Only a scrap of a label still clung to the dusty wine bottle. But William Irvin glanced up from his catalog and immediately recognized that it was a buried treasure.
The Reisterstown resident couldn't believe his luck when he outbid a hotel ballroom full of wine collectors yesterday for the 1911 Chateau Margaux.
For a mere $350, the 24-year-old added "a piece of history" to his small but growing collection -- one of the rare wines unearthed from a forgotten vault under a parking lot in the city's Mount Vernon area.
The bottle once belonged to the late Edwin Baetjer, a prominent Baltimore lawyer and bon vivant who kept his wine collection well hidden.
Contractors were preparing to repave a parking lot behind the old Baetjer home in February when they found a rusty trapdoor, pried it open and stumbled upon a wine cellar filled with vintage ports, Burgundys and Bordeaux. Many of the bottles had broken as the shelves rotted away after Mr. Baetjer's death in 1945, but about 200 were intact.
Broventure Co. Inc., the real estate development firm that owns the Baetjer home, donated two prized Margaux, a Chateau Lafite, and a case of Burgundys to yesterday's auction to benefit the American Heart Association.
"It's amazing," crowed Mr. Irvin, who started drinking wine in college and now works in a wine store. "I know I own a piece of history."
The dusty bottles from the forgotten cellar were the stars of the show, even though they only fetched about $350 each because collectors feared they might no longer be drinkable. The case sold for $400, less than half the price of a 1988 bottle of Chateau Mouton Rothschild.
A handful of weekend getaway packages, complete with hotel accommodations and dinners accompanied by fine wines, sold for several thousand dollars. An elaborate, multi-course dinner for 12, accompanied by fine wines, went for $1,300 to Lynn Durbin and John F. Mergen of Ruxton.
The charity raised some $100,000 yesterday to benefit its Maryland programs, surpassing last year's $96,000 despite weak bidding.
Organizers of the wine tasting and auction, now in its fifth year, fTC blamed the recession for lower-than-average bids. More than 500 connoisseurs, some from as far away as Pennsylvania, nibbled hors d'oeuvres and sipped champagne under the chandeliers at the Omni Inner Harbor Hotel. But many came for the lesser-known wines and left after the "silent auction."
Several thousand bottles of wine, all donated by private collectors and merchants in Maryland, were displayed on linen-covered tables. Crowds thronged about each table, carefully watching each other as they wrote down "silent" offers.
From behind his catalog, Jerry Wollman kept a close eye on the competitors at a table with three Californian wines he coveted. The 30-year-old nurse from Bethesda waited until the end, then scanned the offers and made a higher bid to get his bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon.
Nearby, Cindy K. Ireland, a Severna Park resident and state restaurant manager for Reliable Liquors Inc., was sipping a complimentary glass of white wine and studying the Italian collection. She placed a bid but lost in the last-minute crush.
"It always gets really competitive in the last couple of seconds," she said.
Wine merchants sat side by side with amateur collectors earlier in the day to sample a dozen 1990 Bordeaux. Robert M. Parker Jr., a nationally recognized wine expert and critic from Parkton, led the tasting.
All the flowing champagne, the fine brie and the fierce bidding left a few novices giddy.
"I'm just having fun," said Mary Beth Stavros, an Annapolis resident who came to the wine auction with Ms. Ireland "to see what it's about." But it didn't take long for her to get into the spirit of things. She took another sip of wine and then sauntered off to check whether she wanted to place a bid.