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Rare Lafite and Napa wines sold from Joseph Phelps private cellar

A bottle of Lafite from 1865 and a series of rare gems from 1970s California have fetched high prices in an auction of wines owned by the late Napa Valley pioneer Joseph Phelps.

Bidders competed strongly for rare wines from the private cellar of Joseph Phelps, spanning seminal vintages of the 20th century and beyond, according to auction host Hart Davis Hart (HDH).

It said 501 lots from the ‘personal estate of Joseph Phelps’ fetched $2.2m (£1.64m) in total, versus a pre-sale high estimate of $1.374m.

An auction list showed how Phelps, who died in 2015, had collected great wines from around the world for his private cellar, alongside his pioneering role in elevating the winemaking and reputation of Napa Valley.

One bottle of Lafite 1865 fetched $31,070, including the 19.5% buyer’s premium, against a pre-sale high estimate of $17,000, said HDH.

The vintage came three years before Baron James de Rothschild purchased the First Growth estate, in 1868.

Records published by HDH showed Phelps bought the wine from a Christie’s auction in March 1981. It had been recorked at Lafite in 1953 and was subsequently recorked again in San Francisco in 1986, at a clinic held by a team from the Pauillac Château.

A 12-bottle case of Lafite Rothschild 1948 also fetched $31,070 at the HDH auction, more than tripling its pre-sale high estimate.

Yet the most expensive lot proved to be 11 bottles of Château Latour 1959, considered an exceptional vintage of its era, which sold for $77,675 (high estimate: $45,000). From Bordeaux’s highly rated class of 1961, a single bottle of La Mission Haut-Brion sold for $6,537, double its high estimate.

There was notably strong demand from bidders for California wines in the Phelps collection.

Two bottles of Ridge Vineyards’ Cabernet Sauvignon Eisele Vineyard 1971 fetched $20,315, having been given a high estimate of $6,000 before the sale.

Among other highlights, six bottles of Heitz Cellar ‘Martha’s Vineyard’ Cabernet Sauvignon 1974 sold for $23,900, more than doubling its pre-sale high estimate. This vintage was previously named a Decanter Wine Legend.

Phelps is perhaps best-known for his creation of ‘Insignia’, first produced in the 1974 vintage. A ‘full’ 12-bottle case of Insignia 1978 fetched $15,535 (pre-sale high estimate: $4,500), said HDH.

The sale also included 10 bottles of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ SLV Cabernet Sauvignon 1973; the wine that won the fabled Judgement of Paris in 1976. The lot fetched $14,340, just ahead of its pre-sale estimate.

Mature Burgundy featured strongly among the other lots from Phelps’ collection. Six bottles of Armand Rousseau, Clos St-Jacques, Gevrey-Chambertin 1969 sold for $16,730. The pre-sale high estimate was $3,800, HDH said.

Looking back over 2020, HDH was upbeat about the performance of its wine auctions in a challenging year. It said it had consistently achieved strong prices. Sales from nine ‘finest and rarest’ auctions this year reached a total $59.1m, the house said.

Other auction houses have also noted relatively strong results in 2020.

HDH CEO Paul Hart said, ‘2020 has been a year unlike any other and we are incredibly grateful to our bidders and consignors who have continued to support HDH.’

Auction sales figures for specific lots include the HDH buyer’s premium (19.5%)

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