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Going Once, Going Twice… Wine Auctions

by Brian Freedman

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Going Once, Going Twice… Wine Auctions This past September Hart Davis Hart, the highly regarded wine auction house, kicked off a major autumn auction in dramatic fashion: They held a dinner at Chicago’s Charlie Trotter restaurant that featured 20 vintages of Chateau Lafite Rothschild. And while $5,000 for a seat might seem like a lot of money, consider, for a moment, the nature of the experience itself.

After all, most people—indeed, all but the most ardent collectors—usually only experience great back-vintage wines in tastings, which is to say outside the context in which I firmly believe they were meant to be enjoyed: At the table.

And while it is perhaps understandable that wine-lovers would hesitate to take away any bit of attention from their great bottles, even legendary old wines tend to be best when enjoyed alongside the proper dishes.

Which is what made a dinner like Hart Davis Hart’s Lafite one so extraordinary: Not only were some of the finest wines ever produced opened and enjoyed, but they were done so in the best possible light: Paired with food cooked by one of the country’s most heralded chefs, and in the presence of experts who made it an evening of education as well as pleasure.

That’s one of the great advantages to buying wine at a live auction: The opportunity to not only see the bottles themselves, but also, if your budget allows it, to experience the wines you’re considering in a friendly, real-world environment, and to formulate your own opinions before making any big purchases. And despite the fact that, at such high-ticket dinners, most of the guests do have a solid understanding of the wines and the regions they’re from, there’s always something new to learn.

“Even at those dinners we provide tasting books with notes, [and] we have one or two staff members who are there to discuss the wines and discuss the property” as well as the pairings, said Scott Tyree, wine buyer for Hart Davis Hart.

In that regard, even those collectors with the most carefully assembled cellars and the most passionate feelings about the wines are bound to appreciate them at a deeper level. With wine, after all, there’s always something new and unexpected to discover, even when it comes to the best bottles.

“There are plenty of collectors who may know a little about a lot of wines, but not a lot about” certain specific ones, he added. With so many great bottlings available, it’s impossible for any one collector to be an expert at everything. Which is where the auction house comes in.

“We’ll look up facts about barrel-ageing and specific comments on the vintage, and how that might express itself in the wine,” said Marc Smoler, Marketing Manager for Hart Davis Hart. “We can go back to see if it was an early picking or a late picking…trying to pick out some of those nuances when tasting the wine.” Expertise, in other words, is provided for you.

Not all of the events that surround an auction are as dramatic as a dinner like this one. In fact, from walk-around tastings to having the opportunity to sample certain wines during the auction itself, the best houses are making it easier than ever for everyone to experience some of the wines they’re considering before having to raise a paddle. (Within reason, of course: You’re unlikely to get to taste, for instance, a magnum of 1982 Pétrus.)

And for those who simply cannot make it in person to an auction, there are plenty of options, from bidding by proxy to following the action live online and throwing your hat in the ring via the Internet; both Hart Davis Hart and Christie’s, for example, make it easy to listen to an auction and bid from the comfort of your home computer.

Internet-based auctions offer a fantastic range of bottles, too. Of course, you’ll generally want to stick with the most well-known houses for the biggest purchases: As a personal matter, I’ve bought plenty of classed-growth Bordeaux online (I’ve had very good luck with WineBid.com), but when the time does come to consider that case of 1990 DRC Romanée-Conti, or the magnum of 1982 Pétrus, I’ll definitely be sticking with the big boys.

And as for those most prestigious houses, they’re still moving at full speed, despite all the issues with the United Stated economy. In fact, business couldn’t be better. “I think people are looking to hedge their stock market positions,” wrote Charles Curtis, Head of North American Wine Sales for Christie’s, in an email. “And wine, along with other commodities like gold, should remain relatively untouched. There’s also apparently undiminished demand from Russia and Asia.”

And alongside demand like that comes an abundance of bottles available at auction. Which means that, for collectors and those just beginning to get into the market, this is a very good time indeed to invest in fine and rare wine. And often, the best and most educational way to do so is through the auction houses.

Wine of the Month: Château Lafite Rothschild 1975
This is one of the most unexpectedly profound wines I’ve ever tasted, its sweet, floral nose leading the way to a dried-fruit and –flower palate tinged with fresh raspberries, leather, and earth. You can feel this wine all the way down the tongue, its cinnamon and clove notes lingering for what seems like an eternity. Charles Curtis, of Christie’s, wrote to me that “first growth Bordeaux is always, always hot, and top vintages…are always in demand.” 1975 was hardly a top vintage in this part of Bordeaux, and this bottle just sings. Imagine how impressive the 1982, 1985, or 1990 might be.

Brian Freedman is a food and wine writer, wine educator, and consultant. He is also Editorial Director of ClassicWines.com, host of the Internet video series The Classic Wines Minute, and Director of Wine Education at The Wine School of Philadelphia. For more information, please www.BrianFreedmanPhiladelphia.com.


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