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on tour with steven page

Auction Fever


Posted: Nov 13, 2006 4:28pm ET

A few weeks ago, I spent some time at the huge annual wine auction held in Toronto. Commercial auctions are a relatively new occurrence for us, and the only legal one is run by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, our state-run alcohol monopoly.

Looking around the room, it struck me that there are five types of auction buyers:

1) The Irrationally Exuberant: These people will do anything to win the lots that they want. I don’t know if it’s the excitement of getting into a bidding war, or if it’s the thrill of being able to look around the room with an “I got all the Dominus” look in their eye. Usually, they are brand-name shoppers (Opus One, Silver Oak, Sassicaia, et al), spending top dollar on prestige brands that are only sometimes fine and far from rare.

2) The Restaurateur: Also willing to pay top dollar for prestige labels, so they can sell them back to No. 1, plus markup, at their restaurant. Some of these wines will be priced so high on their list that no one ever buys them, which is possibly what they want; if someone buys their one and only bottle of ’61 Haut-Brion, it may dash their chances of getting an upgrade in their Wine Spectator award level, or so they think.

3) The Completist: This one has more verticals and horizontals than the Sunday Times crossword. I always look on admiringly at these collectors. Are they just turning on to whatever they are in pursuit of, or are they filling in the last few bottles they need to make a complete set? Or, have they actually drunk some of those treasures, and need to replace what they’ve consumed? I always hope that these people drink what they buy, because to me, wine doesn’t really exist until the bottle is opened.

4) The Speculator: Let’s face it: Most wine prices are not going down. Possibly ever. If you’re just looking at wine as an investment, it’s possible that overpaying now for a wine that will be worth even more in five or 10 years might still be a decent purchase. Or maybe not. Or even better: With the profit from selling a few cases of this stuff, you can set yourself up with enough everyday wine for a year!

5) The Bargain Hunter: Or, you could call them Bottom Feeders. This is the category I’d put myself in. We try to scavenge for the labels that might be less known (unlikely, as consumers are more knowledgeable now than ever before), or less fashionable (more likely, but then they are rarely put up for auction). When these wines come up, the Bargain Hunters around the room attack like piranhas. Sometimes, to everyone’s surprise, the well-aged Savennières goes for the same price as a first-growth Bordeaux. The best strategy seems to be to look for wines that are offered in multiple lots, let the price escalate over the first few lots, and then hope that the buyers who wanted it badly have bought their fill of it. Sometimes, but not often, you can get some of this wine for less than anyone else pays for it. The same goes for the reappearance of the same wines later in the auction; the Irrationally Exuberant might (I stress, might) have either had their fill or left the auction by then.

At this auction, I walked out with a couple of reasonably-priced cases of Turley Zinfandel, and, because it was going cheap, a large bottle of Amarone from a producer I’d never heard of. The Amarone I really wanted, the Dal Forno Romano, went for way too much money because of all the No. 1s bidding on it, but I’ll probably end up drinking it at No. 2's restaurant, anyway.

Dr M Vinciguerra
Port Washington, NY —  November 13, 2006 6:53pm ET
Hi Steven, I recently started investing in fine wines using Venulum ( a toronto based wine "broker")www.venuluminc.com.....you can buy and consume, buy and hold, or buy and sell. I've learned a tremendous amount and a variety of info on varietals !BTW, huge fan and you guys were great at Radio City....a great venue to see BNL!!Mike
Kirk R Grant
Ellsworth, ME —  November 14, 2006 6:05am ET
A very insightful blog. After winning an online bid the other day I started wondering who and what types of people I was bidding against. Last week I won myself a 2002 Patricia Green Balcome Block 1B for a mere $35. A steal at less than the release price. This week I see someone bid on an 02 Ken Wright Shea vineyard at the same price...and it amazes me that people are passing these deals by. At the exact same site someone is paying $155 for an 02 Sine Qua Non Shea...what gives? I have to agree with you...it's the lesser known hidden finds that make auctions so much fun. It's sort of like getting tickets for a big band at a small venue. If you truely have your feelers out you can find what you're looking for at the right price.
John Miller
Windsor, CA —  November 14, 2006 1:05pm ET
Steven, This blog had me chuckling. Your categories are right on, and I am most definitely a Bargain Hunter. Although I sometimes find myself getting annoyed at the No. 1's for driving up the price of wines I love but can no longer afford, I get the satisfaction of knowing I can always find other equally great, but lesser known, wines for a fraction of the price.
Greg Malcolm
St. Louis, Missouri —  November 14, 2006 10:43pm ET
Kirk -- I don't know that I would consider US$35 for an '02 Ken Wright Shea a 'steal.' By the time you pay the 14% Buyer's Premium and the outrageous shipping charges that WineBid adds on, this ends up being a US$60 bottle of wine. It can be had for US$45 plus reasonable shipping charges from other online sources.
Tim Sylvester
Santa Monica, CA —  November 15, 2006 3:47pm ET
Steven, fine blog. I think there is another category that better fits you, the Opportunist, who goes into a live auction with a wish list then pounces on an odd lot of red burgundy that's not moving or, as in your case, an Amarone that he hasn't heard of. You should check out some of the Christies, Zachys and Butterfields auctions in NYC and LA, things can get pretty crazy.Cheers, Tim
Walter J Flasza
Thunder Bay, Ontario —  November 15, 2006 11:13pm ET
Hi Stephen: I'm a little bit of a people watcher and when I heard the LCBO was sponsoring the auction in Toronto, I decided to attend the Saturday session. I'd never been to a wine auction before and was curious about the types of people who would attend. I think your description of the different buyers is pretty comprehensive. I found it fascinating watching the bidders, especially the bargain-hunters once they got into "phiranha mode". I'd also like to go to a couple of those restaurants. Yesterday, I picked up the one lot that I purchased and as a completist wannabe, i do plan to consume it... in about 2020 :o) By the way, I'm laughing right now as I write this because as I scanned the audience, I noted "the guy who looked like the guy from Bare Naked Ladies". Little did I know I'd come across your blog this evening. Keep up the good work!
Steven Page
November 16, 2006 2:06am ET
Tim: ouch! That smarts! But you're probably right - opportunist likely describes me well in those situations. I try to be as knowledgeable as possible, but sometimes you just have to take a chance!Walter: yep, that was me spilling my cucumber sandwiches all over myself...

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