You are using an old browser that may not function as expected.
For a better, safer browsing experience, please upgrade your browser.

Log in Become a Member

"Bid five thousand nine hundred for a bottle of Côte de Nuits Grand Cru 1976 from Domaine Romanée-Conti.... going once... going twice, and six thousand is bid... going once... to the second... and to the third! Lot 609 goes to number 245." I sit in the second row for six hours until lot 1096 is also called. It has not found a buyer. Even the gradual lowering of the call price (Dutch auctioning) - down to 10 francs - has brought no bid. A guttural mood, the battle has been fought. A lot of money has been transacted in the past six hours. Several hundred thousand francs, even a million, I haven't done the math. In any case, it was less than at the last auctions. Business is faltering, things are no longer moving so briskly.

The loneliness of the auctioneer - Franz J. Wermuth - before the auction (Photo: P. Züllig)

Never before have I realised so clearly that wine is also a commodity, a commodity of trade. Even more: a business is made out of the desire to own a wine. I think about it: whoever drinks this wine "destroys" with one bottle the monthly income of many an employee, indeed the annual income of a majority of people in developing countries. Is this wine even there to be drunk? I can't quite imagine it, and yet: more and more of these expensive wines are disappearing - and not only in the cellars or warehouses of merchants. There is no time for such and similar thoughts - despite the monotony of what is happening - three hundred francs to the first... to the second and... to the third, the little hammer swooshes down. Boxes of twelve from Burgundy - Pommard: Côte de Baune by Léon Violland, also from the 1970s - are already coming under the hammer. They don't sell well! Out of eight cases, just two. And at what prices! The case of 76 for 160 francs, 15 francs a bottle, same vintage as the Romanée-Conti.

Critically examining a few "samples" of the offer% Stimulators for the hall bids (Photo: P. Züllig)

Class society sends its regards! The price ratio from small to large: 1 to 400. A Spiegel of our society. All this rushes past me. The actual events do not take place in the hall. Here we see and experience only the tip of the iceberg, only a seventh of the trade. It is anonymised. Written bids that only the auctioneer knows about and that are brought into play and monitored by him. All the expensive lots are knocked down to an anonymous number: a dozen Lafite-Rothschild, vintage 2000 at 19,500 francs or even a collection of Mouton-Rothschild from 1947 to 1962 - estimated between 40,000 and 55,000 francs - 48 bottles at 38,000 francs. If - as always - the lot fee, the buyer's premium and the VAT are added (a good 18 percent), the lot costs the bidder 44,900 francs, 935 per bottle. The auctioneer's curt comment: "It's been more expensive than that!" or "It's going to the Far East" or "It'll end up indirectly in Russia." Despite everything, it's a bargain! All this passes me by, without emotion, matter-of-factly cool, as if one were just spreading a sandwich.

Expensive desirability - presentation of a Mouton-Rothschild collection at an auction (Photo: P. Züllig)

By now there are barely 15 people in the room. Almost all of them men. Wine auctions are one of the last male domains. Toughness and risk-taking are required, otherwise you're not in business. But the time of the open battle is long gone. Only a few years ago, people in the room were still fighting each other with bids, begrudging each other nothing, driving up the prices, in an open exchange of blows, by the case, often far above the upper estimated price. I always thought to myself: Why don't the bidders coordinate their bids? Sometimes a box for this, sometimes a box for that - the goods would often have been available for half the price. But no, not one metre of terrain was given away. Fight to the last. Yet it was always the same names, the same wines, the same vintages that were so fiercely fought over. And the rest? They went away without a sound, mostly anonymously, now and then also in small skirmishes in the hall. Collectors or bargain hunters. But those times are over. In the hall, order reigns again, almost boredom.

At some point - around half-time - there is free champagne (Barnaut 100% Grand Gru) and nibbles for all those who have endured. The mood is subdued, one auction habitué comments: "The market is broken!" Indeed, the bargain hunters have disappeared, the collectors are coy. Business is largely taking place in the invisible six sevenths of the iceberg.

Out of 1,090 lots (according to the purged list), 185 have not found buyers, i.e. have "declined", which is still 17 per cent of the supply. Don't worry, the wines will turn up again soon, mostly in an internet auction or back here in the hall.

Subdued light - subdued mood at the auction (Wine Exchange) (Photo: P. Züllig)

At other auctions - by other auctioneers - a similar picture. A good a fortnight ago, I also sat out six hours of auction in another hotel room in a similar ambience - standardised and faded elegance of the deliberately impersonal. A different vendor, less international, more for collectors and bargain hunters. Three times as many bidders came, and many of the lots found buyers in the room. One feels taken more seriously, the business puts on a more sympathetic mien. The offer is more diverse, not only Bordeaux, the great Burgundies and the top shots from Italy, California and Australia are there. But the basic mood is similar: things are tough. And how! The auctioneer's easygoing remarks, the midday catering and the large bottle of Bordeaux (Impériale or even larger) offered attract far more bidders into the hall. But the restraint is clearly noticeable here as well.

The temptation - large-format bottle offered at the auction (Wine Exchange) (Photo: P. Züllig)

Every wine auction is a ritual. Directly, it has little to do with wine, much more with money and desire. Wine as a commodity, as a commodity to be traded and as a possession. The language is sober: there are the consignors, the bidders, the highest bid, the valuation. The criteria are simple: original wooden case - ten and more per cent more expensive; cellar grey - ten and more per cent cheaper; cut capsule - 30 and more per cent cheaper. The contents of the bottle are the same, the wine offers the same pleasure. Only the packaging is different, just in line with the market or not.

During the sedentary hours in the auction rooms, I not only diligently take notes, I also think about things. Why do the wines come - en masse - to the auctions? On the one hand, it is the possibility of a profit for those who speculate with wine. Will it work out? Hardly at the moment! On the other hand - and this touches me - these are bottles that a wine lover has lovingly collected and cherished for years. And then - has to part with his treasures, due to old age. Or even more brutally, has to leave the cellar to the heirs.

Time and again I have bought individual bottles at auction, with handwritten notes, dates of purchase, prices, even valuations. Bottles that were lovingly packaged and wrapped in foil. Bottles that were never intended for auction. Such small tokens of wine joy make me reflective, conciliatory. Wine is not just a commodity after all.

Yours sincerely

Related Magazine Articles

View All