There’s a thrill to competing for the bottles on the block. But will you end up paying more than you would retail? Seasoned bidders share their tips

WINE AUCTIONS are the new retail,
Geoffrey Troy
observed last month, when we were seated next to each other at the Holiday Auction held by Zachys Wine Auctions in Manhattan. Mr. Troy is the senior auction advisor to Zachys and the owner of New York Wine Warehouse in Long Island City, N.Y. The auction took place over two days in the second-floor dining room of Smith & Wollensky restaurant. We had both secured paddles to place bids, but I didnt raise mine once.Mr. Troy was bidding on various lots of Bordeaux on behalf of private clients. (In auction parlance, a lot is a wine or wines offered for sale; it could be a case of bottles or just one.) The prices were reasonable for top Bordeaux, Mr. Troy thought, as opposed to the crazy prices top Burgundies have been commanding. Still, the wines Mr. Troy was bidding onfirst-growth Bordeaux such as Château Latourwere well out of my range. I dont buy cases of anything fancy; Im more of a single-bottle fancy-wine buyer, at most.
Happily, there are more and more options for one-bottle buyers like me, mostly online. Many houses, including Zachys, offer both live and online auctions, some a few times a year and others, such as Acker Wine Auctions and WineBid, as frequently as once a week.
Based in Napa, Calif., and Seattle, WineBid, the first online wine auctioneer, debuted in 1996. When I spoke with CEO
Russ Mann
recently, he noted his companys appeal to a younger generation of digital-native wine drinkers. He said these bidders are less able or willing to spend the big money associated with traditional auctions, where bids might start at four figures. At WineBid some bids start as low as $10.
I doubt there was a single lot starting at $10 at the Zachys live auction last month, but there was a free glass of Champagne and the offer of free lunch for registered bidders. Still, whether at live or online auctions, savvy bidders care about the same things: storage and provenance, especially given all the fakes found in auctions in recent years.

Dont get caught up. Theres always another auction.

Mr. Mann assured me his company carefully scrutinizes the authenticity and condition of its wines. But he added, Like all auction houses, there are no guarantees. Its buyer beware. Zachys president
Jeff Zacharia
said much the same thing after stepping down from the auctioneers podium, where hed been taking bids from buyers in the room and on the phone. (Some bids came in over the internet, too. Like many other houses, Zachys accepts online bids for live auctions.)
During a break in bidding, Mr. Zacharia explained that auction houses are more vigilant regarding provenance today than they were 10 years ago. As if on cue, former FBI agent
Jim Wynne
stepped up to say hello. Mr. Wynne was key in securing the conviction of
Rudy Kurniawan,
the notorious wine fraudster serving a 10-year term in a federal prison.
I confessed to Mr. Zacharia that as a wine auction tyro (and middle-class buyer), I wasnt likely to bid on anything that day. He suggested I try bidding online, perhaps focusing on mixed lotsbottles of various years, various producers or bothoften good values, he said.
Acker Wine Auctions is an online favorite of a collector friend in suburban New York who bids and buys nearly every week. Hes never attended a live auction, thinking them too stuffy (though he did perk up at my mention of free Champagne).
My friend shared a few tips. Number one: Dont bid early. Most online auctions last an entire week. He takes his time reading notes about the bottles, especially regarding their condition. For instance, he said, I stay away from anything that says low-fill meaning the bottle isnt quite full, possibly indicating seepage. He also scans scores from critics and compares prices at other auctions and retail.
Another key piece of advice: Dont get caught up. Theres always another auction. He admitted hed gotten carried away a few times. He also told me, Wait to bid near the endbut not too long. Shoot for about 15 minutes before. If you bid at 7:59 on an auction ending at 8 p.m., the auction house might extend the deadline, seeing active bidding. Then you could still be outbid, he cautioned. Finally, he reminded me, the winning bid isnt the total price: There is a buyers premium (17-24% depending on the house), plus sales tax and shipping.
Because my friend was interested in wines in an Acker auction, I invited him to dinner so he could counsel me in person. As we opened our laptops, he shared another tip: Bid on wines in storage in New York, not Hong Kong. (The location of the bottle is noted on the auction page.) Ive done [the latter] a few times, and it takes about a month to get the wines, he said. His final admonition: Dont bid against me.
My friend was bidding on Brunello, while I had my eye on a 2010 Chartogne-Taillet Couarres Château Extra Brut Champagne, a rare all-Pinot bottling from a great small producer. The reserve bid was $40a good deal, I thought. Plus, no one else was bidding… until someone, identified only as Dave, was. I took my friends advice and waited until near the end to place a bid, but Dave bid again as well. Though it was now more than I wanted to pay, I was determined not to let Dave get the bottle. I ended up paying $100 plus tax and a premium of 24%, which came to just over $135. I later found the bottle for $110 retail.
I was also looking at a bottle of 2015 Château Giscours on WineBid. No one else was bidding on this third-growth Bordeaux, though it had received high critical marks. The reserve bid was $50, and since the wine retails for around $90 it seemed like a deal. I bid $51which, with a 17% premium, tax and shipping, totaled close to $85. It took 10 days to arrive from California, too. Not such a great deal either.
The following week, in another Acker auction, a two-bottle lot of 2009 Tor Beckstoffer To Kalon Clone 4 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon had a reserve bid of $100less than the price of a single bottle retail ($115). The wine was from highly respected winemaker, a great vineyard and had very good critical scores. No one else was interested until the end, when I got carried away in a bidding war again. I won the lot for $189 including the buyers premium and taxes. (As with the Champagne, I picked up the wines from the affiliated
Acker Merrall
& Condit bricks-and-mortar store in Manhattan, so at least I saved shipping costs.)
In the end, I got caught up in a way I would not have shopping retail and paid more than I intended. But two of the wines (the Champagne and the Cabernet) were excellent. And I had a good bit of fun.
Acker Wine Auctions: This New York-based house holds regular live auctions (Hong Kong and New York) and weekly online auctions. Buyers premium is 24%.
Hart Davis Hart Wine Co.: This Chicago company holds seven live auctions and five online (aka mobile) auctions a year. Buyers premium is 19.5%.
Sothebys: Sothebys offers seven live auctions each in New York and Hong Kong, 10 in London, and plans to add more online auctions this year. Buyers premium: 24% New York and Hong Kong, 21% London.
WineBid: The first online only wine auctioneer, WineBid auctions many inexpensive wines weekly. Buyers premium is 17%.
Zachys Wine Auctions: This White Plains, N.Y.-based company offers live auctions in New York, Hong Kong and San Francisco, and also holds frequent online auctions. Buyers premium is 24%.
Email Lettie at wine@wsj.com.
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