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by gary walther | November 25, 2013 | Food & Drink
Robert Bohr and David Beckwith sample wines before an auction at Marea. Their firm, Grand Cru, advises the city's top collectors on the rare-wine market
You might say that David Beckwith and Robert Bohr were at a fork in the Route du Vin when they founded Grand Cru Wine Consulting in 2007. They’d been sommeliers, wine buyers, auction specialists, and cellar managers. Now, starting their own company, the question was whither, Burgundy or Bordeaux? “Burgundy is a fine and rare wine,” Beckwith tells me in his Flatiron loft office, explaining their thinking. “Bordeaux is fine, but not rare.”
And in this case, the road taken, to Burgundy, has made all the difference. Grand Cru Wine Consulting specializes in gratifying, managing, and sometimes dousing the Grand Cru Burgundy lust of a select group of clients—30 at present, most of them in New York.
Simply put, Grand Cru is the Jeeves of great Burgundy wine. Clients, the city’s top 10th percent of one percenters, pay Beckwith and Bohr to patrol the fine Burgundy world, looking for and acquiring noteworthy bottles from private cellars and at auction. That, in turn, has led Grand Cru into related consulting services. They review cellar blueprints to make sure that, say, someone who does a lot of entertaining has shelving to hold magnums and three-liter bottles, and they act as accountants, performing the tedious work of cellar inventory. They hold clients’ hands 24/7 and have accompanied clients on trips to Burgundy. Bohr even took one client’s son to Meursault to work the harvest.
Wines stored in a private cellar, managed by Grand Cru. Most clients have 3,000-plus bottle collections
In this city, the company is a category of one. While the four major wine auction houses, Acker Merrall & Condit, Zachys, Sotheby’s, and Christie’s, offer cellar building and management services to certain clients, they do it on a courtesy basis, as Sotheby’s head of wine auctions Jamie Ritchie puts it. “It’s not a business for us,” says John Kapon, CEO of Acker Merrall & Condit, echoing Ritchie. When I ask Jeff Zacharia, president of Zachys, if Grand Cru has taken the wine concierge game a big step farther with its concentration on fine Burgundy, he says, “Yes, that is correct.” (He also tells me, “David Beckwith is one of the most respected people I know in the fine wine world.”)
Last but certainly not least, Grand Cru caters its clients’ fine wine dinners—books the restaurant, pairs the wine and food, and arranges for the glassware, “a big challenge,” says Beckwith. (Each wine requires a different glass; 10 wines for 30 participants means 300 glasses.) For Grand Cru clients primarily buy to drink rather than to invest, and they enjoy Burgundy fellowship far more than Burgundy connoisseurship. “A lot of our guys look to create experiences with their cellars,” says Bohr. “They don’t have the time to master all the details. They just want to show up.”
One client calls them “the guys who ensure my fun quotient.” Grand Cru’s highest-end dinner to date was a 40-person affair in April 2012 at NoMad, which involved 10 legendary vintages of classic Burgundy, most of them large-format bottles, a fetish among some collectors, and its largest dinner had a guest list of more than 100. But it’s the 18-seat Brooklyn Fare that Beckwith books most right now for clients: “It’s head and shoulders above anything else in terms of a private room,” he says.
Wine columnist and oenophile Jay McInerney previews the auction catalog
It goes without saying that Grand Cru’s clients, the majority in finance and real estate, are rich. Most of them have 3,000-plus bottle cellars, says Beckwith, and a few have more than 10,000 bottles. These men—and they are all men—are interested in the apex of the Burgundy wine pyramid: properties such as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Armand Rousseau, and Marquis d’Angerville in reds, Coche-Dury and the Comte Georges de Vogüé in whites. Here demand far exceeds supply—“If a DRC bottle is in good condition and well priced, there’s always a buyer,” says Beckwith. At the Acker Merrall & Condit auction I attend with Beckwith and Bohr at Marea just after Labor Day, one bottle of 2008 Domaine de la Romanée Conti goes for $9,840 (and that’s not even a record price), and a bottle of 2002 Domaine Leflaive Montrachet for $4,674. Bohr wins six bottles of 2007 Corton Charlemagne for $13,530. Even the least expensive lots of Grand Cru Burgundy come in at $200 to $300 a bottle, and they are few and far between.
Burgundy is tailor-made for a company like Grand Cru. First of all, it’s scarce by comparison to other regions, notably Bordeaux. Château Lafite Rothschild makes around 20,000 cases in a good vintage, whereas Domaine de la Romanée Conti makes 450. Some Bordeaux estates produce more wine than entire Burgundy appellations, which is why Bordeaux is the mainstay of the wine auction market, making up 60–70 percent of Sotheby’s sales, for example. (Grand Cru also deals extensively in older Champagne and Barolo, and of course, it will get whatever wine a client wants.)
Second, Burgundy is a byzantine quilt of small producers and vineyards, whereas Bordeaux is much more straightforward, large estates grouped into five major appellations. “Bordeaux is an easy model to learn,” says Ritchie. “It’s brand plus vintage. With Burgundy there are four or more variables: grower (the most important), village, cru, vintage.” Grand Cru short-circuits what could be a long apprenticeship.
David Beck with perusing the reserve wine list at a downtown restaurant
Third, Burgundy is expensive, especially at the old and rare end. Grand Cru is a kind of insurance policy for collectors. Beckwith and Bohr are at auctions several times a month, so they know when to stop bidding—“it’s always about buying at the right price,” Beckwith says. “Clients pay us to know the market. It’s not just the wines that we buy, but the wines that we don’t buy.”
Just as important is the duo’s expertise in provenance or where bottles have come from (Grand Cru tends to eschew cellars from hot parts of the country) and how they’ve been stored, which in turn, determines how high they’ll bid—or whether they’ll even bid at all. Bohr kept bidding on that Acker lot of Corton Charlemagne because he knew that someone well respected in the wine community had bought the bottles on release. “The price was fair for that wine, but knowing that provenance makes it a nice buy,” says Beckwith.
Finally, they know Burgundy from the ground up. Beckwith visits several times a year and Bohr, who specialized in Burgundy when he worked at Zachys, goes over in January or February to taste wines that are about to be bottled. He returns in the fall to work the harvest at Domaine Roulot and des Comte Lafon in Meursault, Marquis d’Angerville in Volnay, and Domaine Dujac in Morey-Saint-Denis, all top producers. He’s built up a deep bank of knowledge—just ask him about slope exposure at Roumier—and connections, among them being godfather to two Burgundy producers’ children. Bohr’s memory for vintages is the foundation for assertions such as “2005 is arguably the best red Burgundy vintage in my lifetime,” and his annual visits clue him in when a derided year like 2010 suddenly takes a swan turn. “Burgundy is our competitive advantage,” he says.
Going, going, gone: Wines prepped for tasting at a recent Acker Merrall & Condit auction
Just after Labor Day, I meet Beckwith on the Upper East Side to watch him inventory a client’s cellar, part two, having spent four days in the client’s cellar in the Hamptons a few weeks earlier. “It’s an old maid’s room that’s been converted,” he says, leading me to a roughly 8x12-foot space with sturdy pressboard racking, more shop project than showpiece. But among the 1,500 bottles is a trove of Burgundies that go back to 1875. Some of them are bound for a 19th-century wine dinner the client has organized in a private room at Per Se. The client, who asked his name not be used, comes down and he, David, and John Slover, who is assisting today, make small talk about Clos des Mouches from the ’40s—“The 1947 was just totally there [meaning it had aged beautifully],” says the client, who can apparently tutoyer with some producers, referring to Christophe Roumier, of Domaine Georges Roumier, and Robert Drouhin, of Domaine Joseph Drouhin, maker of that Clos des Mouches, by their first names. Beckwith asks which wines will be going to the dinner “so we’ll be super gentle,” as he doesn’t want to stir up the considerable sediment such bottles can accumulate.
The client leaves and John Slover says as the work begins, “This is the super-riveting part.” Slover pulls out bottles with the delicacy of a technician handling nuclear fuel rods and recites the producer and vintage, which Beckwith checks off in CellarTracker, an inventory management software and international wine database. It’s slow going because many very old bottles are tough to identify. Some look like they’ve been through a fire, and labels are often blistered, rusted, torn, or badly stained. Beckwith turns Holmesian. When Slover gets to four bottles of 1949 Liger-Belair La Romanée, Beckwith drops his appraiser’s façade for a moment and says with a trace of wonder, “That may be about one-tenth of the world’s supply from pristine provenance.”
“The job sounds glamorous, but you spend a lot of days in places like this,” says Beckwith the following week. We’re at the Zachys warehouse in White Plains, which is beside the Metro-North Tracks and adjacent to the police auto pound, to vet wines coming up at Zachys’s September 19 New York auction. Beckwith is carrying a rugged twill doctor bag that contains the tools of the trade: box cutter, flashlight, and magnifying glass, among other things. The drill is always the same: scrutinize the label, feel the capsule to see if the cork is soft or sunken, look for seepage (“freaks me out,” he says), hold up the bottle and shine the flashlight through it from behind to assess color and sediment, sometimes even bringing the bottle right up to his eye and squinting into it. In particular, he looks for inconsistencies in lots of the same producer, which could indicate imperfect storage or that the bottles came from different sources.
Beckwith scrutinizes a Burgundy in a client's cellar, where some of the vintages go back to 1875
Seeing two Methuselahs (large-format bottles containing the equivalent of eight regular bottles, or six liters), he says, “That’s definitely something I know someone would want.” A La Tache 1963 is looked over rather than overlooked because “it’s a client’s birth year. It’s not a vintage I would normally consider.” A case of Musigny is dismissed in five seconds: “off vintage, color’s too light,” but the river-bottom clumps of sediment in a 1919 Comte Georges de Vogüé Grand Musigny bring out enthusiasm: “That’s totally what you want to see—blocks of sediment. It means it’s really old and has probably been lying in one place for years and years.” His eye for telling label minutiae comes to the fore on two bottles of 1934 DRC Richebourg, which have the words vieux cépages printed on them. It means it’s from a pre-phylloxera era field of vines, he tells me, and should draw double what an ordinary bottle of ’34 would, if it’s in great condition. “That’s really cool, really rare. When that comes up, we’ll bid on it.” The two bottles ultimately went for $105,000, but not to Grand Cru. “Common sense prevailed,” says Beckwith.
The September 7 Acker Merrall & Condit auction at Marea is the glamorous side of the job. Among others at our table is a new Grand Cru client, a novice collector, who wants to bid on 48 lots; Beckwith whittled it down to 12. (“I consider him my wine Yoda,” the client says, and indeed, he never raises his paddle without looking for a nod from Beckwith.) A waiter comes around with a 2003 Château Palmer and later a 2001 Cheval Blanc, and a few hours into the bidding, we order lunch. There’s no art-auction hush here: bidders converse volubly during the bidding and during stretches that don’t interest them, table-hop.
Beckwith seems to possess an inner auction gyroscope. “I try not to get emotional about the lots,” he says. “I have a price in mind for each lot ahead of time.” He only drops his cool twice. He gives a fist pump and tells Bohr, “I’m gonna buy it,” when six bottles of 1999 J. Truchot Charmes Chambertin come up (Chambertin is a rugged Burgundy produced the way wines were made before modern methods came into play.) He gets the lot for $4,305, the top of the range, and along the way garners a compliment from Acker Merrall & Condit CEO John Kapon, who refers to one of his bids as coming from “one of the most knowledgeable men in the room.” When a case of 1999 Armand Rousseau Clos St. Jacques goes for $7,995, 35 percent higher than he expected, he calls over to Bohr, “Did someone forget it’s premier [rather than grand] cru?”
Lot 208 begins a five-lot run of Chambertins in magnum from Armand Rousseau, one of the Burgundy producers Grand Cru’s clients covet most. Here Beckwith becomes a competitor, taking three of the five magnums in spirited bidding. (Four lots set new world records.) When it’s over, he turns to me with a smile and says, “Since the guys who got these all know each other, they’re probably going to have a dinner soon.”
by gary walther; by daniel krieger (nomad)