Fritz Hatton is the nation’s most experienced wine auctioneer. He and his wife Caren own the Napa Valley winery Arietta, one of the region’s top producers of Bordeaux-style wines. A native of Michigan, Hatton is a summa cum laude graduate of Yale with a degree in English Literature, and an M.B.A. from the Yale School of Organization and Management. He began his career in Christie’s Wine Department in 1980 where he remained off-and-on for more than 20 years, moving from management to Principal Wine Auctioneer. During several breaks from Christie’s during the 1990s, Hatton briefly returned to his classical music studies (which he had begun at age 7). Hatton joined Zachys Wine Auctions in 2002, where he continues to conduct all commercial wine auctions, in addition to hundreds of charitable auctions nationwide, and of course, overseeing Arietta winery.
To learn more about Fritz read the written interview below:
Karen MacNeil: You worked for Christie’s in both North America and Asia. What struck you as the biggest difference between wine collectors in those markets?
Fritz Hatton: At the risk of overgeneralization, I would say that twenty years ago Asian wine collectors hewed closely to a handful of the best known brands—mostly French—and were willing to pay top dollar for pristine examples. More recently, brand consciousness and the status it conveys is still of utmost importance, as is sensitivity to condition, and Eurocentricity of taste. But the explosion in the number of younger collectors and their level of sophistication and knowledge is extraordinary. In Asia there seems to be less hesitation to open and share the greatest bottles than elsewhere. Showing off perhaps, but wine needs to be opened to perform its magic.
KM: What was it like to witness the stratospheric amounts of money spent at wine auctions starting in the 1980s?
FH: In the 1980s, the great wines were much more accessible in terms of prices, which did not seem stratospheric as they do today. Expensive yes, but I could have stretched to pay $1200 for a case of Château Latour 1959 then, while I cannot pay $50,000 today. [Back in the 80s] an ancient bottle of Château Lafite Rothschild made headlines when it was sold at auction for $5,000. You need $500,000 or $1 million to make headlines today. The boom in prices really began in the mid 1990s when [several things happened:] the auction market opened in New York, Robert Parker acquired a huge following, and information on wine prices and availability became much more fluid. Nowadays, the prices of the “great wines” may seem stratospheric, but they are proportionate to the massive accumulation of wealth and the growth of the billionaire class in the last few decades.
KM: During your years conducting commercial auctions, you must have encountered Rudy Kurniawan, the only convicted wine counterfeiter in the U.S. What was your impression of him?
FH: I never got to know Rudy or tasted with him. My impression of him was of a seemingly cool rich “kid” who would wander into an auction late, sit at the back with a group of younger collectors and sommeliers, bid occasionally but determinedly on very fine Burgundy and other French wines, and walk out before the end.
KM: You conducted your first Napa Valley Wine Auction in 1992 and have hundreds under your belt since then. Do you have a favorite charitable auction?
FH: My favorite is Premiere Napa Valley, for its energy, speed, and tight organization.
“[Back in the 80s] an ancient bottle of Château Lafite Rothschild made headlines when it was sold at auction for $5,000. You need $500,000 or $1 million to make headlines today.”
KM: What’s the best and worst thing about the wine business?
FH: The best thing is the people you meet. In memory, the wines are more likely to fade before the friendships do. The worst thing is the regulation. What in god’s name were people thinking when they legislated Prohibition, and did a deal with the devil to get it repealed?
KM: You live and work in the Napa Valley. What other wine region inspires you the most and why?
FH: It’s been a while, but I would say Tuscany. You want lots of people at table al fresco, and wine poured on your food and running through your veins while you roll in the red dust. Wine is so naturally and unpretentiously ingrained in the people, the lifestyle, the food, the art and architecture. After that, why would one go back to France?
KM: What’s the best advice you ever got?
FH: You will have more fun with music as an amateur than as a professional.
KM: You have two daughters, now teenagers. How have you taught them about wine?
FH: The real question is, have we taught them about wine? I was offered wine–initially mixed with water– growing up but my interest did not blossom until I was in college. Caren and I have invited the girls to smell and taste wine from an early age, but needless to say have not pushed it on them! Our oldest now in college has wide ranging culinary tastes and enjoys a wide variety of wines. Our younger daughter finally allowed us to put anchovies in her Caesar salad dressing and only likes the taste of Champagne so far.
KM: What person, living or dead, would you most love to drink wine with?
FH: Beethoven. He loved red wine, and if I could have guided him to higher quality he might have lived longer.
KM: What is your favorite drink besides wine?
FH: A Sidecar. (This changes periodically).
KM: If your house were on fire, what would you save?
FH: Family, dogs, cats, the parrot, family photos not digitized, the chickens (suggested order). A friend said he went for the Yquem first during the Oakland fire, but I would leave the wine which is replaceable—except the last bottles of the first vintage of Arietta.