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.