The evolution of a wine geek is a funny thing. You start out like anyone else, picking up a bottle for dinner on your way home from work. Then you discover this amazing Cabernet Franc from a small producer in the Loire, and, well, you’d hate to run out of it because it completely blew your mind and there’s not that much of it to begin with and you’d really like to turn some of your friends onto it. So, of course, the perfectly sensible thing to do is buy a case—or two. And then there are the bottles you start to stash for this or that meal because, really, who wants to be caught without the right pairing partner? And there was that trip to the Anderson Valley and that outstanding Pinot Noir you had shipped home, and that extra-special Barolo you splurged on because you read a great review from your favorite wine writer. Then, before you know it, you’re hooked. What started as a simple need becomes a tiny but prized collection that’s overtaken at least some portion of your home. If any of this rings familiar, you might be ready to try your hand at wine auctions.
Bid Thee Well
There are three types of wine auctions: auction houses, online auctions and charity auctions. Auction houses act as a sort of high-service middleman between the seller and you. The down side is they have only a certain amount of auctions per year, so if you can’t make it to the live auction to be part of the action (which is a big part of the fun), you have to wait for the next one or bid as an absentee, or online or over the phone with a sales associate. But there are upsides. First, anyone can walk into a live auction (and some places like Christie’s dole out free Champagne and delicious nibbles before the bidding gets under way). Second, you can check out the catalogue a month in advance and then call to discuss what’s best for you, your tastes and your budget. Third, live auctions ensure the provenance of bottles (e.g., that they’ve been stored properly and are in good condition) by digging into the history of the wine—where it’s been, who owned it, how they stored it—and even sampling it. And last, live auctions are educational, exciting, fast-paced and fun.
Although online auctions don’t offer the same kind of drama as an auction house, they’re an on-going, easy-access way to go. You can check them daily to see what’s new and watch the bidding action. But be careful, they can be addictive—set a spending limit and stick to it. Also understand that your wine is going to be shipped to you. Not only will you have to pay for shipping (which can be steep), plus a handling fee, sales tax, insurance and sometimes even a commission, transit can be rough on a bottle. Be sure to check with the auction company for their preferred method of shipping (and remember that shipping is cheaper when buying by the case).
As for charity auctions, the prime objective is to raise money for a cause. This means many charge entry fees (some hefty) just to walk in the door. But they can be great places to find wines that have been donated by domestic wineries, which you wouldn’t find for sale at a large auction house. Keep in mind, however, if the wines being auctioned off are from someone’s private collection, there’s likely no guarantee that the bottles have been stored properly.
Getting My Feet Wet
Having never been to an auction, I thought I should try the process out for myself, but I didn’t want to jump in without some advice, so I checked with a wine-collecting friend who knows a thing or two about the topic: Scott Manlin, whose cellar hits more than 3,000 bottles on a slim day and who is no stranger to buying wine at auctions. “As a beginner, it’s always best to use auctions to back-fill your collection with rarities and wines with some maturity, or to buy vintages that have been released for a few years,” Manlin says. “It’s not a place for everyday wines.”
That leads to Step 1 of auction preparation: Assessing your wine preferences. To properly gauge my own tastes, I pulled out some bottles I’d been saving. I had quite a few Bordeaux, some Sauternes, a few Barolos and Amarones, and a good amount of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Turns out these are all excellent places to begin. “The bulk of auction wines are wines of Bordeaux,” says Charles Curtis, head of North American auction sales for Christie’s, one of the world’s largest and oldest auction houses. “It’s where you have the most inventory and interest, and where most collectors have the bulk of their collection—that’s where you’ll find the best deals.”
Deals? Really? Could I walk in with a $100 or $200 and come out with something? Yes! “Don’t feel intimidated,” urges Curtis. “There are different price ranges, from $30 or $40 bottles to $3,000 to $4,000 bottles.” While the average auction bottle tends to go for $100 to $200 (not including the buyer’s premium, the fee charged by the auction house), I found plenty of affordable lots (the term used to distinguish an item or items up for bid) in the catalogues of many auction houses. In fact, there were entire cases I could afford, like 12 bottles of 1976 Chateau Lascombes for $300 and a case of 1982 Chateau d’Issan for $200. Curtis also suggests a great money-saving tip from his early days in the auction world: Get a wine-centric friend or two to go in on a lot. “Start a buying group and agree beforehand on what the budget is.” True enough, while a $500, $600 or $1,000 case of wine is too rich for my blood, I would consider breaking it in half or thirds, or even quarters. Then everybody gets to splurge on a few special bottles without busting the bank.
Other ways to find bargains? Paul Hart, CEO of Chicago auction house Hart Davis Hart recommends seeking out mixed lots, “which provide the opportunity to buy smaller quantities and wines from different vintages and producers.” Also look for second-label wines from top chateaux. “The second labels, like Les Forts de Latour, Pavillon, Rouge de Chateau Margaux, and Carruades de Lafite-Rothschild offer great wines at a fraction of the cost.”
I couldn’t attend the Christie’s auction in person, so I seriously considered putting in an absentee bid on that case of Chateau d’Issan. Turns out, that’s a good way to go. “Some people get in the room and get carried away,” says Curtis. “They start going crazy and blow a hole in their budget. People who are close to that sort of temperament should decide what they want to spend and put in an absentee bid.”
But putting in an absentee bid feels like tossing a bottle into the ocean: What, exactly, would happen? “Say you were bidding on a case of wine and you thought it was worth at most $100 a bottle,” he says. “You would put in a bid of $1,200. But say the bidding in the room only went up to $800, then you would get it for the next amount, which would be $850. You get a bargain when you weren’t thinking you would.”
Fortunately, it works this way online, too. I visited the winecommune.com auction site and found a half bottle of Sauternes from a producer I like in a vintage I’d tasted but hadn’t seen on shelves. The initial bidding price was set at $11 and change, which almost sounded too good to be true. The seller, though, had a solid online ranking and enough sales under his belt to seem legit. He also included descriptions of the wine’s condition and provenance (excellent), which reassured me. I put in a high bid of $25. At the end of the week when I checked back, I’d beat out four other bidders for the prize. Total cost: $14.25, plus shipping, a 1 percent insurance fee and $3.50 handling fee. Not bad.
Brimming with my 375-ml. bottle of success, I got bolder and found an online charity auction. I found a case of red from a small Long Island winery I like, with a starting bid that was far cheaper than what it would cost at retail, and in a vintage I knew was good. Also, the case was coming directly from the winery, so the provenance was as good as it gets. I set a budget: $300 would be my max bid and I would use a debit card, so the cash would come right out of my checking account. I put in the opening bid; within a day, someone upped it by $25. A few days later, someone upped that by $50. The next logical bid was $300, my max. I held my breath and sent it in. What if I didn’t win? What if I did? After a day of nail-biting, an e-mail came from Palate Press. Victory was mine—all 12 bottles of it!
I was so excited by my win, the only logical thing to do was to start trolling the lots at winecommune.com and winebid.com to see what else I could find. But just as I was about to click on a jeroboam of Barolo … I stopped. Bidding is addictive! And fun, but maybe not so much fun if I end up draining my checking account. There was, and always will be, something great to bid on. Live auctions will be happening near me soon enough, and online bidding will be there whenever I have a little extra money to burn. As it turns out, the most important aspect of success at a wine auction may be knowing when to keep your paddle down.