The Insider's Guide to Buying Wine at Auction

1 June 2012
Author: Jeannie Cho Lee


From the flood of press releases that have crossed my desk so far, it seems likely that wine auction sales in Hong Kong will be setting records this year. Thankfully, we have a respite from the frenzy of the pounding gravel during the summer months, so it’s time to reflect on our spur-of-the-moment purchases. To prepare us for the action-packed auction months ahead, I asked senior representatives of the top four auction houses for buying tips: John Kapon, president of the largest wine auction house in the world, Acker Merrall & Condit; Jeff Zacharia, president of one of the oldest, most highly regarded American wine auction houses, Zachys; Robert Sleigh, senior director and head of wine for Asia at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, who recently hosted the hugely successful and historic Lafite auction in Hong Kong and Charles Curtis MW, head of wine sales for Asia at Christie’s, who played a major role in the successful ex-cellar auction from Latour. What are the most common mistakes you see buyers making at auctions? Jeff Zacharia: Not coming prepared. The auction goes very quickly. We sell, on average, two lots a minute, so you need to be prepared ahead of time with your bidding strategy. Charles Curtis: The most common mistake is for buyers to arrive at the sale without having an idea of the appropriate prices for the wines that interest them, which can lead to indecision and lost lots. The best strategy is to decide on spending limits in advance and stick to them. Robert Sleigh: Doing your homework before an auction will help avoid most issues. If you are building a drinking cellar, the most common mistake is buying lots of wine that all matures at the same time. Think ahead and work out what you want to drink now and then over the next five, 10 and 20 years. If you are buying as an investment, only time will tell if the purchases were wise. What specific wines (including vintages) are currently undervalued at auction? John Kapon: I think Pichon Baron, Haut-Brion, Dujac and Ramonet are undervalued in general. Jeff Zacharia: Wines from the Rhone Valley and Italian wines. Charles Curtis: I think it’s still a good time to buy recent claret from good but not the very best vintages. Even the best chateaux get overlooked sometimes. Here are a few examples: Haut-Brion 1998 and 2001; 1998 La Mission Haut-Brion; Mouton-Rothschild 1995, 1996, 1998; Margaux 1995; Latour 1999 and Cheval 2003, 1995, 1999. Robert Sleigh: It looks like second growths, particularly Saint-Estephe, are undervalued relative to first-growth prices. Young, classically styled vintages which need considerable cellaring also seem soft (2006, for example). Large formats still are not getting the premium one traditionally thinks of. Have you spotted any trends in preferences over the past year at your Hong Kong auctions? John Kapon: The demand and thirst for Burgundy is getting greater each month. There is also an increased appetite for other regions. Jeff Zacharia: While Bordeaux was and still is king in Hong Kong, it has been very good to see tastes and interests expand. Now there is more interest in some of the other great wine-producing regions of the world. We are seeing greatly increased interest in Burgundy. But we are also seeing more interest in California, Rhone and Italy. Charles Curtis: I’d say the three biggest trends are the increasing interest in older vintages, larger formats, and a wider array of Burgundy producers. Robert Sleigh: Bidders are becoming more knowledgeable and really put a premium on direct from the chateau provenance as well as single owner cellars where buyers really get a feel for how the wines were acquired and stored. Also the market is more comfortable now with absentee bidding – written or online. If you were buying a wine lot for yourself in your upcoming auction, what would it be and why? John Kapon: I would buy any of the four lots including 1989 Haut-Brion, as I think it is one of the greatest Bordeaux ever made. Charles Curtis: Well, our sale has just passed (May 27). I would have loved to have bid on the older wines, from the 1890s to the 1930s, a particular fascination of mine. Robert Sleigh: If I could, I would buy lot 738 the full case of 1982 Le Pin magnums in our London sale [yesterday and today]. This is a rare wine in excellent condition, in the original wooden case and with impeccable provenance. Between HK$640,000 and HK$770,000 – dare to dream!


Reprinted with permission from South China Morning Post