‘Holy Grail of Wine' fetches heavenly price at auction

Christie's auction house described the late Jay Stein's wine collection as "exceptional," and it turns out they were right.

Six bottles of his 1978 Romanée-Conti burgundy sold for $110,000 — or about $18,000 per bottle — Friday morning during a wine and spirits auction in New York. The price doesn't include the 25% buyer's premium added to the hammer price. The pre-auction estimate for the lot was $60,000 to $80,000.

The wine is among the most valuable in the world. A case of it sold at auction in Hong Kong in 2013 for $476,280, nearly $40,000 a bottle.

While the burgundy may not have set a world record, three other wines in Stein's collection did. Nine bottles of a "Rare Rousseau from the 1980 vintage" sold for $32,000 (the pre-auction estimate was $16,000 to $22,000). Two bottles of Romanée-Conti 1978 La Tache sold for $22,000 (the pre-auction estimate was $12,000 to $18,000). And six bottles of Romanée-Conti Richebourg 1976 sold for $11,000 (the pre-auction estimate was $5,000 to $6,000).

"My father would have been so proud and so honored," said Stein’s daughter Mauria, shortly after the sale. "He bought the right wines at the right price" in building his collection.

Stein, a Rehoboth Beach businessman who operated Stuart Kingston Gallery on the boardwalk, built the bones of his collection years ago when he purchased a wine collection from an estate in Potomac, Md., that he was handling.

He had a climate-controlled wine cellar built in his home, and when he purchased the collection, he also bought the racks they were stored in, his daughter said.

Over time, he added to the collection, buying both as an investment and to select wines that he and his family would enjoy.

Stein died in 2014 and left behind his legendary wine collection and the stories that went with it — from the cases that disappeared in shipping after he bought them in France, to the time his three children, hosting a dinner party, ran out of wine and selected a few more bottles from their dad's collection. Let's just say they had very good taste.

His wife and children knew the collection was valuable and that worried Stein's widow, Dian.

What would happen if the power went out or there was a problem with the cellar's climate-controlled system?

She fretted that the collection, which included dozens of other notable wines, could turn to vinegar.

"It was such a huge responsibility taking care of this wine," she said.

It was daughter Anita, a New York decorator, who made the connections that led to the sale of the wine on Friday. She had studied in France with Christie's North American wine expert Per Holmberg. She contacted her friend and Christie's wine experts came to Stein's home to assess the collection. They opened two bottles of the lesser wines to assess the quality and then came back with a packing crew and a refrigerated truck.

The family kept about 300 bottles from the collection for their own use but decided to sell the rest.

A few of the lots didn't sell Friday. Bidding came in under pre-auction estimates. Anita Stein said the auction house plans to reassess the value and will likely add those lots to a future auction.

"The collection is sold," Anita Stein said. And that, she said, makes her mother very happy.

As for the record prices, much of that was driven, she said, by strong interest from Asian buyers. "There were bidders from all over the world."

USA TODAY


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