The oldest wine auction in the New World celebrates its 30th birthday this year. AMY WISLOCKI finds out how South Africa’s glitziest wine event has grown since 1975
Think of HERITAGE in the wine world, and you might think of the lavish party for Fête de la Fleur that takes place every summer in Bordeaux, or producers in Tuscany or Rioja who have passed their vineyards down through generations. It’s unlikely that the New World would spring to mind. But then the New World isn’t really so new anymore. It was back in the 1960s that Robert Mondavi decided to make wine in California, after all, and the same decade when pioneers planted their first vines in Western Australia.
South Africa’s wine producers have had to catch up with other New World regions after apartheid brought international isolation, but ever since modern winemaking took hold in the 1920s, it has been building its own wine heritage. This year it celebrated part of that, with the 30th anniversary of the Nederburg Auction, the oldest auction of wine in the New World.
Some suggest that the Nederburg Auction has lost some of the importance it once held as a fixture on the international auction calendar, but nobody would disagree that it retains immense significance in terms of benchmarking South African wines against their peers – vital for a wine region which has only recently started to carve a niche in the premium wine sector.
Much has changed since the first time a mere 15 different wines went under the hammer back in the first auction of 1975. Not only has the event been transformed from small and folksy into a star-studded affair complete with fashion show, it has also gained an acceptance that was lacking 30 years ago. Patrick Grubb, auctioneer since the very first year, recalls the early days. ‘We were approached by Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery (now part of Distell) just after I’d joined Sotheby’s. The Nederburg winery, part of SFW, had made a white wine called Edelkur, and had sold it by postal auction to huge success. The idea was to replicate that success at an event, selling its own wines and other quality South African wines.’
The opposition was considerable, and came from more than one quarter. ‘There was criticism from the Afrikaner press, who were very suspicious,’ says Grubb. ‘Wine prices then were fixed, and they couldn’t imagine wine being sold at free-rolling prices. They also said the auctioneer should be an Afrikaner. A few years later, the opposition died down.’
Grubb has fond memories of the first few years, and you get the impression that he almost enjoyed the slight hiccups along the way. ‘One year I forgot to bring my hammer, and we had to frantically look for something else I could use at the last minute – we managed to make do with a big stone from the river. Now it all runs like clockwork.’ Other unplanned incidents over the years included a bomb threat, and a not-very-subtle attempted theft of cases of unopened wine, using a forklift. ‘It was very intimate at the start,’ says Grubb. ‘Now, of course, it’s much more slick, which is better for buyers but also quite sad in a way. It’s much more businesslike – understandably, as there’s so much money involved these days.’
The prices paid – and the interest from buyers – have increased steeply, in line with the rise in wine quality. This is not, however, an auction for speculators looking for long-term investments, as wines submitted for auction must be ready to drink (though many benefit from more age). This is a concept applauded by Dave Hughes, who has been involved in organising the auction since its inception. ‘We want it to be about enjoyment, not just making a buck,’ says Hughes.
The wines may not be long-term investment vehicles, but the emphasis remains firmly on rarity and quality. Every year the country’s producers are invited to submit wines to a pre-selection committee, and only those which score highly enough make the final list. Wines must be unavailable through other channels, and reds must have a minimum five years of age. ‘It’s a great opportunity for producers to put their wine up for grabs and see what people will pay for it – a great yardstick,’ says Hughes.
Grubb sums up how far the wines have come since 1975. ‘In the past, the government-controlled cooperative, KWV, would buy grapes irrespective of quality – there was no incentive for growers to raise the quality bar. It was Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery who pioneered that shift. It’s only really in the last 20 years that Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc have been planted; and only since the early 1990s that virus-free material has come in to use.’
So, will Grubb, a very young 72 years old, continue to wield the gavel? ‘I love doing it, but I keep saying they should organise an understudy to come and learn the ropes. After all, I am getting on now.’ Somehow, I don’t get the impression this will be any time soon.
And what will his abiding memory be when he does step down from the stage for the last time? ‘The stunning setting, the mountains, the changing light,’ he says. About the only thing that hasn’t changed at all since the very first auction 30 years ago.
Written by Amy Wislocki