Wine auctions were once mainly for the rich. But, as Mike Steinberger reports, bargain hunters are now going home with stunning bottles.
Not so long ago, attending wine auctions inevitably left me feeling like a eunuch at an orgy. Sure, many sales had a party atmosphere as auction houses plied bidders with great wines; you could taste some amazing stuff just by being there. At an Acker Merrall & Condit sale in New York in 2007, I found myself juggling glasses of Krug Grande Cuvée, 1996 Salon, 1998 Pétrus and 1947 Margaux. The one thing I couldn’t do, however, was bid on any of the wines. Fueled by Wall Street’s vertiginous climb, soaring real-estate values and a global millionaire glut, prices for many collectible wines surged beyond the grasp of all but the richest. The wine-auction business experienced its biggest bull market ever, but for plebeians like me, it was purely a spectator sport. Not anymore: The boom has gone bust, wine prices are tumbling and now anyone can get in on the action.
For a long time, it appeared as if fine wine was recession-proof. Even through the collapse of Bear Stearns in March 2008 and the demise of Lehman Brothers six months later, the auction market remained buoyant, even ebullient. Reality finally intruded last October; buyers closed their checkbooks tight. In the first quarter of 2008, over 90 percent of the wines at auction sold; in the fourth quarter, that figure was down to around 70 percent; and at two late-fall auctions, more than half the lots went unclaimed. Prices took an even bigger plunge: Some of the costliest blue-chip Bordeaux and Burgundies halved in value in a matter of weeks.
That didn’t necessarily mean they were all suddenly affordable. A case of 1982 Château Lafite Rothschild was almost 60 percent cheaper in November than it was in September, but it was still $22,705, or roughly $1,900 per bottle. However, with major auction houses reporting 20 to 40 percent declines for all categories of wines, it occurred to me that perhaps I could now do some fruitful scavenging. Here, maybe, was a chance to get my hands on the 1999 Michel Lafarge Volnay Clos des Chênes, a premier cru Burgundy I had long coveted, or to score the 2000 Château-Figeac, a delicious Bordeaux that had also become too costly for my wallet. I’d been completely shut out of the great 2005 Burgundy vintage, including the wines of one of my favorite producers, Marquis d’Angerville; now, perhaps, I could fill that irritating void in my cellar.
In search of advice, I called Robert Bohr, the wine director for the New York restaurant Cru, which has one of the country’s finest cellars. He suggested seeking out mixed lots, in which assorted wines are grouped together and sold as a single unit; because such parcels are generally of less interest to hard-core collectors, who prefer full cases of individual wines, they are often particularly good deals. As for specific wines and vintages, he was emphatic: 2005 Burgundies offered the richest pickings. The wines were exorbitantly priced on release, but many were coming back to the market at significant discounts. “The 2005s are getting murdered and are the greatest buys right now,” Bohr said. He also touted vintage Champagne: With the world in a decidedly less festive mood, Dom Pérignon and other prestige sparkling wines were becoming very attractively priced.
I also sought some tips from Kevin Swersey, a private wine consultant who doubles as an advisor to Hart Davis Hart, the Chicago auction house. Swersey urged me to keep an eye out for wines from the 2000 and 2005 Bordeaux vintages; like the ’05 Burgundies, the ’00 and ’05 Bordeaux had opened at record prices, and their downward adjustment had been swift and steep. “They’ve taken monstrous hits,” he said. He saw great values, too, in 1995 and 1996 Bordeaux and 1999 Burgundies, all stellar vintages. Swersey also urged me to look for older vintages of iconic California Cabernets, such as Ridge Monte Bello and Montelena Estate. Lastly, he offered some tactical advice: He said that to take advantage of all the bargains now at auction, you had to be in the room. Absentee bidding was fine, but the best deals often materialized unexpectedly, and only those in attendance could cash in.
It was with the intention of cashing in that I went to a Zachys auction in December. Zachys had lowered its buyer’s premium from 20 to 17 percent as a way to generate interest, and the dining room at New York’s Restaurant Daniel was filled with bottom-feeders like me. I arrived just after the sale started and had barely settled into my seat when a case of the 2000 Figeac sold for $600. Even with the buyer’s premium, that worked out to just $59 a bottle—around $40 below the lowest retail price. I kicked myself for not submitting a bid, but it quickly became clear that there were bargains galore. A case of 2000 Léoville Barton, a Bordeaux second growth, sold for $1,100, which worked out to $107 a bottle—$50 below retail. Three bottles of 1999 Haut-Brion, a Bordeaux first growth, fetched $450, or $176 a bottle, $100 below retail. And so it went.
Thumbing through the catalog, I found a six-bottle parcel of 1996 Bollinger Grande Année Champagne offered for an estimated $350 to $500. The Grande Année is a personal favorite of mine, and 1996 was an epic year in Champagne. I did some quick calculations on a napkin and decided I’d go no higher than $420; that was around $82 a bottle, $20 below retail. I registered as a bidder, received my paddle and prepared to pounce.
The auctioneer announced the lot number, described the consignment, and then said that an absentee bid had been submitted at…$750. I waited for him to realize his obvious mistake, but there was no mistake—someone who was apparently living in a cave had bid $750, which worked out to $146 per bottle. Not surprisingly, there were no competing offers. I was completely deflated.
After cursing my luck, I decided I needed some shopping therapy and hurried to a nearby wine store. But I had caught the auction bug, and with the coming months promising even greater opportunities, my wallet would be open and ready to do business.
Mike Steinberger is Slate’s wine columnist. His book, Au Revoir to All That, about the future of French cuisine, is out in June.