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The Dos and Don’ts of Online Wine Auctions

There are unreal deals to be found in the online wine auction realm. But how reliable are these retailers, and what should you know before you bid?

Every Sunday night, wine nerds from Sacramento to Singapore log into WineBid.com. In the 10 minutes leading up to 10 p.m. EST, hurried fingers refresh browsers, placing incremental bids as low as a dollar apiece.

My flight was supposed to land at JFK at 9:20 p.m., but air traffic kept us circling over the Atlantic for 20 extra minutes. At 9:52 p.m. I threw my stuff into one of the waiting area chairs and loaded the site on my phone. 

For a week, I’d been compulsively chasing two rather inconsequential lots: a single bottle of 2004 A. & P. de Villaine Bourgogne Côte Chalonnaise La Digoine and one of 2002 Maison Méo-Camuzet Frère et Soeurs Bourgogne Rouge—village-level red Burgundies from excellent producers. When I found them on the site, they were $17 and $30, respectively. When the auction ended at 10 p.m., I’d paid $41 and $36. I felt like a winner.

Over the past five years, I’ve been told by sommeliers across the country that they’ve managed to find unreal deals in the online wine auction realm, especially when it comes to older California wines and not-so-culty European bottles—really anything other than grand cru Burgundy or first-growth Bordeaux.“I’ve purchased wines from WineBid back to the 1950s,” says Matthew Kaner of LA’s Bar Covell. “I’m not after blue chips or cult wines here. Often, I take the approach of ‘one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.’ If you know what you’re looking at, there’s a lot of unmined gold.”

He’s not alone. Jerome Zech, CEO of WineBid, told me that 30 percent of the activity on the website happens on Sunday night. And Sunday nights prove remarkably fruitful: In 2017, his company sold $28 million dollars of wine online through its weekly auctions; those online auctions move about 5,000 bottles a week, or 260,000 bottles per year.

Whereas online bidding for Christie’s and Sotheby’s starts at $100, auctions from companies like WineBid and Spectrum Wine Auctions to retailers like Zachy’s, K&L and Acker Merrall feature single-bottle lots that can kickoff as low as $10.

“There’s a misconception that auction is all about DRC,” says Charles Antin, an auctioneer for Zachy’s, in reference to the highly sought-after Burgundy estate, Domaine de la Romanée Conti. “And it’s just not.”

While many collectors have migrated online for its obvious convenience, it’s increasingly become a place for wine consumers looking to dip a toe into the auction world at a much lower cost of entry. It’s also where you can find back-vintages of excellent wines that aren’t known to draw big collectors at live auctions, like riesling from Germany and Austria, Loire wines, old California cabernet, Alto Piemonte nebbiolo.

“It should be a real way to introduce younger people to wine at every price point,” says Antin, adding that while the financial point of entry for online auctions might be lower, the quality of the wines is the same. “People often think auction houses just stick junk in an e-auction,” he says. “[But] they are from the same cellars, same rigorous storage requirements and so forth, as the live auctions.”

After taking a gamble on a few lots from both Winebid and Zachy’s, I ended up with a great bottle of Burgundy and a perfectly-timed 2006 Livio Sassetti Brunello, along with the understanding that my dollars might be best spent on older bottles from less-pillaged corners of the wine world. Here’s what I learned about navigating the e-auction world; may it prevent you from accidentally spending a whole paycheck on a Sunday night.

Dos and Don’ts of Online Wine Auctions

DO figure in the buyer’s premium before you buy.
Every auction house, be it online or not, charges a buyer’s premium (essentially, the house’s take) on top of the selling price. Zachy’s is 23 percent; so is Sotheby’s. Winebid charges 17 percent. Keep this in mind before raising your virtual paddle. 

DO know wines are sold as-is.
Auction houses rigorously evaluate wines based on where and how they were stored and the bottle condition (what shape the label’s in, how full the bottle is, etc.), but there’s no knowing how the wine will drink or that you’ll like the way it’s aged or even that it’s not corked. Buyers agree to purchase the bottles as-is.

DO go off the beaten path.
If you’re just getting into buying wines at auction and want to buy Burgundy, “look for wines that are at the villages or premier cru level,” advises Antin. “I go more based on producer than vintage.”

DO look for vintages that may not have initially been well received.
A good example is 2007 Bordeaux, which was not lauded on release, although the wines are drinking well now. “The point-chasers tend to stay away because the general feeling on the vintage is not positive,” says Antin. In other words, you’re likely to find better deals on these vintages. 

DO take into account that old (and very old) wines won’t drink like current releases.
For wine drinkers who mostly buy current release wine at retail or in restaurants, bottles with age can be a big change. Ideally, tannins will soften, oak will fold in, more overt fruit flavors will mellow and other flavors will emerge. Wines age in all different ways; developing a palate for this takes time, too.

DO email auctioneers with questions about lots before bidding.
Every auction house has wine specialists on staff that should be able to answer any questions about lots that you might have. This could be as simple as asking, “How are German rieslings from 2002 drinking?” or even “What will a 1982 Ribera del Duero taste like?”

DON’T bid on mixed lots.
Unless you’re in the mood to roll the dice, choosing single bottles or even small verticals of one wine is the way to go. Mixed lots are a great way for auction houses to move along their cellar’s random one-offs. Research the going rate for current releases and back vintages on wine-searcher.com to figure out competitive prices, and look into vintage reports so you know what to expect.

DON’T expect your wines to be delivered the week you’ve purchased them.
Some auction houses can take a few weeks to ship. Though Winebid offers expedited shipping at a pretty good rate, for others, you’ll need to contact the seller to rush wines, if you want them sooner than in a few weeks.

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