Of course, there are more serious collectors who love to drink wine but
also buy and sell it as an investment, much like paintings from famous
artists or period furniture from well-known craftsmen.
If you happen to find yourself developing from a novice into a serious
collector, then there is basically no way around it, you will need to
start purchasing at auction. The sorts of wine typically found at
auction, especially when considering the better and older vintages, are
just not available on the shelves of your average retail shop. Also as
important, one can collect wine at less cost at auction as wine auction
prices generally fall below retail prices.
Bidding for the first time at an auction may seem like an intimidating
process. Having been on both sides of the proverbial auction stand, here
are a few pieces of advice that might make your initial auction
experiences become much more successful and enjoyable:
Wine: Find the Value
The majority of apprehension I experienced personally while attending
wine auctions for the first time derived from the fear of over-bidding
due to either not having a good understanding of market values or how
the condition of bottles can impact value.
Thanks in part to the magic of the Internet, there are several wine
auction databases (TrueBottle.com to name one) that report recent
auction prices from major wine auction houses worldwide. Consequently,
discerning a general ballpark figure one should pay for a particular
bottle of wine actually takes remarkably little guesswork.
Understand Bottle Conditions
Just like almost everything else purchased at auction, the condition of a
selection of bottles can dramatically increase or decrease the final
hammer price. And since wine auction databases generally do not readily
convey condition information, arriving at more precise estimated values
for lots of bottles can quickly become more of an art form than a
Bottles in pristine condition often demand higher prices, while bottles
with flaws are often commensurate with reduced prices. Although this
might seem like an obvious statement, it is important to note that
condition issues are not all alike regarding the impact they have on
perceived bottle value.
Wine: Condition of Label
Personally speaking, it does not matter to me whether the label, that
little square piece of paper glued to the wine bottle, is in pristine
condition. As long as I can read the label well enough to accurately
understand its contents, I am usually not too concerned about purchasing
Having said this, some collectors care very much about what the label
looks like, especially if they are either purchasing as a commercial
entity (like a restaurant) to serve to customers or buying as an
investment to be sold at some later time. Because there is a demand for
spotless labels, less than pristine examples can knock 10 to 15 percent
off the final hammer price.
Wine: Fill Level
Bottles not kept in cooler, humidity controlled storage conditions, over
time, can have an adverse impact on a wine’s taste. Additionally, wines
not stored well over time can detrimentally affect the overall
sturdiness of the bottle. Since cork is a natural wood product that does
not create a perfect seal, all wines will show some evaporation inside
the bottle over time.
That being said, bottles stored under imperfect conditions tend to show a
faster loss of liquid. Ullage levels (i.e., the air space between the
cork and the liquid) tend to be a good gauge of drinkability. As a
general rule, top or upper-shoulder fill levels are acceptable for wines
30-years or older. However, top or upper-shoulder fill levels are
deemed unacceptable for wines less than 20-years-old (where one would
expect close to base-neck fills or better).
A lower-than-expected fill level can easily reduce a bottle’s value by
20 percent but even as high as 50 percent depending on the seriousness
of the flaw. Fortunately, most wine auction houses will not sell bottles
with fill levels deemed too divergent from the normal expected
variation for age.
Wine: Condition of Capsule and Cork
Corks have been around for a long time and, considering that cork is
merely a type of wood, make a remarkably sturdy enclosure. In fact, here
at the auction house it is not unusual to see a 100-year-old bottle
with its seal still intact. Having said this, given enough time all
corks will eventually fail.
And when corks begin to fail there are typically some telltale signs.
Most notably, there is seepage around the capsule, or the foil-like
covering around the top the bottle. While bottles with seepage are often
still drinkable, over time the probability becomes less so as more
oxygen outside the bottle begins to interact chemically with the wine
contained within. Signs of seepage can notably reduce the value and a
reputable wine auction house will disclose to the buyer whether this
flaw exists as well as its magnitude.
As with wine bottles containing lower-than-expected fill levels, most
wine auction houses will not auction bottles with degrees of seepage
thought to warrant a bottle undrinkable.
Merely by using a wine auction price database and understanding a few
key concepts regarding wine bottle condition statements, your initial
wine auction experiences should become much more rewarding and
Mark J. Solomon is the Fine Wine Auction Director at Leland Little Auctions.