The great grape sale
October 2, 2007
It is said the rich are different than you and I. That axiom may be most evident in the way they buy wine.I know this because I recently attended the Zachys Wine Auction at Restaurant Daniel in New York for the sale of “The Magnificent Cellar of Dr. Nils Stormby,” and I assure you there was no hyperbole involved in the use of the word “magnificent.”Dr. Nils Stormby of Malmo, Sweden, has been collecting fine wines since 1970. As he has a taste for Bordeaux, and especially for the sweet, sticky wines from Sauternes, he set about collecting prized and rare lots at auctions throughout Europe, storing them with love and affection deep under his home in a temperature- and humidity-controlled cellar. When he began collecting, the wines sold at auctions frequently came from the dissolution of great personal cellars of European aristocrats who had bought the wines directly from the winemakers and negociants in Bordeaux at the time of their release. Because of this, much of the wine he had purchased was still in its original condition, having been stored in the same wooden cases in which the bottles had left the winery.Getting on in years, the good doctor decided it was time to part with most of his beloved bottles, or, in his words, it was “time to find good homes overseas and parents who care and understand them.” And so he contracted with Zachys Wine Auctions of White Plains, N.Y., to conduct a sale of his collection.Restaurant Daniel is one of the paragons of fine French cuisine, not just in New York but on the planet. It is the perfect place to gather for those who love fine wines, particularly fine French wines.On auction day, a well-dressed crowd of close to 50 buyers arrived, ready to bid on Dr. Stormby’s wines. Lawyers, bankers and wine buyers for private collections and restaurants all waited patiently, along with others who joined the auction via telephone from who knows where. At 10 a.m., the first lot was offered, a single bottle of Chateau Lafitte Rothschild 1937. The estimate of the value, as listed by Zachys in the exquisitely illustrated hard-cover program provided to bidders, was $400-$600.It sold for $1,012. From there, both the wines and the prices paid for them reached dizzying heights. A case of Chateau Lafitte Rothschild 1949 went for $89,250, or a little more than $7,400 a bottle. Lot number 420, a case of Chateau d’Yquem 1945, a magical and much sought-after vintage, was acquired for $178,500. It should be noted that the prices include a 19 percent fee for the auction house, so the bid price for the 12 bottles was “only” $150,000.Not all of the wines were French and not all of the lots sold for six figures. Of course, bargains are in the eye of the beholder, but a few lots were sold for less than the estimated value, especially near the end of the session when the big boys had done all of their buying. Five bottles of Chateau Masur Red, an interesting wine made in Lebanon from the 1979 and 1981 vintages, sold for $500, or just $100 a bottle and a few lots of Italian, Spanish and California wines were sold at prices of under $500. But then there was the single bottle of Tokaji Essence 1811, an intensely sweet Hungarian wine that is purported to be one of the longest-lived wines in the world. It went for $19,000, a price that will surely rise in four years when the vintage celebrates its 200th birthday.By the 4 p.m. close of the bidding, all 666 lots had been sold for a total price of $4,560,000 – an impressive number and one that, no doubt, reflected the acumen of Dr. Stormby as a both a collector and investor. But what struck me was the passion that the doctor had for the wines he had purchased over the last four decades. While the financial rewards the Zachys auction brought cannot be dismissed, I found a note written by Dr. Stormby in the front of the program quite poignant, as it captured the small pleasures that so many people get from their love of wine. It read:”The evening before my 5,000 wonderful bottles will be packed and shipped to Zachys in New York I take a last tour in the cellar. Not to weep, but feeling happy once more to invoke all of the personal memories which so many of the bottles carry.”Perhaps the rich aren’t so different after all.Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and a black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.