The famous New York restaurant was packed and had been since mid-morning. At a party being thrown by one of the world’s preeminent auction houses, the guests included some of the biggest names in the world of wine collecting, as well as a celebrity or three. They were there for the sale of a well-known private collector’s cellar.
David Parker was there, too. One of the world’s rarest wines was going to be auctioned — the Diamond Creek Lake Cabernet Sauvignon 1978 — and he wanted it for a friend. It would have been surprising if Parker hadn’t been there. If someone, somewhere, is looking for a hard-to-find wine, Parker, owner and CEO of Benchmark Wine Group, will probably get it for them. Benchmark finds and sells wines that are among the rarest of the rare, like a 1990 DRC Romanée Conti ($27,999), a 2010 Cheval Blanc ($1,350), and a 100-point 1989 Haut Brion ($2,849).
For two decades, his Benchmark Wine Group has compiled a wine list so impressive that some of his competitors can only wonder. “I’ll see what they’ve sold sometimes,” says one, “and I can only shake my head. How do they find those wines?”
Almost by accident
Benchmark Wine Group, started in 2002, could be the largest rare wine retailer in the world, though it’s hardly a retailer in the traditional sense. It buys privately-owned wines and then resells them to customers that include wine shops, restaurants, and collectors around the world. Most recently, it ventured into importing and wholesaling with a subsidiary, Benchmark Importing and Distribution, which will allow it to expand its retail offerings.
All told, Benchmark has about 12,000 different wines in stock at any given time, with some 6,000 more available pre-arrival. These include current vintages, collectibles that are between 12 to 15 years old, and many that are more than 40 years old — everything from the D.R.C., Cheval Blanc, and Haut Brion to high-end collectibles like a 1987 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon ($349), a 2004 Antinori Solaia ($424), and a 3-liter bottle of Armand De Brignac Brut Ace of Spades Gold Champagne ($1,258). In 2014, Parker acquired Brentwood Auctions, which added, among other things, collectible spirits to its inventory.
Parker may be the world’s preeminent wine hunter, which is impressive, particularly given that Parker started his professional life as an engineer in Silicon Valley.
“I always tell people I went from integrated circuits and writing lines of code to wine,” says Parker, “and that was something much different.”
The attraction, says Parker, lay in wine’s nuts and bolts: the yeasts used to ferment the grape juice, the various soil types used to grow the grapes, even the rootstocks used to plant the vines.
“David is incredibly smart,” says Gino Colangelo, who owns the eponymous wine marketing company that represents Benchmark. “But he’s not only smart — he’s super rational. He doesn’t let emotions get in the way of what he’s doing. And that’s the advantage he has over other people in the business.”
Seeking the rarest of the rare
Parker’s starting point was the subscriber-only Wine Market Journal, which Benchmark acquired in 2002. At the time, the magazine collected rare wine prices; today, with expanded coverage and upgraded technology, it tracks rare wines sold at auction, over the internet, and through 30 wine companies. All told, Wine Market Journal’s database lists more than 600,000 different wines and some 4.5 million distinct transactions dating to 1985. This provides the pricing data that underpins all that happens at Benchmark.
Among its listings: A 1727 Bremer Ratskeller Rüdesheimer Apostelwein, a German white that is reputed to be the oldest drinkable wine in the world — some $15,000 worth of history, by one estimate. Before the wine could be sold to a Washington state collector, Benchmark first had to get the permission of the town council of the German city of Bremer, which controls the wine’s sales. The council must approve every sale, and won’t give its OK for just anyone, says Parker. Fortunately, the collector tracked his ancestry and found he had descended from German nobility. That satisfied the town council, and the sale was approved. Says Parker with a smile, “It’s apparently a lot easier if you’re a German count than just a Washington wine collector.”
Benchmark also has an agreement with CellarTracker, the wine inventory app, that allows it to search the app’s listings and contact collectors whose inventories are marked public. Recently, that turned up 31 bottles of the 1978 Diamond Creek Lake Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, the wine being sold at the New York auction, valued at $2,500 a bottle.
But finding a wine doesn’t mean the owner will sell it. A dozen bottles of the 1978 Diamond Creek were in public inventories; another eight had been drunk. Unfortunately, none of the 12 owners wanted to sell their wine, even though Parker says, “We offered many thousands of dollars per bottle. But they wouldn’t sell at any price.”
In situations like this, the next step in a Benchmark search is to work through the company’s extensive collector and retailer lists, which contain upward of 40,000 names. That turned up two bottles of the Diamond Lake, but, again, no one would sell at any price.
That’s the kind of persistence that impressed Niccolò Maltinti, the U.S. commercial director and brand ambassador for Italy’s Marchesi Antinori. The high-end winery wanted to find a retailer that handled luxury and collectible wines in the U.S., and Maltinti says Benchmark’s name kept coming up. Since then, the companies have worked together for more than five years.
“David is always looking for opportunities, always pushing to do more,” says Maltinti. “He’s not afraid of opening a new door, and he’s not even afraid if there is a chance that opening a new door will lead to a failure.”
But, finally, the search led to the auction, where two bottles of the Diamond Lake Cabernet were being auctioned.
Parker didn’t get either of them.
“The person bidding against me had no price limit,” says Parker, who found out later that the bidder — who may have been a tech millionaire — bought all 280 lots in the auction and that it was understood that the price was not going to be an object for any of the wines.
“So yes, the wines are proving to be elusive,” says Parker. “But that’s not surprising, given how few there are in the world. I’ll just have to keep looking. And hopefully, when I do buy them for my friend, he’ll let me have a glass with him.”