The Evolution of the Charity Wine Auction

Wine charity auctions on both sides of the Atlantic are changing, as  L.M. Archer and Edward Lewis discover.

Reading time: 12 minutes

Auctions (Photo:  Aerial Mike/AdobeStock)
Auctions (Photo: Aerial Mike/AdobeStock)

 

  • The Hospices de Beaune showcases one region, one vintage, and one winemaker.
  • Collective Napa Valley highlights one region, but individual wineries and wines.
  • The Hospices seeks to sell more wine to individual buyers
  • Collective Napa Valley wants to expand a global audience beyond their traditional network of high-net worth buyers and collectors.
  • Sotheby’s is now involved with both, and intent on strengthening its role as a charity wine auctioneer

 

The tragic conflict in Ukraine has sparked generosity in a wide range of forms, including charity wine auctions in the US and UK, two of which have collectively raised over $200,000.

The link between charities, auctions and wine generally has a long and varied history. Some events like the annual VDP event in Germany and Nedbank Cape Winemakers Guild Auction in South Africa focus tightly on rare and specific wines. Some like another South African event, the Cape Wine Auction, raise large sums for good causes by offering lots with less directly vinous content including trips to the Bahamas and “a life-changing sojourn at glorious Villa Saletta in Tuscany” alongside ‘an exclusive stay in the Rupert & Rothschild Vignerons Manor House’, and ‘a curated lot of Stellenbosch Cabernet’. Some are world famous; others are decidedly local in their appeal.

And some, including two of the world’s most famous and longest-established, are changing.

Considered the ‘gold standard’ among charity wine auctions worldwide, Burgundy’s annual Hospices de Beaune auction is held on the third Sunday each November. The 161st auction held on 21 November 2021 raised €12.6m ($15.3m) for 362 single-barrel lots.

The 50 different red and white Burgundies are all from the most recent vintage – sometimes only weeks earlier – and from the domaine originally established in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin tax collector to the duke of what was then the huge region of Burgundy, and his wife, Guigone de Salins. From the outset, the money generated by the estate was intended to contribute to the cost of Beaune’s Hôtel-Dieu hospital. Over the centuries other vineyards have been donated so that now it covers 60-hectares (148.26 acres).

Varying Quality

Sold ‘en primeur’, all the wine has to be matured and bottled in the region by a producer or negociant. Bottlings vary depending on the buyer, which helps to explain why despite the high prices its wines command, the Hospices de Beaune does not feature on lists of the region’s top estates.

If separate bottlings of the same wines set the Hospices de Beaune apart, so do some of the cuvées that combine grapes from different vineyards. The Beaune Premier Cru, Cuvée des Dames Hospitalières with which the auction traditional opens, for example, as the catalogue reveals, is “made entirely from Premiers Crus vineyards, mainly Les Bressandes, La Mignotte and Les Teurons.” The cuvées are named after the benefactor, or in honour of an illustrious figure, so, during the Second World War, there was briefly a Clos du Maréchal Pétain which ceased to exist in 1945.

Apart from these unique blends and some Grands Crus, the Hospices de Beaune’s vineyards include more modest Côte d’Or villages such as Monthelie and plots in Pouilly Fuissé and Chablis. This range, and the timing of the auction, once led to the Hospices wines and the prices paid for them being seen as indicative of the vintage as a whole.

Even when journalists from newspapers like the London’s Financial Times travelled to Beaune to cover the event, however, it was acknowledged that the Hospices wines were often less well-made than others in the region. In recent years, while Ludivine Griveau, the estate’s first female winemaker has won unanimous respect for her winemaking skills, professionals wanting to assess the overall quality of the vintage, and its likely pricing, generally focus their efforts on the tasting of growers’ and negociants’ wines at the local conference centre.

By the Barrel

If the quality of the wines has improved, there have been other changes. In 2005, the management of the auction was delegated to Christies’ who introduced the policy of selling wines by the single 228-bottle barrel rather than in lots of as many as six or eight. The traditional requirement to buy these large quantities meant that while negociants bought on behalf of restaurants and overseas merchants, individuals wanting to purchase a bottle or a case were excluded from the process.

Today, as Albéric Bichot of the negociant and estate-owner Domaines Albert Bichot says “we see that more and more buyers are ‘final clients’ i.e. consumers and collectors from all around the world, rather than professional wine distributors.”

M. Bichot has a particular reason for welcoming this trend. The biggest buyer at the auction, his company is also owner of the hospices-beaune.com website (as opposed to the official hospices-de-beaune.com site) which explains “Why and how Albert Bichot revolutionized the auction with online direct sale” and lists ways in which individuals can buy a bottle or a barrel of Hospices wine.

M. Bichot’s biggest competitor at the auction is a young company called Anima Vinum which bought a single barrel in 2005 and has steadily overtaken other older merchants to become the second biggest buyer. The Meursault-based merchant specialises in long barrel-ageing and an ‘artisan – style’ approach and sells its wines to restaurants and merchants and individuals who represent 25% of its business. Unlike most traditional Burgundy negociants which saw their role as working with other distributors, Anima Vinum shares Bichot’s ambition of building relationships with, and sales to, individual buyers.

Change in Auctioneer

The most recent auction brought another change, in the replacement, at the end of its contract, of Christie’s by Sotheby’s. While no explanation has been given for the switch, rumours in Beaune suggest that the now-former auctioneer and estate had different opinions about the timing of the pandemic-hit, largely online 2020 auction. Just as relevant may be Sotheby’s ambitions to expand the activities of its wine department beyond its own sales, and more specifically to specialize in charity sales.

“For many years, we have organized auctions on behalf of consignors who have publicly designated the proceeds to go to charitable causes,“ explains Jamie Ritchie, Worldwide Head of Sothebys Wine. “From 2021, we have made a significant effort to create a new channel of auctions that are focused on supporting a variety of charitable organizations. Each of these relationships” Ritchie continues “runs over multiple years, so we can learn about how best to support and promote the organizations over a longer period of time than one auction. In this way, we can be innovative about how we build a successful series of events and auctions, that is tailor-made for each organization.”

Apart from the Hospices de Beaune, in 2021, Sotheby’s announced an agreement with the Premiere Napa Valley and Library Wine Auctions that would replace the 40 year-old Auction Napa Valley.

Extravagance Galore

Unlike the Hospices de Beaune, whose sale was held in the Beaune market hall where shoppers line up to buy chickens and cheese every week from stallholders, the Napa event was, in San Francisco Chronicle writer Esther Mobley’s words, “notoriously extravagant”. Every year, it brought together a wide range of celebrities and wealthy bidders at swanky, celebrity-studded galas at the self-styled Meadowood Luxury Resort. Lots in 2018 featured a pair donated by Opus One that went for $1.4m and included old vintages stretching back to 1979, airline tickets to France and a masked ball at the Palace of Versailles.

Where visitors to Beaune lucky enough to obtain a ticket, pay $250 to eat one of the black tie Trois Glorieuses gala meals in the Hospices cellars or at Clos Vougeot, some of their counterparts in Napa happily shelled out tens of thousands of dollars. While the bidders at the 2021 Hospices auction applauded the record-breaking price of €800,000 ($870,000) for the special Pièce des Présidents barrel, this only represents $3,500 per bottle. Comparing that figure to the $500,000 paid in 2016 for a single bottle of 1992 Screaming Eagle Cabernet puts the two events into context.

If the Napa auction has helped to add glitter to a number of wineries and their top wines, and if bids like these enabled it to raise over $200m across the four decades, even before Covid shuttered the event in 2020, it was acknowledged that the event needed to change.

An exclusive game

“To be honest, the Napa wine auction has always seemed like a rarefied thing - even though I've worked in Napa Valley restaurants for five years,” says sommelier Myles Trapp of Auberge du Soleil. “ I don't have the impression that the auction impacts real marketing decisions made by retailers or wineries. It seems almost like an exclusive game that's played by a select group of people - mostly wealthy wine collectors and philanthropists.” Or, as Mobley put it bluntly, the event had become "too luxurious and exclusive for its own good."

As Jack Bittner, chairman of the Napa Valley Vintners board told her, “The auction was this remarkable engine of philanthropy, but there was a general feeling over the last eight or nine years that we should find an opportunity to rethink it,”

Teresa Wall, Senior Director of Communications for Napa Vintners explains that Under the new model, Collective Napa Valley, there will not be a live auction component tied to the barrel auction in June,” says We will host a vintage celebration in the fall, and will incorporate a smaller scale, live auction into that event.

Even if this decision had not been taken in June 2020, the fact that Meadowood was devastated by fire three months later would inevitably have changed the event.

“Our goal” she says “is to attract a broader, global community who are engaged with our region, and will celebrate and invest in Napa Valley year after year.”

Bottles of Napa wine may still be bought at astronomically high prices, but attendance will – by US standards – be more affordable. Three membership levels replace costly tickets: ‘Complimentary’, ‘Enthusiast  at $1,000’, and ‘Enthusiast at $5,000’. Membership includes virtual access to seasonal offerings, ‘wine purchasing opportunities’, and a subscription to NAPA Magazine and Collective Napa Valley newsletter. ‘Enthusiast $1,000’ also includes up to two Futures Barrel Auction tickets, and access to curated special events.‘Enthusiast $5,000’ affords access to four Futures Barrel tickets, plus exclusive swag like a Napa Valley Raised-Relief Topographic Map, and Commemorative Collective Napa Valley Enthusiast lapel pin.

Ultimately, Collective Napa Valley puts new spin on an old model, one with an international reach, but local flavour. For example, Jean Charles Boisset and Gina Gallo will chair the first in-person event, a summer barrel auction weekend in June at Boisset’s Raymond Vineyards.

The changes in Napa may be far more significant than the ones in Burgundy, but both regions and events are reflecting a trend towards focusing on individual wine enthusiasts that clearly appeals to Sotheby’s as it stakes its claim on both sides of the Atlantic.

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