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Article Date: New York, Oct 27, 22:10

Lafite's Mystique Lures Wine Bidders to Spend $1.82 Million.

Reported by: Elin McCoy
Sept. 25 (Bloomberg): A dinner accompanied by 20 vintages of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild at top Chicago restaurant Charlie Trotter's isn't the kind of invitation I turn down.

Unsurprisingly, no one was spitting at this Bordeaux profundo bash sponsored by Hart Davis Hart the night before its wine sale last Friday and Saturday. It included the largest offering of Lafite ever to appear at auction, HDH Chairman John Hart said as we savored the splendid 1982.

Buoyed by the rescue of AIG and Wall Street's rally last Thursday, Hart was more optimistic than he was at the start of the week. I was skeptical, though the 1,746-lot sale ended up 100 percent sold, pulling in $11.2 million, 10 percent above the high estimate and more than any 2008 auction. The 166 lots of Lafite from 21 vintages brought in $1.82 million and a world record.

Many bidders thought financial jitters would mean softer prices. Still, the seller, Fox Cellar, was a top-quality, single- owner collection, mostly first-growth Bordeaux reds and Burgundy star Domaine de la Romanee Conti, all purchased on release and perfectly stored. Most were in original wooden cases, which command a premium.

And there was all that Lafite.

One of the eye-opening auction trends of the past two years has been the rise of the Lafite brand, especially in Asia. Prices of older vintages are more than double those for other Bordeaux first growths and the fairy dust has spilled onto its second label, Carraudes de Lafite.<

``Nobody saw this coming,'' private wine adviser Kevin Swersey admitted. ``When a particular demographic attacks a specific wine, like what happens with Lafite, the result is irrational exuberance.''

Solid Prices

The auction began Friday at 9 a.m. sharp in Tru restaurant's light-filled dining room, and by the time the Lafite went on the block a couple of hours later, the HDH team was grinning in relief. Wall Street turmoil be damned -- prices were solid.

Paul Hart

Paul Hart, president and chief executive officer of Hart Davis Hart Wine Co., center, identifies a bid at the company's first fall season sale at Tru restaurant in Chicago on Sept. 19, 2008. The two-day sale, which included the largest offering of Lafite ever to appear at auction, realized $11.2 million, 10 percent above the high estimate. Source: Hart Davis Hart Wine Co. via Bloomberg News

Bidding Screen

The bidding screen registers the world record hammer price of $46,000 for a case of 1982 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, purchased by Wu Jianxin of Beijing, during a Hart Davis Hart Wine Co. auction at Tru restaurant in Chicago on Sept. 19, 2008. The two-day sale included the largest offering of Lafite ever to appear at auction. Source: Hart Davis Hart Wine Co. via Bloomberg News

Wu Jianxin, who flew in from Beijing, battled against another Asian buyer for the first case of 1982 Lafite, taking it for $54,970 ($4,580 a bottle), a world record, beating case lots of auction darling 1982 Chateau Petrus. The six other cases of '82 Lafite went for $33,460 to $40,630. As recently as two years ago, it traded for a mere $10,000 a case.

Jianxin owns Beijing private wine club Qing Ping Hui Guan, where only first-growth Bordeaux are served. Slim and elegant in a black suit and checked shirt, sporting a pencil-thin beard, he theorized about what gives Lafite cachet in China.

``A single bottle of '82 in a retail shop is $10,000. It would be displayed like a treasure,'' he said. ``People do business while drinking, so if you treat to such a great, expensive bottle of wine, you will be taken more seriously.''

Asian Buyers

Many people told me Lafite is popular because the name is easier to pronounce, but HDH's Asia representive Gabe Suk pointed out in an e-mail that it was the first wine to be identified in China as ``great'' and thus became the standard bearer for new millionaires looking to mark their newly minted status with wine. I duly noted that 50 percent of the Lafite in this sale by value went to an unidentified absentee Asian bidder with paddle number 881.

Still, not just Asia buys Lafite. It's a favorite in the U.K. and Europe, too. Well-known East Coast collector Charles Klatskin bid on '86 magnums and snagged cases of 2000 for his 30,000-bottle cellar.

``Most prices are holding because provenance is the name of the game,'' he said. Chicagoan Leon Dreimann, who recently started a wine investment fund, picked up an imperial of 2000 and cases of '96 and '86 magnums.

Yet not everyone was banking on Lafite. One collector, who declined to be named, says he sold his vast amounts of Lafite because it's overpriced.

Finesse Over Power

Lafite has always been Bordeaux's most famous property and its wine the most elegant, with more finesse than power. During the '60s and the early '70s, though, the chateau underperformed, and the 1970, '75, and '76 at Thursday's dinner were disappointments.

Not so the 1980s bottles. The '82 and '86 were the stars, with layers of flavor and luscious ripe fruit. The '85 is succulence and finesse, '88 is tight and structured, '89 is developed, mineral-tinged and smooth. Of the 10 vintages from the '90s, the deep, concentrated '95 and powerful, intense higher- priced '96 are my favorites. The '00 is seamless and grand, the '03 rich and plummy. Are they worth the prices? Well, if you have to ask....

``It's a mystery to everyone just why Lafite has such success,'' said James Miles of London-based electronic wine exchange Liv-Ex. ``I think global traders push it in front of new customers because they can obtain and trade big quantities. Lafite offers liquidity.''

Will its mystique continue to prop up the wine's prices in the continuing economic turbulence? No one wants to predict.

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