Christie’s to auction Italian wines

Patricia Guy

What They Say:

American attitudes toward alcohol are aberrant even when compared to those of cultures, such as Britain and Scandinavia, that share elements of the temperance tradition. Consider: Among the NATO soldiers in Bosnia, only the Americans are forbidden to drink. According to the New York Times, “the Norwegian soldiers here can drink in moderation, as can the French, the Danes, and the British.” Apparently, other nations accept the logic that adults who are allowed to fly large aircraft and fire heavy artillery can also be trusted to consume alcohol moderately. We do not. But then, the Danes, French, British and Norwegians have never enacted national prohibition.

Psychologist Stanton Peele in Reason, April 1996

On the 4th of July 1996 an ever-so-tasteful and oh-so-dignified revolution will take place in the hallowed auction rooms at Christie’s of London. For the first time in the company’s long and glorious history it will be conducting an auction devoted solely to Italian fine wines. The fact that this venerable institution has involved itself with this event may serve to give a push to some investors and wine collectors who are stuck in the Bordeaux rut.

The auction was conceived by the BQ Agency, a small public relations firm in Verona, Italy. “We wanted to show the international community that Italian wines could be taken seriously as an investment in the same way as Bordeaux,” says Marinella Calogiurai, chairman of the agency.

To achieve this noble goal, BQ enlisted the aid of BNA (Banca Nazionale dell’ Agricoltura), ASSIAUDIT (an international insurance underwriting firm), and Le Citta Del Vini (a group of mayors of historic Italian communes).

To achieve maximum international attention, a plan was evolved to present a group of “top” Italian wines at auction. As it happened, Christie’s had been considering the possibility of just such a sale when they received BQ’s request. “We were delighted to accept their offer,” said David Elswood, senior specialist of Christie’s London Wine Department.

The staff at BQ invited a group of producers who were well-known internationally and whose wines had outstanding potential for aging to submit samples to a tasting panel comprised of Italian wine authority Burton Anderson; Nicolas Belfrage, an Italian wine specialist and the first American to receive the coveted Master of Wine designation; Sandro Sangiorgi from Arcigola-Slow Food; Alessandro Masnaghetti, who represented Luigi Veronelli, and Italian journalist Cesare Pillon and Othmar Kiem.

Amongst the wines to be auctioned are: Col D’Orcia’s Brunello di Montalcino, Poggio al Vento (vintages 1983, 1985, 1988); Allegrini’s superb 100% Corvina, La Poja (vintages 1985, 1988, 1990); Selvapiana’s Chianti Rufina Riserva, Vigneto Bucerchiale (vintages 1988, 1990) and Amaldo Caprai’s Montefalco Sagrantino (vintages 1988, 1990, 1991).

“I think the auction will be a very interesting enterprise,” says Othmar Kiem. “Particularly for indigenous varieties. But I can see a problem when it comes to selling these wines to the English who are more familiar with Cabernet.”

Burton Anderson agrees. “Although I like the idea of an auction, I don’t think it will have a great deal of success in England. The British are pretty well set in their ways. Convincing them of the quality of Italian wines is always an uphill battle. In general, the average Englishman still demands that Italian wine be ‘cheap and cheerful.'”

Christie’s representatives are not quite so pessimistic. “Every time we are asked to assess a large cellar these days,” says David Elswood, “we usually come across a few cases of fine Italian wine. In recent years a group of specialist merchants has developed who deal exclusively with Italian fine wine. The market for those wines already exists. This auction, however, will be the first time that I know of where a major auction house has been able to present such a breadth of quality and exceptional vintages.”

This brings us to the second group of wines which will be presented at this historic auction. “We were called to appraise a cellar in Turin,” explains Elswood, “and decided it might be interesting to go and have a look in light of the fact that we were already involved with the auction of fine Italian wines organized by BQ.” The representatives of Christie’s were amazed by what they discovered in the Italian cellar. “It was extraordinary,” recalls Elswood. “The cellar was owned by a gentleman who started collecting right after the war with the 1931 vintage and stopped in 1974. He clearly knew what he was doing as all the wines are of the highest quality and from very good vintages. There are lots of ’59s, ’61s and ’70s.”

Amongst the wines are six cases of 1964 Gaja Barbaresco and smaller lots of 1959s, 1961s and ’70s; Serafino Barolo 1949; a range of Borgogno Barolos from the vintages 1931 through 1967; Giacomo Conterno Barolo 1958 and his Barolo “Monfortino” 1961 (in cases); Pio Cesare Barolo 1959; and Contratto Barbaresco 1964 and Barolo 1958.

Angelo Gaja expressed surprise when told of the Christie’s find. “It is unusual to find wines of this kind in a cellar in Italy.” He didn’t, however, feel that there would be a surge of Piedmontese producers eager to buy back these glorious old gems. “Wines from these vintages will all be made in the traditional manner and may no longer reflect the ideas of the current winemakers. But they could prove very interesting to fine restaurants as well as private collectors.”


Wente Bros., a Livermore, Calif. winery fixture since 1883, has undergone a transformation that leaves the winery with the name “Wente Vineyards”, new packaging and a new president, Carolyn Wente. She had been executive vice president of sales and marketing and succeeds her brother, Eric, now chief executive officer and in charge of worldwide operations. Brother Phil Wente is executive vice president of the winery and president of Wente Land and Cattle Company. Jean Wente remains chairman of the board.

The packaging change involves a new label (Michael Osborne Group) and new bottles (flange-type, from Demptos Glass) with a wax closure on top of the cork.

In addition, the Vineyard Selection and Reserve wines have been merged into the category “Vineyard Reserves.” The second category is “Estate Grown.” Wente has 2,600 acres of vineyard, and is practicing organic and sustainable agriculture.

In addition to the Wente Vineyards wines, Carolyn Wente also is responsible for the marketing of Concannon, Murrieta’s Well, Ivan Tamas, Sergio Traverso Chilean wines and Ficklin port. She also manages the Wente Vineyards Restaurant and Visitors Center.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Hiaring Company

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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