Wine

Wine Auctions Pivot—Quite Profitably—to the Virtual World

How the booming success of remote auctions is transforming the fine wine market

Illustration by Jeff Tsui.

In July, Chicago’s Hart Davis Hart Wine Co. held an auction for the powerhouse New York restaurant Del Posto. All of the 3,422 lots, including vintage Quintarelli, Sassicaia, and a full case of 1999 Case Basse Brunello di Montalcino Riserva, were sold, with 80 percent of the lots selling for quite a lot more than was predicted. Overall, the Del Posto Collection raked in $5.7 million, far surpassing the estimated total of between $3 and $4.5 million. 

It was “one of the most comprehensive collections of Italian wine in the world,” says Marc Smoler, senior vice president of client services at Hart Davis Hart, noting that the sheer number of quality bottles, combined with the cachet of the restaurant, made for “a very competitive auction.” As Hart Davis Hart gears up for its first Hong Kong-based sale this winter, Smoler is optimistic. 

The auction business is booming. Another restaurant collection, culled from the cellars of Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group (Gramercy Tavern, the Modern, Union Square Café, Maialino, and Marta in New York), was auctioned in April via a partnership between USHG HUGS, the company’s nonprofit employee relief fund, and White Plains, New York-based Zachys Wine Auctions. All of the lots, bottles of Margaux and Selosse among them, were spoken for. The final yield of $905,907 was much higher than the $592,610 estimate. 

During the pandemic, the auction behemoth Sotheby’s Wine presented five single-owner auctions that totaled more than $26 million, selling at 50 percent above the low estimate. In the first seven months of the year, the total for wine and spirits sales exceeded $45 million, with $24 million generated online. Acker, the historic New York wine merchant and auction house, also saw a notable spike in business, totaling more than $50 million in worldwide sales during the first half of 2020, outpacing its nearest competitor by 50 percent. 

Although the online format greatly diminishes the rarefied air that’s synonymous with an auction, it enables potential buyers in far-flung locations to participate. And at a time when in-person dining is severely limited in most parts of the country, virtual auctions are proving to be a successful way to keep consumers engaged with fine wines during an unconventional era of wine buying. 

“The digital transformation in the wine and spirits business has been accelerated by five to 10 years as innovation, automation, simplicity, and empowering clients is very clearly the future,” says Jamie Ritchie, worldwide head of Sotheby’s Wine.

More Seats Around the Table

One big upside to the virtual auction is the ability to reach a much larger audience, says Jamie Peha, executive director of Auction of Washington Wines (AWW), which went virtual for the first time this year: “We saw people register and tune in who are new to the Auction of Washington Wines, including many from across the country.”

According to Acker chairman John Kapon, “The first six months of 2020 showed that buyers continued their hunt for fine wine at an even higher rate, with a 33 percent increase in the number of overall bidders in auctions compared with 2019, and 1,679 new world records set overall.” Acker’s auctions were “live online.” Due to popular demand, the company added another Hong Kong auction to the calendar in July.

Sotheby’s Wine statistics from January-July 2020 reveal that more than 1,000 bidders from 40 countries purchased 67 percent of wine and 83 percent of spirits lots online. In addition, says Ritchie, 20 percent of bidders are new to Sotheby’s, and half of them are under 40 years old. “The digital tools enable us to reach a much broader, younger, and more dynamic market while we continue to enjoy the support of our traditional clients,” he says.

Zachys Wine Auctions is also up on its January projections. “Supply has remained consistent to high, and demand has risen to meet it. Not only have our online sales been going well, our live sales have become what we call ‘Studio Sales,’ livestreamed from our offices in White Plains,” explains Charles Antin, head of sales. 

Even the Hong Kong sales are auctioneered from New York (on Hong Kong time). All of Zachys typical pre-auction dinners have morphed into Zoom or al fresco lunches. Most importantly, adds Antin, “Our sales have been so strong, we’ve kept with our years-long plan to open in London on September 12, with ‘bidding parties’ in countries all over the world, so people can get together and still be in small groups while they bid.”

Photo courtesy of Willamette Valley Wineries Association.

Creating a Rich Virtual Experience

In 2016, the Willamette Valley Wineries Association (WVWA) launched Willamette: The Pinot Noir Auction, a singular, for-the-trade showcase of exemplary wines produced in the region. In 2020, with the COVID-19 crisis raging, the WVWA migrated to a virtual format. 

First, it established Preview Week, a series of 15 educational virtual tastings leading up to the bidding. “Because the auction is a snapshot of vintage, place, and people, we felt strongly that these exquisite wines from 2018 needed to be tasted, discussed, and purchased,” explains executive director Morgen McLaughlin.

Then, over three days in August, customers safely ensconced in their living room bid on 74 auction-exclusive lots of Pinot Noir from the 2018 vintage and six lots of Chardonnay. The event culminated in a buzzy live finale that featured such personalities as Portland Trail Blazers guardand newly minted winemakerCJ McCollum. Along with this year’s shift to digital, the auction was also remarkable for raising $503,000, $100,000 of which will support the James Beard Foundation’s Food & Beverage Investment Fund for Black and Indigenous Americans, part of the broader James Beard Foundation Open for Good campaign. 

For its 33rd iteration, the Auction of Washington Wines (AWW) also moved forward virtually this August. It raised $1.74 million for Seattle Children’s Hospital and Washington State University Viticulture & Enology Research. Over 600 people registered for more than 130 lots, including a 22-year vertical series of Leonetti Cellar Sangiovese and a reserved spot on the coveted Cayuse Vineyards membership list. 

“Our biggest challenge was bringing as many elements from our in-person events to life online,” says Peha. She adds that such  highlights as Gala-in-a-Box meals prepared by well-known Seattle chefs were intended to draw people into the live-streamed auction.

Details have not yet been revealed to the public, but Premiere Napa Valley, the annual invitation-only event for members of the wine trade, is planning a virtual auction in February. “We really did not have an idea how long the pandemic would last and how comfortable our trade partners would be in traveling to Napa Valley,” says Stacey Dolan Capitani, vice president of marketing at Napa Valley Vintners. In case conditions allow for small gatherings by then, the organizers are also planning a few in-person events. “It will be a fluid situation, but we are excited about how we are reinventing and reimagining this event. I truly believe many of these concepts will stay in place once we can gather again,” she adds.

Filling the In-Person Dining Void

Hart Davis Hart Wine Co. has also seen the number of auction attendees grow since the pandemic started. “People are not moving around as much, and so they have the ability to tune in and live bid. Consumption at home has also increased, and clients have more time to focus on their cellars and collection,” says Smoler.

He also observes that auctions have benefited from the current wine tariffs on some European selections, with people “seeking out new ways to purchase wines, especially mature ones, without the extra expense. Auctions also provide a large variety of vintages, formats, price points, and regions not found in other venues. It’s truly one-stop shopping.”

The collapse of the on-premise sector is undoubtedly one of the pandemic’s darkest realities—for owners and staff certainly, but also for oenophile guests. As the WVWA’s McLaughlin sums it up: “Many people have lost the chance to sit down and peruse a wine list, interact with a sommelier, discover new wines, and simply enjoy the restaurant experience.”

Snagging special bottles, such as those from Del Posto, is a luxury, but for the collectors ramping up auction sales, it’s also a way to channel a much-missed, storied dining room. 

Alia Akkam is a writer who covers food, drink, travel, and design. Her work has appeared in Vogue.com, Playboy, and Taste, among others, and she is a former editor at Edible Queens, Hospitality Design, and Beverage Media. With the Tippling Bros. she wrote the book A Lime and a Shaker: Discovering Mexican-Inspired Cocktails. A native New Yorker, Alia now calls Budapest home. Follow Alia @behdria.

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