“I never had a glass of wine a little I didn’t spill, but despite my awkwardness I always got my fill.”

– Tom Black

Last week, someone asked me where I got all of my vintage wine. The answer is – wine auctions – both commercial and charity. Wine auctions are where you want to make your purchases if you’re in the market for rare and aged wine. Such a niche auction might be intimidating at first, which is why I’ve put in my two cents. The bigger question might be, why a wine auction? Simply put, most fantastic wine is not always available through your local retailer (although our local wine shops do have some stellar selections). Older wine is especially difficult to find, but my secret is out: wine auctions have it.

How to Purchase

Purchasing the wine is really quite simple; if you can write a check or can print your credit card number, you can buy wine from anyone. Bidding at these auctions is done in person, by phone or by an absentee bid form. Bidding in person is easy: You show up, register and raise your paddle. If you choose to partake by phone, you notify them of what wine lots you’re interested in and they will call you when those items are being sold, and you simply bid over the phone. Absentee bids are submitted in writing. Even if I am going to an auction, I use this method because it limits my weakness to overpay. With absentee bids, your enthusiasm can’t get the best of you. However, you can tend to miss out on the bargaining (and the fun) that way.

How Much?

Wine prices vary from $20-$100,000 a bottle, so there is really is something for everyone. Many people believe you can buy great wine off of eBay, which I must say, I don’t recommend. eBay can’t guarantee the provenance of the wine. The auction houses who sell the wine stand behind it. Yes, I’ve bought bad wine from auctions, but I’ve also bought bad wine in restaurants and retail stores – but all of these businesses stand behind what they sell.

Can I Sell Wine at Auction?

Have I ever sold wine at an auction? Absolutely. After 30 years of collecting, my tastes have changed, so the last couple of years I’ve thinned my collection and sold the wine I just wasn’t going to drink. As they say, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

What Do I Need to Know Going In?

Photo by Alaina Mullin

If you have a special year in your life – a birth year, an anniversary, a child’s birth year – then auctions are a good place to look for a memento. I recommend you get help the first time you bid, as there are abbreviations of the wine’s condition that you need to understand in order to make a good decision as to value. For example, “mid-shoulder” means weakening of the cork and some risk of purchase. BSL means “bin-soiled label.” The codes are in the catalogs, but I suggest personal help the first time you go up to bat.

Charity Auctions vs. Commerical Auctions

Charity auctions are also loads of fun. The Nashville Wine Auction hosts l’Eté du Vin, which is one of the largest and longest-running charity wine auctions in the country (40 years!). At charity auctions, expect to overpay for the great stuff (but, you can always find a bargain!). Need some tips from a seasoned professional? I sit at the back of charity auctions and wait until all the bidders are done. I don’t bid against my friends and I try not to get caught up in the moment… however, the point of charity auctions is to support the charity not get a bargain.

Any auction is a lot of fun, but as my friend, Greg Daily, says, “If you get all you bid on, you paid too much.”

Dependable Auction Houses:

Sotheby’s – New York
(212) 606-7000

Christie’s – New York
(212) 636-2000

Zachys – New York
(914) 448-3026

Hart Davis Hart Wine Co. – Chicago
(312) 482-9996

Each of the auction houses conduct sales all year long. You can call, e-mail, or go to their website to get a schedule. Some have complimentary catalogs and some charge a fee (hint: mention my name and you might get the first catalog free!).

Photo by Alaina Mullin

The 40th annual l’Eté du Vin Charity Wine Auction is coming up on July 26th. First-time and longtime auction bidders will have a blast at this event funding the fight against cancer.  Tickets on sale now 

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