Your wine-loving friend probably has a surfeit of glassware, corkscrews, New Yorker wine-cartoon collections, and books by famous wine scribes, not to mention expensive bottles of middling quality received as gifts. The surefire bet for the oenophile in your life is old wine.
“Mature” burgundies or West Coast pinot noirs might be only four to eight years old. As a gift, these wines have the advantage of being rare, somewhat difficult to get (thus showing thoughtfulness on the part of the gift giver), and often more delicious than current releases of the same bottle.
The easiest way to buy the wine is from a retailer. But you have an alternative: Buying wines at auction can often be more economical and even fun.
If you live in San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, or New York, wine auctions are common. Famous houses include the Chicago-based Hart Davis Hart and Chicago Wine Company; the San Francisco-based Bonhams & Butterfields; Christie’s of New York and Los Angeles; and Sotheby’s in New York and London. All of the companies post their catalogs online or will mail them. Attendance and registration are free, though shipping charges and a “buyer’s premium”—usually 10 percent of the sale—that goes to the auction house will add to your cost.
The major auction houses allow limited sampling of some of the wines for registered bidders, and bidding is free. I was recently at an auction by Hart Davis Hart and tasted a 1983 Château Margaux, a 1982 Lafite-Rothschild, and a 1989 Château Mouton Rothschild. A taste of 1995 Château Certain de May was so seductive that I convinced myself to bid for the lot (unfortunately, by the time I got down to business, it had passed).
“The general rule is, you buy three cases, sell two of them for more than you bought them, and thus drink the other for free,” says Charlie Binder, a Bordeaux collector from New York and an auction veteran. He even steps up his own game: “I try to buy three cases, sell only one and drink two for free.” As an auction junkie, Binder is fluent in the current prices and qualities of hundreds of wines and vintages that the amateur wine buyer—and there were plenty of them in the audience—wouldn’t know. But the amateur needn’t compete with the likes of Binder, who trades in high-end, expensive wine. Most auctions have great range when it comes to the price and exclusivity of the wines.
“I try to buy three cases, sell only one and drink two for free.”
There were many relatively inexpensive lots in the HDH auction. Some were grab bags of various old wines, with different burgundies, older Californians, and Italians. The catalog for an upcoming auction at Bonhams & Butterfields shows one lot of a dozen California cabernet sauvignons containing five bottles of 1963 Louis Martini, two 1977 Simi, a 1975 Joseph Phelps, and wines from several other famous producers. With the lot estimated to go for $225 to $325, these famous old wines, even if they sell at the high end of the estimate, will probably go for less than $30 a bottle. Not a bad deal at all—even if a couple of them turn out to be duds. (There’s no way of knowing if your lot includes a bad bottle or whether a wine has aged well unless you’ve had it recently. If it’s not too expensive, it’s worth the risk.)
You don’t even have to go to the auction: All of the top wine auction houses have online bidding, meaning that you can put in bids ahead of time and check in later, or you can watch the bidding fly by in real time. Buying from a major auction house like Hart Davis Hart, Acker Merrall & Condit, Christie’s, WineBid.com, or Bonhams & Butterfields is advisable, as these houses take possession of the seller’s wine before the auction and have inspectors evaluate and endorse every lot, which weeds out frauds and obviously bad bottles.
If you go the retail route, it’s best to buy from shops that have built a solid reputation. Avoid small shops with bottles of 1976 Bordeaux and 1984 Chianti sitting in un-air-conditioned cases under fluorescent lights. K&L Wine Merchants, Premier Cru, Santa Rosa Fine Wine, and Zachys all have a good variety of mature wines. WineAccess draws from the inventories of hundreds of shops and is easily searchable. (If you’re not in one of those states, find a brick-and-mortar store. If you’re not sure about your state’s shipping laws, take a look at Free the Grapes.)
Websites like WineCommune, which, like eBay, allows wine collectors to sell directly to one another, are informal and easy to browse. Good deals can occasionally be found—but buying wine this way is less secure.
A tip for getting a good deal, wherever you’re buying: Search wines other than Bordeaux and Burgundy, which are exceedingly hot markets right now. If your wine lover has a broad palate, look at German Riesling, which ages very well, California cabernets, and Italian wines like Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti Riserva, and Barolo/Barbaresco. Sweet wines like Sauternes, Madeira, and port also age well and can be found at reasonable prices. If you’re set on French wines, don’t be afraid to look in vintages that aren’t the most highly rated or at producers who aren’t the most lauded: Good wine is produced all the time by others besides the most glamorous, famous producers.