Wine Auction Garners Bouquets

When wine collectors get together they tend to say things like, "The level on this is perfect--2 inches!"

Indeed, a whole roomful of them gathered Saturday night at the Four Seasons Hotel, uttering phrases only they can make sense of.

The occasion was the first International Rare Wine Auction benefiting the American Institute of Wine and Food, a nonprofit group dedicated to stimulating research into areas such as health, ecology, food labeling and food supplies, as well as promoting scholarly interest in gastronomy.

As Julia Child, who co-founded the group, put it: "If art and theater and dance are fine arts, gastronomy should be, too, because it's more important than any of them. None of them could survive without gastronomy, could they?'

Because many collectors contend that Los Angeles has become a major wine-collecting capital, the institute plans to conduct its auction annually here.

"Some of the great wine collectors live in Los Angeles," said Richard Graff, chairman of the event and chairman of Chalone Inc.

John Strobel, the co-owner of the three Angeli restaurants and whose wife, Carla, coordinated the night, observed: "I have a 150-case collection myself and that's small compared to other people in this town."

What's happened in Los Angeles?

"Money," explained screenwriter James Orr ("Three Men and a Baby"). "For years, people thought San Francisco was the West Coast center for wine, but when there's disposable income, people start to wonder how to enhance their lives, and wine enhances your life. I don't do sports. I don't collect art. I make movies and collect wine, and that's about it."

Other wine enthusiasts in the crowd included AIWF honorary co-chairman Robert Mondavi; Steve Wallace, owner of Wally's liquor stores; vintners Molly Chappellet and Robert M. Sinskey, there with Loraine Sloan; Citrus' Marvin and July Zeidler; producer Tom and Patti Skouros; and Dorothy Cann, president of the French Culinary Institute in New York.

As for the auction, several hundred bottles, magnums, double-magnums, jeroboams, salmanazars and nebuchadnezzars (the largest bottle size, which serves 80 people two glasses apiece) were on the block, including several hand-painted by artists such as Chuck Arnoldi, Joe Goode and Ed Moses.

For those who didn't know any better, auctioneer Dennis Foley of Butterfield & Butterfield provided pertinent information such as, "This port is drinking absolutely beautifully now."

But it was "Dinner with Julia"--a meal for six, prepared by Child, with wines provided by Graff--that brought the night's highest bid of $5,500, a write-in by Roy Smith of Juno, Alaska.

Marvin Shanken--editor and publisher of the Wine Spectator, sponsor of the event and AIWF honorary chairman--offered the second highest successful bid: $4,100 for a case of Chateau Petrus, 1975.

Terry Ford, who arrived from Ripley, Tenn., for the event, not only donated a $1,000 nebuchadnezzar of Schramsberg Napa Valley Brut, 1986 ("You'd have to chill it in a bathtub!" giggled Child), he also bought it back for $1,500. Why? "I went to so much trouble getting it made, I'd like to keep it," he said.

After the auction, Ford and the other guests continued their discussions about wines, including their levels, which refers to how much wine has evaporated through the cork from a bottle over time; a good level means not too much wine has evaporated.

The guests also grazed on food prepared by a dozen of Los Angeles's finest restaurants, including silver-dollar-sized lamb sandwiches from Palette; tuna pastrami from Trump's, and shrimp chipotle from Rebecca's.

"Interesting!" declared Child as she bit into a brownie.

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