Late wine connoisseur's New Orleans collection goes on the block

New Orleans Times-Picayune
March 13, 2010

Dressed in a tailored Bijan suit, Lloyd Flatt clutched a magnum of 1924 Ausone as he led the Storyville Stompers through the French Quarter. It was 1987 and Flatt, along with a bevy of wealthy wine collectors, was taking a lunch break from a long morning of tasting.

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In two days, they would taste 60 bottles from Bordeaux's Chateau Ausone. They pulled the corks on wines stretching back to 1877. When they were done, rare wine worth thousands of dollars was reduced to a less valuable collection of empty antique bottles.

Flatt grew up on a Tennessee farm. He earned his fortune designing airplanes and missiles. But he was best known as one of America's first serious wine collectors.

"He was larger than life. He was focused. He was meticulous about everything he did," said Flatt's friend Peter D. Meltzer, author of "Keys to the Cellar." "He never minded poking fun at his humble origins or the pretentiousness of others."

Flatt lived on Burgundy Street. His wine collection, which grew to more than 30,000 bottles, had its own home on Ursulines Street. There the temperature never varied from 55 degrees and the lights and table linens were chosen to flatter the wine. Throughout the 1980s, Flatt hosted legendary vertical tastings of the greatest French wines, sometimes sampling more than 100 vintages from chateaux such as Petrus, Lafitte and Cheval Blanc.

"With his eye patch, cowboy boots, loud drawl and John Wayne swagger, he towered over all us pasty-faced wine geeks, physically and psychologically," said Frank J. Prial, who covered many of Flatt's tastings for The New York Times. "The fact that he had a separate house just for his wine was really over the top."

The tastings were formal. A dozen or so men gathered around a table. Each received a leather-bound notebook to record his thoughts. A group of volunteers, usually local wine professionals, filled the crystal glasses custom made by Tiffany and Co. Someone would talk briefly about world events the year each wine was made. And then everyone would drink and offer an opinion.

David Gladden, now CEO of Martin Wine Cellar and Wines Unlimited, worked several of the tastings on Ursulines Street.

"Lloyd had a separate service placement for each of the pourers. He set us up a table with the others," Gladden said. "I majored in history at Tulane. To be drinking something from 1911 or 1921 was unbelievable."

In the late 1960s, when Flatt took an interest in wine, there were few resources to guide him.

"He began collecting at a time when there was no Wine Spectator, no Robert Parker and Michael Broadbent, the head of Christie's (wine department) had yet to write his famed 'Great Vintage Wine Book,'" Meltzer said. "It was very much learning by doing."

Today, many people buy wine as an investment. But Flatt paid no attention to the value of his collection.

"There were a few collectors in the early stages, and I think Lloyd Flatt was among them, who never thought of reselling," said Serena Sutcliffe, head of Sotheby's international wine department. "They thought entirely in terms of drinking the wine with family and friends or of having great tastings."

At the end of the 1980s, Flatt eventually had to sell his collection after divorcing his third wife, Vicki. He remarried and moved to Washington. He also built another wine collection. Although he talked about one final epic tasting of Burgundies, he died in 2008 before that could happen.

On March 20, Sotheby's will auction off his wine in New York. They estimate it will bring $600,000.

Some of Flatt's beloved bottles will disappear into private collections, never to be tasted. Some will be purchased by friends. And others will be bought by those who only knew Flatt by his reputation and missed the chance to share a glass with the man.

Retrieved from Lexis-Nexis on June 25, 2010.