How to win at wine auctions
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Online wine auctions can become an addiction, warns Stephen Quinn
People who know what they are doing can find bargains at online wine auctions. But it’s a lot like gambling: The house usually wins. But when the humble gambler does, it’s time to open a bottle to celebrate.
Like many things in life, the key to online purchases is doing good research so you know what you are getting.
Sometimes, like a player at the casino, we can win big. For example, this past month I bought two and a half cases of classic 2005 and 2006 New Zealand red wine that retails for $45 to $48 a bottle in that country. Michael Cooper’s Buyer’s Guide to New Zealand Wines rated the wines near the top of a nine-point scale – his equivalent of a high silver medal.
He described the wines as “refined, with excellent concentration of fruit”. Unlike some wine guides, Cooper’s book criticises poor wines as well as praises fine ones. Interviewed in Melbourne for the Taste of New Zealand event on February 22, Cooper told me he strives for accuracy and clarity.
“I tell people what I think about the wines honestly,” he said. And refreshingly he added: “You should always treat the views in my book for what they are – one person’s opinions.” It’s the same with this article.
I paid $341.75 for 30 bottles, including postage, freight and buyer’s premium. That works out at $11.40 a bottle.
Sometimes at the casino you can lose badly. So it is with the game of online wine auctions. Late last year I bought a case of 20-year-old Hunter Valley semillon and 18-year-old chardonnay. Hunter semillon with pedigree can last for generations, but only if it has been stored well. This wine had not. Because it was an old wine, the auction house would not refund my money.
That wine went down the sink.
With young wines – vintages from the past five to eight years – most auction houses will give your money back if the wine is corked. Not so with older wines. The lesson here: choose younger vintages unless you know how the wine has been stored. Names of auction houses will not be mentioned to protect the guilty.
This brings us to the auction process. You need to register online and provide a current credit card and an email address. You receive a user name and password via your email address.
Once you log on, bidding for wine involves clicking on the bid button and then confirming that, yes, you would like to buy that wine.
Most online auctions run for between 18 and 36 hours. If someone overbids you, the auction house sends an email advising how much you now need to bid, and provides a link back to the wine, where you can try again.
Online auctions also allow you to set a maximum bid. Bids jump in $5 increments, and bidding usually starts at around $9 or $10 per item.
I recommend setting oneself a limit per item – let’s say $90 a case. Sometimes you need to be strong. It is easy, and tempting, in the heat of the last few minutes to keep bidding. Some primal competitive urge takes over.
Most auctions will continue past the deadline if two or more people are still bidding in the last 10 minutes for an item.
My eagerness to win has cost me in the past. This leads us to the golden rule of online wine auctions: Know what you want and the maximum you will pay. Do your research before you start bidding, and be strong.
Here are a few tips, assuming you have identified the wine you want. Many auctions offer several cases of the same wine in the same lot. Bid low for all of them. Perhaps four cases at $29 each. It’s likely someone else will overbid you for some of the wine. But not always: You can often be left with one of those cases, which you got for a bargain.
Most auction houses charge a buyer’s fee of 15 per cent of the bid, and another $20 a case postage and handline.
Be prepared to lose. Remember the zen of wine auctions: it is better to have bid and lost than not to have bid at all.
* Offered to The Age. Published in Asia News (part of Asian News Network) March 2010