Jefford on Monday: Auction Fever

Why buy wine at auction? After another affluent year in the salerooms, it seems as if auction purchasers enjoy paying over the odds - and that's before they've found handfuls of extra money for the alarming buyer's premium (and local taxes). Acker Merrall & Condit claimed to have set "145 world auction records" at its Hong Kong sale on November 4th to 5th last year, while some of the prices reported in Decanter magazine's monthly 'Auction news' over the last 12 months suggest that the paddle wavers simply don't bother with - or forget all about - their homework.

Premiere Napa Valley Auction

(Steve Reynolds of Reynolds Family Vineyards and Chair of Premiere Napa Valley 2013 kicks off the Live Auction. Photo by Bob McClenahan)

A decade ago, I thought that the emergence of brokers like Farr Vintners and its competitors would soon put wine auctioneers out of business. Wrong again. Wine auctions, I now realise, fill a psychological and social as much as commercial need. 

Stocking your wine cellar in 2013 can be a solitary, even a lonely activity. You scan websites; compare prices; check point scores; send an email; make an electronic transfer; file an invoice. There might be the odd phone call to someone posh and plausible to talk about provenance, but you could easily assemble a grand collection to sit beneath your former Georgian vicarage in Hampshire (or private residence on Hong Kong’s Peak) without a single handshake or broached bottle. It’s a bit, um, sad.

Then the auction room beckons. Auctions, like restaurants, are a form of social theatre. There is a narrative; there are performers and players, even improvised scripts; and those who take part earn exotic kudos. It’s a kind of poker for rich softies. It’s where you ‘come out’ as a collector. It’s about raised pulses and primal urges; buyers locking horns over a prize lot can resemble rutting stags. Small wonder the homework goes out of the window.

The auctions I have attended in London in the past have been run with almost painful sobriety and deferentially pursed lips, while the Hospices de Beaune auction tends to be a characteristically French blend of pomposity and tedium (Carla Bruni-Sarkozy cheered it up a bit this year). Not so the ‘Napa Valley Vintners Barrel Auction for the Wine Trade’, held in mid-February. 

“Fritzy and Urse” (Napa Valley auctioneers Fritz Hatton and Ursula Hermacinski) were strangers to pursed lips and tedium.  Fritzy got it all going with plenty of whooping and hollering (“I feel the energy in the room like never before, woo hoo hoo!”) and was frank with shy bidders (“20?  20?  We’re already at 22. Get him a cup o’ coffee …”; or “How much?  How much?  10? You can do better than that …”).  Urse was more of a tease (“C’mon kitty cats” is a phrase you don’t often hear in London’s King St or New Bond St), but “It’s cash money, I’ll take it”, and a bang of the gavel followed by “thank you. Rock on” had indubitable West Coast panache.

And rock on they did. Here’s the strange thing. The buyers were wine merchants – cool heads on intimate terms with bottom lines -- and the proceeds go to the Vintners as a whole for their promotional activities: not exactly a charitable end. Most of the wines were from the difficult 2011 vintage, yet even so the sale as a whole made just over $3 million, very nearly a record. I watched the guy in front of me bid for Lot 47: 60 bottles of the 2011 Shafer Sunspot Vineyard (the Auction lots aren’t available commercially). His friend filmed him on his iPhone throughout.  The early flock of hopeless bidders fell away as the price climbed past $30,000 (for just 60 bottles); he himself shrugged his shoulders and gave up, smiling wryly back at the iPhone, as it went past $40,000. The 60 bottles eventually sold for $50,000, or around $833/£550 per bottle – in other words, four times the price of the newly anointed ‘Parker perfect’ 2010 Pape-Clément. 

I tasted as much as I could before the sale, and was bemused to see what I felt were wines of refinement, poise and finesse, like the 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon from Spring Mountain Vineyard or the Corison 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Premiere Reserve (which included some Kronos), fetch much less than the monstrous Bevan Cellars and Boswell 2011 ‘We Will Rock You’ (made, Russell Bevan assured me, with a 42% saignee): 120 bottles knocked down at a staggering $625 a bottle. It’s only my opinion, but I felt that this awesome but undrinkable wine was very nearly the stuff of nightmares (and, by the way, a perfect example of wine-making machismo – see last week’s blog post).

It all made Bordeaux seem cheap – but hey, it’s an auction, folks were there to see and be seen, and (as Fritzy assured us) “we’re trending on Twitter above NASCAR and the Oscars, woo hoo!”


Jefford on Monday

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Award-winning writer Andrew Jefford's Monday column on Decanter.com

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