Going for the grape

Wine auctions rally 'round bottles both rare and reasonable

Funny, it didn’t look like they were spending $2 million on wine.

On Oct. 1, about 30 bidders — mostly men, mostly in khakis and sports shirts — spent the afternoon gazing at Christie’s auctioneer Andrea Fiuczynski, who spent 2½ hours barking out numbers faster than a machine gun’s chatter.

The bidders responded by nodding their heads, raising fingers (and the occasional numbered paddle) in the air as they made offers on some of the world’s rare wines: a case of 1969 Domaine de la Romanee Conti (winner: $49,350), a case of 1961 Latour ($30,550) or 24 half-bottles of 1947 Cheval Blanc ($70,500).

Although a wine auction is no place for someone who doesn’t know a Bordeaux from a Barolo, the ritual is becoming more familiar as America’s perception of wine continues to rappel from its elitist perch.

When Amanda Keston, Zachy’s auction manager in Los Angeles, began working the auctions eight years ago, “(People) thought I sold farm equipment.”

Today, she’ll be overseeing the enormous Zachy’s/Wally’s Los Angeles Fall Auction, which will offer 1,599 lots — about 14,000 bottles — today and Saturday at the Peninsula Hotel.

According to Wally’s Wines co-owner Christian Navarro, buyer interest has driven his store to hold wine auctions every few months. This weekend’s auction is expected to bring in as much as $4 million.

“There are wines for everybody,” he says. “As America grows up and becomes more sophisticated, people realize there’s a specific price that a (fine) wine should be. An auction really determines that.”

However, auctions are no place for amateurs to buy for investment. It’s difficult enough to judge whether a wine is at or past its peak, but it gets really complicated if you must decide whether a future buyer would be willing to pay more. Say the pros: Buy to drink. “You need to trust your tastes,” says Keston.

And while no one’s going to confuse Christie’s with Costco, an auction can yield good deals. An affordable hot spot at the Christie’s auction was in the Burgundies where several mixed lots offered various producers and vintages from the 1960s.

However, the afternoon’s best bargain hunter took home six bottles of Chateau Certan Marzelle 1967 Pomerol for $294, the afternoon’s lowest winning bid.

The Christie’s auction offered 339 lots, about 3,900 bottles. Although 47 lots didn’t sell when bids didn’t meet Christie’s estimate, the auction brought in $1.84 million. Prior to the sale, Christie’s VP and wine specialist Scott Torrence made a lowball assessment of just over $1 million.

“Estimates on lots were relatively inexpensive,” he says. “Because of that we were drawing considerable attention.”

In any case, it will be small potatoes compared to the next go-round. Torrence is already preparing for Christie’s next auction in November, where he expects to sell up to 15,000 bottles.

Ready to bid?

Bottle-mania: How to get the jump at auction

Auction first-timer?
A few words of wisdom:
Do your homework. Don’t wait until the auction to pick up the catalog. Identify the lots that interest you and pay attention to bottle conditions; you won’t see the actual bottles at auction.
Want it? Grab it. Bids can be submitted ahead of time. Take advantage or be prepared to battle an absentee bidder.
Try before you buy. Many wine auctions offer a presale tasting of some of the most anticipated bottles.
Search the Internet. Compare prices with online retailers and look for tasting notes.
Do the math. When calculating a lot’s value, don’t forget the buyer’s premium of 15%-18%.
Have your hearing checked. Auctioneers pride themselves on enunciation, but it’s fast. Christie’s Andrea Fiuczynski blazed through 100 lots in 51 minutes.
Know when and where to find bargains. First-growth Bordeaux, grand cru Burgundies, California’s cult cabernets? Not likely. Your best bets are from Italy, non-Bordeaux France and mixed lots dedicated to a particular region, vintage or single producer, or several different producers.
Patience is no virtue. At the end of the day, prices don’t go down; bidders don’t peter out. And if no one meets the auction house’s estimate, the wine remains unsold.

Upcoming Wine Auctions

Date: Today, Sat.
Auction house/Location: Zachy’s & Wally’s/Peninsula Hotel
Premium/Payment: 18%/Cash*, Credit Card
Info: (310) 446-6622

Date: Nov. 18, 19
Auction house/Location: Christie’s, Beverly Hills
Premium/Payment: 17.5%/Cash*
Info: (310) 385-2600

Date: Dec. 3
Auction house/Location: Bonhams & Butterfields, San Francisco (live simulcast in Los Angeles)
Premium/Payment: 15%/Cash*, Credit Card
Info: (323) 436-5431

* – includes checks, money orders and wire transfers

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