The celebrated cellar of the late Lloyd Flatt, who died in January 2008 at age 71, will be sold in New York at Aulden Cellars-Sotheby's on March 20. Flatt was one of America's trailblazing wine collectors and a renowned aerospace consultant. He was also a great friend and mentor whom I first met more than 30 years ago at a wine tasting in Fort Worth, Texas.
Flatt began collecting fine wine in the late 1960s, a time when there were no professional reference guides such as Wine Spectator or Michael Broadbent's Great Vintage Wine Book to consult. "Back then," he told me, "we had nothing to go by other than our own palates. The only way to learn about wine was empirically." Flatt accumulated wines systematically, focusing on classified Bordeaux with an emphasis on first-growths and Pétrus, premium Burgundies, Champagne, Vintage Port and Cognac.
"Provenance is paramount to any acquisition," he would insist. Nineteenth-century bottlings and 20th-century classics figured prominently on his shopping list. There were rare jeroboams, such as a Mouton-Rothschild 1929 that I remember he bought at a Sotheby's U.K. auction after a chauffeur drove him straight to the salesroom from Heathrow airport in a Rolls Royce. I was in attendance, and I remember my surprise when he suggested we have lunch. We celebrated his purchase with Chablis and Welsh rarebit at a chain restaurant.
Flatt ultimately amassed a 15,000-bottle collection which occupied an entire temperature- and humidity-controlled house in New Orleans' French quarter. The first time I was given a chance to select a wine from his cellar for dinner, I chose a Château Cheval-Blanc 1949. "You can do better than that,” he said, grabbing a Château Mouton-Rothschild 1929 and a decanter. "This is a working cellar, not a showcase; I collect in order to drink my finds and to share them."
Throughout the 1980s, Flatt hosted numerous wine extravaganzas, accompanied by gala black-tie dinners. He had a legendary sense of humor and an iconoclastic bent. I’ll never forget him, double magnum of Lafite 1953 in hand, leading the “second line” of a jazz band he hired for a 115-vintage examination of Château Lafite. He also held vast vertical forays into Châteaus Pétrus, Mouton-Rothschild, Ausone and Cheval-Blanc.
Flatt was forced to reconstruct his collection in 1990 when the bulk of his cellar was auctioned off as a result of a divorce. In the second go-round, he placed a greater emphasis on white Burgundy and Champagne. The upcoming Sotheby's consignment consists of roughly 1,500 bottles that are expected to realize in excess of $600,000. Highlights include a jeroboam of Château Lafite Rothschild 1959 estimated at $20,000 to $30,000, two 6-liter bottles of Louis Roederer Cristal Millennium 1990 at $10,000 to $15,000 each, and a bottle of Bouchard Père et Fils Montrachet 1864 at $4,000 to $5,500. There’s also a case of Château Haut-Brion Blanc 1989 estimated at $10,000 to $15,000.
"Sad as I am to part with these bottles, it's the best way Lloyd's joy of wine can be directly imparted to others," said Lauré Flatt, his widow. I suspect Flatt would find it fitting as well, based on my understanding of his approach to collecting. When I embarked on a collection of my own, he gave counsel: "You must mentally expense the cost of your bottles at the moment of purchase. That way, if someone asks 'What's it worth?' you can honestly say 'Nothing.' Unlike an art collection, which is permanent, wine ultimately must be consumed," he added. "You shouldn’t even contemplate a cellar if you cannot accept that fact."