A writer discovers the pleasures and terrors of buying wine at Internet auction.
I'm a "dot com" journalist, a writer on the Internet. And while that may sound a lot less glamorous than, say, covering a war or a presidential campaign, what I do has its benefits. For example, it radically reduces the number of days I have to wear pants. But for most people, the great advantage of the Internet is the anonymity: you can do just about anything on-line with little chance of embarrassment, such as attend a wine auction without knowing much about wine.
All auctions are, almost by definition, terrifying events. You know, scratch your nose at the wrong time and the next thing you know you're 10 grand in the hole and the proud owner of Henry VIII's truss. But buying at an Internet auction seemed like a safer bet to me.
And I'm hardly alone. Ursula Hermacinski, executive vice president of the on-line wine auction house Winebid.com, says that her company has attracted more than 4,000 registered bidders in only 30 months while the venerable auction house Christie's has just 3,000 catalog subscribers after 30 years. When another on-line auction house, Ebay, went public last year, its share price opened at $18; less than four months later, it was $321. Add to this the union of Amazon.com and Sotheby's, and there's pretty compelling evidence that we are, as industry analysts have said, entering the golden age of auctions, thanks to the Internet.
Hermacinski, for one, isn't surprised. For years she was the Michael Jordan of wine auctioneering, running the wine department for Christie's. When she left Christie's for Winebid.com, it was, to some, reminiscent of Jordan's leaving the Bulls to play minor-league baseball for the Birmingham Barons. To Hermacinski, however, it was the reverse: "Winebid isn't the future of wine auctions," she says. "It's now."
One reason may be that on-line auctions are decidedly democratic. While the minimum bid for a bottle of wine at a top auction house like Christie's can run as high as $10,000, bottles sold on-line can go for as little as $35.
I took it upon myself to document the democratization of wine. But first I had to prepare, because if the technical name for wine lover is oenophile, the right name for me would probably be oenoidiot. So I bought some wine books and got down to basics. After all, no one would know that I was bidding with a stack of books at my side--like playing poker with a cheat sheet. I found it reassuring that Web and wine terminology didn't seem far apart: URL versus ullage, domain name versus domaine. Knitting the terms into whole concepts was tougher. And the language of wine labels seemed to be no language at all--more akin to omen art, like the heads on Easter Island or the totem poles outside forbidden cities.
When I felt brave enough, I decided to test my knowledge on two sites, Ebay and Winebid.com. These are the only really worthwhile places on the Web right now to bid on wine (this will doubtless change once the Amazon and Sotheby's site is up and running). However, no two sites could be less alike; while Winebid.com is a virtual Christie's auction house, Ebay is a nationwide yard sale. In other words, one is for wine lovers, the other for Web lovers.
The initial procedures are basically the same at both sites. You must register--Winebid.com requires a credit card number--and then you must choose a screen name and a password. Nobody needs to know who you are (presumably, you could even bid up your own wine). And when you decide to bid, you can do so in one of two ways: you can offer a onetime bid or place a maximum bid. For example, if the current bid price is $100, you can set up a maximum bid of $150; the computer will automatically counterbid for you in response to other bids until you are either the highest bidder or until the going price has exceeded your maximum bid.
The whole bidding process can take minutes, days or even weeks. If you're outbid, the auction house sends an e-mail notifying you of your defeat. And, yes, it does feel like defeat. Vying for first place can be dangerously addictive: "You think $95 for that La Jota Anniversary Cuvée can stop me? Hah! I laugh at your puny bid!" Pretty soon you're making bids that are way, way beyond your budget, often for wines you could buy for less money and more easily at a good wine shop. Still, if you know a little bit about wine--and maybe, more important, about your limits--it can be fun.
Elvis on Ebay
I decided, from my research, that my first purchase would be a nice bottle of Matanzas Creek Merlot. I started at Ebay, where I registered and typed the word wine into the search engine, figuring I'd get the broadest possible selection. Back came 2,126 matches. I scrolled through the first few offerings, including "Elvis Presley Wine--Rare!" and "A 1978 Wine List from Caesar's Palace with Lynda Carter's (Wonder Woman's) show dates on it, $75." Then I switched and typed in Merlot: 44 matches. Unfortunately, more than half were for Marilyn Merlot. (Every bottle has a picture of Marilyn Monroe on the label.) And when I searched for Matanzas, I found only a picture of four imperfect Cuban bulk-rate stamps for $9.99.
Although I didn't locate a bottle of Matanzas Creek Merlot on Ebay, I did end up buying a bottle of 1995 Araujo Cabernet Sauvignon for $265 (wine critic Robert M. Parker, Jr., gave it 97 points). The seller seemed like a nice guy. It's important to note here that Ebay itself doesn't actually sell anything or back up its products but acts instead like a giant flea market, renting stalls to individual sellers. Every buyer and seller on Ebay gets a profile with reviews written by fellow buyers and sellers, enabling others to judge who is trustworthy. If you have a problem, all you can do is trash the person in his or her profile.But since the profile of my seller seemed to suggest that he was up for sainthood, I mailed off a check. Three weeks later, I'm still waiting for my wine.
Boring But Not Boorish
Winebid.com is another story altogether. It is a far more straightforward (read: boring) site. The listings of lots on offer look like endless pages of racing forms. On the other hand, if you find a great bottle here, you can be far more confident of getting what you pay for. The company examines each bottle and stakes its reputation on each estimate. This assurance, however, does not come cheap. Winebid.com charges both buyer and seller a commission of 12.5 percent, an important fact to keep in mind for people (like me) who are hoping for great bargains. But again, unlike Ebay, Winebid.com has a vast selection of very good wines, though I didn't find my Merlot.
Winebid.com is also a pretty useful resource for accurate pricing. Buyers can always check a price there and then see if Ebay has the same wine for less. Ebay may be a little riskier, but that's part of the game.
The last thing to remember is that Winebid.com runs its auctions on a strict monthly schedule while at Ebay every auction runs on its own schedule. People who don't know what they're doing (me) or are prone to flights of competitive excess (me) can spend a lot of time randomly plunking down bids on various wines, only to lose track of the wines they've bid on. On the other hand, this is not a bad distraction while waiting for the wines they've bought to arrive. In the meantime, I'm still looking for that Matanzas Creek Merlot.
Jonah Goldberg is a contributing editor and on-line columnist for the National Review. He also writes for TheStreet.com and IntellectualCapital.com.