Tim James: Is the virus benefitting wine auctions?

By , 17 April 2020



It looks as though lockdown might be good for wine auctions – certainly the online kind, where bidding is conducted on a website over ten days or so. Why? That leisurely pace must preclude the excitement and competitive fervour that can prompt live bidders to go much further than they had originally intended, and live to regret it. Of course, online, one can, for example, click that bid button in a fit of inebriated euphoria and recklessness.

True story: A few days after a recent online auction, I was browsing through my emails, and saw one with the sender’s domaine name that of a well-known auction house, and the subject line “Invoice IN113539 (Online, 16 March 2020)”. What?! I’d been paying attention to the sale, but hadn’t bought anything…. I looked, and the invoice was for a painting that I’d been interested in, but I couldn’t remember bidding for it. Slowly it came back to me that I might have … I probably had … clearly I did …  put in a post-auction offer (which means that, if something doesn’t sell for the reserve price, you can make a below-reserve offer on it, as cheekily low as you wish, and hope that the seller is willing to accept). I had quite forgotten that I had done this. So the picture was mine or would be when I paid for it (including commission and VAT on the commission). I’m very pleased now to have my Simon Stone painting – though I might not have been. But bidders beware, especially late at night after you’ve had a glass or two.

Anyway, post-auction sales were scarcely possible on the wine section of the latest Strauss online auction, which finished on Wednesday evening. Though I can’t of course state that all of the regular bids had been made while the bidders were sober – almost by definition, the bidders were wine-lovers after all. Did the boredom of the lockdown keep them returning to the auction and looking for some sort of excitement? Was there an existential realisation that life is short and so is the supply of good mature (or maturing) wine?

Who knows. Anyway, of the 85 lots on offer, only three went unsold (two of them identical). Moreover, it looks to me that the majority of lots sold for more than the reserve price, and quite a few surpassed the auctioneer’s upper estimate. You can see all the results here.

That all means an excellent result by any standards and vastly better than the earlier Strauss wine auctions last year. Another online Strauss auction held last month, focusing on the burgundy grapes and on sparkling wine, also did very well – not as large a proportion of lots sold, but many of the lots were extremely pricey burgundies and champagnes, as well as local wines.

This week’s auction had the Rhône varieties as a theme, with syrah inevitably ruling overall. Interestingly, the only white wines on offer were some Hermitages and Lismore Viognier 2014 (quite elderly, I’d have thought, for a local viognier, but I daresay the bidders knew what they were doing). The highest price, however, went to a wine overwhelmingly from grenache: the famous Château Rayas Châteauneuf-du-Pape, from the fine 2005 vintage. Two lots of three bottles each, with an average price per bottle of well over R13 000 (total price after commission, etc). Some of Guigal’s showy “La la” Côte-Rôties were the next most expensive.

Of the locals, Sadie Family Wines was the predictable star, with 12 lots on offer (20% of the total number), mostly Columella. The 2008 (a case of six) got the highest bottle price of R3126-odd. This price was shared with one of the two six-bottle lots of Porseleinberg 2011, the other lot getting slightly less. (The 2011 was never commercially released, for given reasons which seem to change occasionally: it started off as the wines “not being ready” but now it seems to be because of “extremely low yields” for that vintage; these lots presumably came directly from the producer, so I dare say we’ll be seeing more on future auctions.)

Mullineux also showed well, with five lots, mostly the standard Syrah, with a twelve-bottle lot of 2012 getting an R1290 per bottle – comparing with R938 per bottle for the 2011 and R1641 for the 2010 (three-bottle lots, those). I would guess that Mullineux 2012 had the highest ratio of auction price to the original selling price of any wine on the auction, foreign or local. A couple of bidders really, really wanted those wines – an auctioneer’s dream!

As far as I can see, the lowest price per bottle was R537 for Luddite Saboteur Red 2012, and there were many wines getting substantially more than that, from a range of producers and vintages – from Boschkloof Epilogue 2015 to Zandvliet 1983. The auctioneers will be justifiably pleased by the results, and hoping that it’s not just the lockdown underpinning the success – or, if it is, that more punters will have anyway caught the auction bug. The next Strauss auction including wine (it’s becoming an increasingly common component of their auctions) is scheduled to be a live one, in Cape Town on 10-11 May (see here), with the focus on Bordeaux varieties. Whether they will have to convert it to online again, we shall have to see. If it remains live, it will be interesting to compare the results with those of the lockdown ones – I suspect that online is particularly well suited to wine-buyers, for many of whom, I’d guess, auctions are something new, and the online versions are less intimidating.

Meanwhile, the successful bidders in the online auctions must remain patient, waiting to be allowed to take delivery of their purchases. No buyer’s remorse, let’s hope.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013

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7 comment(s)

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    GillesP | 18 April 2020

    Hello Tim. Apologies for completely changing the subject but this is my only way to reach out to you. Could you possibly one write something on the subject of cork quality applying to premium SA wines. I find it to be a complete disgrace that wines claiming a price tag of R350+++ are not bothered to provide their high end clientele with decent quality corks. What is your view on this?

    Greg Sherwood MW | 18 April 2020

    Tasted the 2011 in London last year. Drinking beautifully… though still youthful like all Porseleinberg releases. The several times I’ve tasted it over the years, I’ve never found it to be sooo “less ready” than most of the other bigger vintages like 2015 etc. though to be fair, 14, 16 and 17 have been far more forward and elegant on time of release from what I’ve tasted.

    Michael Rathbone | 17 April 2020

    One of the largest online auction sites is winebid.com in California and I made a successful bid of U$58 for the one bottle available of 2015 Kanonkop Paul Sauer. There were two elements I had to factor in: the first, a17% buyers commission and the second the delivery cost of $24.44 so I bid successfully for a further 5 bottles of a variety of wines to amortise the cost per bottle,one of which a 2007 Elvio Cogno Barolo I only secured a minute before the auction closed.

    Tim James | 17 April 2020

    I have belatedly received a press release from the auctioneers – and realised that, not for the first time, my basic arithmetic was awry, and that the highest-priced local wine per bottle was in the lot of Sadie Columella containing one bottle from each vintage 2003-2006: R3224 per bottle compared with R3127 for the 2008s that I’d thought the highest. Otherwise, we seemed basically in agreement!

    Angela Lloyd | 17 April 2020

    Tim, I’m sure if you tasted that Porseleinberg 2011 you’d remember it. I tried it when I visited Callie +-2012/13; it was fearsomely tannic (I’d have to check my notes why this was so) and we wondered how long/whether the tannins would ever resolve. I hope they have, considering the very premium price the buyer paid.

      Tim James | 17 April 2020

      Yes I do remember, Angela. The 2011 was not submitted to Platter, with the euphemistic explanation being that it was “not ready”. I recall from some vague time ago that the tannins did seem very substantial even for what is always a tannic wine. I haven’t tasted it recently, so I thought better to avoid addressing the situation directly! The auction catalogue includes a gushing note from Wine Spectator (with, typically, a dozen aroma/flavour descriptors and 94 points, but no mention of structure at all) but doesn’t give a date for the tasting note – a permanent problem with the Strauss wine auction catalogue, as you know well.

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