prices are being led by Asian demand for Chateau Lafite-Rothschild.

Cellar Space

I’d assumed ‘21’ Club was deaccessioning because New York restaurant goers are mostly bypassing top-priced bottles, but wine director Phil Pratt says no -- he needs the cellar space. He’s thinning duplicate stock, mostly Burgundies, from the 1,300-item wine list. Compounding Pratt’s space problem are 1,000 bottles stored by regulars who can order them when dining upstairs, though the program ended a decade ago.

Auction directors say fewer rarities are in the marketplace, though I noted plenty going on the block tomorrow.

Chicago’s Hart Davis Hart has two cases of perfectly stored 1982 Chateau Petrus (estimate $24,000-$35,000) and dozens of older Bordeaux in original wooden cases.

Christie’s 676-lot sale also features three magnums of 1947 Cheval Blanc ($40,000-$60,000).

But few sellers are using their names. Maybe they’re worried people will think they’re forced to sell.

Celebrities have no such qualms. Hockey Hall-of-Famer Mario Lemieux, owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, is selling off first growths in an Oct. 24 Hart Davis Hart sale.

Sinatra’s Bordeaux

Zachys’s October Los Angeles auction features 30 lots from Frank Sinatra’s home cellar, sourced from his widow’s estate. To my surprise, the “one for the road” crooner favored old Bordeaux.

And everyone wants to go to Hong Kong.

“The Asian market is driving prices now,” says Jamie Ritchie, Sotheby’s senior vice president, North America. “For the last 15 years it’s been the U.S, but the highest-value lots are going to Asia.” Sotheby’s first sale there last April brought nearly HK$20 million (US$2.6 million) over the top estimate.

Zachys and Acker Merrall & Condit each held two Asian auctions last spring and they have two on the fall calendar. Wednesday night’s Acker sale at Gilt restaurant, the first fall auction in New York, was 99 percent sold. The $2.03 million in sales, including buyer’s premium, beat its high estimate of $1.96 million.

Mandarin Oriental

On Saturday at Hong Kong’s Mandarin Oriental hotel, Zachys highlights older first-growth Bordeaux. The sale includes plenty of 1982 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, for which Asian collectors seem to have an insatiable thirst: Four cases of regular-sized bottles (estimate $20,000-$30,000 a case), a case of magnums ($20,000-$30,000), one lot of two double-magnums ($14,000-$20,000) and two jeroboams (equal to 8 bottles; each $11,000-$17,000).

“Certain wines sometimes get better prices in Hong Kong,’ says auction director Michael Jessen.

At Hong Kong’s Island Shangri-La hotel on Sept. 19, Acker’s top lot is an instant cellar of the world’s most collectible Burgundy, a 144-bottle assortment of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti wines, vintages 1990 to 2001 ($259,000-$310,000). Sotheby’s weighs in on Oct. 3 and 4 with 30 cases of Chateau Petrus.

Big Bargains

Though auction estimates are up from June, bargains can be had.

“Big-format 3-liter and 6-liter bottles haven’t come back up in price,” said John Kapon, Acker’s auction director, whom I reached in San Francisco as he was packing up a cellar.

Tradition has it that in a boom economy jeroboams and imperials command a premium over regular-sized bottles, while during recessions they sell for less. In Christie’s May sale no one bought imperials of the ‘96 Latour and Margaux, though they snapped up cases of the same wines in 750 ml bottles. “I think people don’t want to be showoffy in this economy,” explains Hart Davis Hart’s president, Ben Nelson.

Well, not yet.

(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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