Wine Diarist

The Madoff Wines

New York-based Morrell & Company is auctioning off the contents of Bernard Madoff’s wine cellar today. News of the Internet sale was first reported by Howard Goldberg on Decanter.com the week before last, and the story was quickly picked up elsewhere. Madoff was a world-class swindler but evidently not much of a wine drinker: his collection included a case of 1996 Mouton Rothschild, a half-dozen bottles of 1997 Tignanello, two bottles of a 2000 Bruno Giacosa Barolo, a bottle of 1975 Petrus, and a smattering of other wines, as well as various spirits (including some hotel mini-bar bottles, which are also being offered). Morrell says it expects the Madoff consignment to bring in only around $15,000.

The Madoff scandal touched a major figure in the wine world: Eric LeVine, the founder of CellarTracker, was one of Madoff’s victims. I emailed Eric last week to ask his thoughts about the auction. He said he couldn’t comment because he and his wife are among the Madoff investors now being sued by trustee Irving Picard as part of his controversial effort to reclaim funds that were withdrawn before the Ponzi scheme collapsed. But while Eric couldn’t comment, I can: I think it was tacky of Morrell to trumpet the fact that the wines came from Madoff. And they did trumpet it: in the press release, the company acknowledged that the consignment included items that it normally wouldn’t accept but that it had decided to sell because of the Madoff connection.  It described the Madoff bottles as “artifacts of history” and said that some of them are “better viewed as conversation pieces rather than valued for their contents, but conversation pieces they are.” I’m surprised they didn’t end that sentence with an exclamation mark.

Morrell says the proceeds will go to the “general recovery effort.” Fair enough, though $15,000 probably amounts to one day’s lunch money for the lawyers (and, yes, Morrell is collecting an 18 percent buyer’s premium). I asked Kimberly Janis of Morrell if they’d given any thought to turning down the Madoff cellar or to selling off the wines quietly. She laughed at my question. “We’re getting tons of press from this,” she said. There you have it. I recognize that some people get a thrill from owning items that carry the stain of infamy, and I don’t want to go all high dudgeon here. But Madoff ruined a lot of lives, one of his sons committed suicide five months ago—it is an awful tale all around, and I think using Madoff’s notoriety to try to squeeze a few extra dollars out of an auction is pretty shabby. Morrell could just as easily have sold the collectible wines with no name attached, and that’s what they should have done.