china daily wine column #60

In January 2012 in Hong Kong  Zachys, a US company, auctioned the extraordinary cellar of Joseph Weinstock, a close friend of the famous wine critic Robert Parker. Indeed, Parker tasted bottles from Dr Weinstock’s cellar for the first edition of his book on Bordeaux.
The auction comprised almost 700 lots and featured the best Bordeaux vintages from the past half century. Dr Weinstock purchased wines on release and stored them in a custom-built cellar in his Baltimore home. He marked every bottle with a wax pencil with the date, price and source as well as the ullage level.
Ullage refers to the amount of wine lost though evaporation during storage, and typically a wine loses 1-5 centimetres over several decades. These wines were so well stored, in temperatures averaging 4C, that ullage losses were minimal.
Many of the buyers for the all-day event came from mainland China, and cases worth 150,000 RMB went under the hammer in under half a minute. Auctioneers have been known to speak at 350 words a minute and sell two or three lots a minute. The auctioneers worked as a team, like relay runners. The stream of money and words continued non-stop for almost 10 hours. Buyers spent $7.3 million a the Zachys auction in Hong Kong last November.
My notes from the first hour from 10am show prices were about 10 percent under expected selling prices. By lunch prices were 15-20 percent higher.
These figures provide a snapshot of the afternoon’s highest prices: A magnum of 1976 Romanee Conti Domaine de la Romanee Conti went for 75,000 HKD in perhaps 10 seconds. Its expected selling price was 60,000 HKD. Three 750ml bottles of Corton Charlemagne Cloche-Dury 1989 sold for 70,000 HKD in a few seconds (expected price 46,000 HKD). A dozen half bottles of d’Yquem 1990 went for 24,000 HKD (expected sale 16,000 HKD) in the blink of an eye.
Chateau Lafite has always been popular in China.For the great 1982 vintage, two groups of 24 half-bottles sold for 170,000 HKD per item. Two bottles of the 1953 vintage sold for 26,000 HKD. Several cases of the 1996 vintage sold for an average of 75,000 HKD a case.
Is it possible to find bargains at auctions? Yes, if one knows something about the mindset of people buying wines at auction, and if one is patient and has done lots of research. At this auction most people wanted Bordeaux and Burgundy reds, and these attracted premium prices. I focused on less popular or trendy wines.
For example, I bought 19 bottles of Chateau de Fargues sauternes for $1,029 ($54 a bottle). Some of these wines were made in the mid 1970s and are rare. Over the past few years the average price per bottle of the 1975 Chateau de Fargues sauternes was $149, though it has just peaked and it will be the first I drink.
In his book Sauternes, Stephen Brook wrote “on occasion de Fargues can seem superior to its illustrious one-time stablemate [d’Yquem]”. The fruit is hand harvested, sometimes five or more times, picking individual berries until November.
At an auction in 2010 I bought two and a half cases of classic 2005 and 2006 New Zealand reds that retail for $45 a bottle in that country. Michael Cooper’s Buyer’s Guide to New Zealand Wines rated the wines near the top of a nine-point scale – his equivalent of a high silver medal. Even including freight and buyer’s premium these wines cost me $12 a bottle. I drank them with a smile.
But sometimes at the casino one can lose badly. So it is with wine auctions for those who have not done their research. That same year I bought cases of 20-year-old Hunter Valley semillon and 18-year-old chardonnay. Wines like these with pedigree can last for generations, but only if they have been stored well. This wine had not. Because it was an old wine, the auction house would not refund my money.
The wine went down the sink.
With young wines – vintages from the past five to 10 years – some auction houses will refund your money if the wine is tainted. Not so with older wines. The lesson here: choose younger vintages unless you know the wine has been stored properly.
If you know what you are doing, and can be patient and avoid being caught up in the frenzy, you can find bargains at wine auctions. But it’s a bit like gambling: The house usually wins.
But when the humble gambler wins, it’s time to open a bottle to celebrate.
* “Wine auctions a bit like gambling: The house usually wins” in China Daily, 14 January 2012, page 12. Find link here.

Categories: Not home, wine

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