Christie's, Sotheby's, Doyle's--these are magical names in the storied history of auctioning artwork, furnishings and the collections of the rich and famous. In recent years, the art of the wine auction has shone beneath its own rarefied, brilliant spotlight. Add Zachy's, Morell and Hart-Davis to the list of prominent auctioneers who feature premium, often historic, wines in luxury surroundings. Just as live auctions have their "silent bidders" hovering on the telephone line, so e-mail bids can also crop up and help to maintain the anonymity of the bidder by the use of a generic address.
Since 2000, another player has emerged in the fine wine auction world. Strictly Internet auctions are on the rise, and while many reputable sites (for example, winebid.com and winecommune.com) can get you coming or going with buyer's or seller's fees, this auctioneer charges zero, in and out, for his service of connecting fellow wine lovers. He's Doug Parsons, and his baby is cellarexchange.com. An advertising sales executive for the Curtis Media Group and its offspring, WPTF radio, he's been a wine enthusiast for 35 years, and is a charter member of the Raleigh chapter of the International Commanderie de Bordeaux. His software brainchild allows buyers and sellers of rare and not-so-rare wines to meet. With a psychology degree from N.C. State, he feels he possesses the requisite training and good sense to head off unscrupulous, get-rich-quick entrants without the actual goods in hand. (His record so far, although not perfect, has been on the money 99 percent of the time.) As recent news stories have emerged about counterfeit wines auctioned at the poshest locations, the dictum of "buyer beware"--or at least be careful--still vehemently applies.
We had an extended lunch recently--extended even further as we discovered how very much we had in common. Wine enthusiasts, like musicians and painters, often share a secret bond that flourishes upon contact. The more we spoke, the more we realized we trod a similar avenue toward our never-ending passion for wine as beverage and as social history. As Woody Allen once said, "I think I'm gonna be the balding virile type, you know, as opposed to, say, the distinguished gray." Doug fits this description with a low-key, amiable facade that belies the passion and intensity of an obsessive collector just under the surface. (He built his own wine cellar from scratch, and meticulously built up and traded around to keep his small collection closest to what he enjoys consuming.)
The Holly Springs resident owns no auction inventory, being merely a matchmaker, if you will, between parties; simply a conduit to facilitate this remarkable enterprise. Doug had hoped to pick up advertisers along the way but, so far, this has been fairly fruitless. Still, he adheres to the nonprofit principle and views this as a hobby of love, and one that surely deserves to be better known. I can understand the kick he gets as he "brokers" fantastic gems of the vineyard between excited, knowledgeable clients. What fun to watch a great example of liquid art being bid upon until the last minute of play! Vicariously I'm sure it's thrilling and feeds his energy for all he achieves. He's not doing badly. Over 2,200 buyers and sellers are registered in his database. This past July, he had 142,000 hits on his site. Doug's format is similar to that of eBay. If you're outbid on a lot before the auction is over, you are notified by e-mail so you can enter a higher bid if you wish. Naturally, shipping costs vary wildly. It's far cheaper to ship from Idaho to Colorado than from Virginia to Sweden, but all the costs involved are included as part of the process.
One of the things I find especially fascinating on his site is the "Swap Shop" capability. Let's say you have six bottles of a grand California cabernet that you've somehow tired of drinking. You can post your bounty and express a desire to trade for a similarly valued Burgundy, Super Tuscan or yet another major league cab. What fun! No cash: the barter system that built America.
The range of wines is formidable. Some "trophy" wines on his site include:
At the other end of the spectrum:
And, as they say, "so much more!" Everyone loves a bargain, and one person's bargain may be another's "not on your life." As Doug puts it, "Bargains are in the eye of the beholder." I've not purchased anything as of yet, so I can't speak to being a satisfied customer. But the temptations are great and it's only a matter of time before I become the beneficiary of Doug Parsons' gift to the world of wine exchange.
A slice of wine heaven
He was a Silicon Valley engineer. She was associate director at Ronald McDonald House at Stanford. The kids were grown and gone, yet here they were still working 60 to 70 hours a week. "What the hell are we doing?" wrote Judy on a refrigerator Post-it. Within a month, they had moved to 18 acres in Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County. This was 10 years ago.
I met Judy Edmonds and E.J. Neil when they hosted me during the 2003 "Exploration of Dry Creek" sponsored by the local vintners' association. Thus I heard firsthand the enthusiastic story of how they chucked it all and planned a vineyard onsite even before a home. With classes at Santa Rosa Junior College, an apprenticeship for E.J. at nearby Clos Du Bois Winery, and lots of reading, they cleared and planted a six-acre vineyard.
Introduced to the syrah grape by their neighbors at the Unti Family Vineyard, plans progressed in earnest. At first, they sold their production to other wineries who sensed that the fruit from this spot at the southern tip of the valley was indeed promising. The generosity of spirit from all the small, surrounding growers (among the most intimate and friendly I've found anywhere in California) eased their long-standing competitive nature and moved them to use their energies toward many volunteer organizations weaving throughout this new vinous project of adventure. Imagine the dream of owning your own place in wine country and finding out in the process that, in the end, great grapes can be produced on your retirement property. Some dream--and not always just for millionaires!
In recent years, they have teamed up with another couple who had wanderlust and a passion for wine, and who, with some E.J. and Judy encouragement, left Virginia to follow their own California dream. Susan and John Vowell live in that "other" wine county--Napa--but, according to Judy, they are "hoping to come over from the dark side one of these years." Vowell began producing wines in Napa a few years back, at times using grapes from Palindrome (E.J.'s property) to produce a unique wine. I remember tasting the delicious 2002 version on the terrace at Palindrome, but this bottling was never "published." John and E.J. continued working together making wine under Vowell's Rocinante label, and this year, for the first time, the 2004 vintage has been commercially marketed. It's a beauty that can be only be purchased from their Web site. With a total of 277 cases, that's understandable! I'm unsure about how much is left as this goes to press.
Rocinante, named for Don Quixote's uncomplaining steed, is a wine journey that has had its own curves, intrigues and travails similar to Don Quixote's quest. (The name Rocinante is also a tribute to John Steinbeck's camper truck of the same name, which he, along with his pet poodle, used to traverse the United States gathering American stories ultimately published as Travels with Charley.) This first "public" winery test is a loving success and the stuff dreams are made of.
E.J. and Judy are the best people; so open, friendly, curious and hard-working. Their "open house" attitude has garnered dozens of new fast friends and a special niche of their own among the farmers of Dry Creek.
2004 Syrah, Rocinante, Palindrome Vineyards $35
Dark, in a deep woods generous, briery and chocolatey sense. Lovely depth with pepper all about. Sumptuous, rock solid flavors. Generous, mouth filling and balanced, with long lingering fruitful finish. Not subtle but totally satisfying. 90
Visit them at www.rocinantewines.com.
Tired of birds
Isn't it just getting to be too much of this aviary-on-a-wine-label bit? Soon we'll run out of cute birds and their power selling points. A reaction with "Buzzard Blush" or "Condor Cab" may soon be in the offing. Germany has one called Spatzendreck, which literally means "sparrow droppings." A stretch. Personally, I think labels should go to the dogs. Americans love 'em, and the breed should match the wine's character as much as feasible. Such as:
Bull Mastiff Syrah
Jack Russell Terroirier Brut
Whippet Good Riesling
Or maybe not.
Arturo's column appears the second Wednesday of each month. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.