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The Mother of All Wine Auctions
By Michael Apstein
Dec 5, 2017
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The Napa Valley Wine Auction (officially known as Auction Napa Valley), which started in 1981, bills itself as “the world’s most celebrated charity wine event.”  To its credit, it raises a lot of money--roughly $10 million last year.  Bidders at Auction Napa Valley and other charity wine auctions pay thousands of dollars to attend high-end dinners and mingle with winemakers, winery owners and other “personalities.”  When the auction actually starts, they compete for luxury vacations, dinners with famous chefs, fancy cars, and, yes, wine.  The wines are frequently “one-offs”--large formats or vertical tastings—donated by wineries or other deep pockets.  Baseball great and Burgundy afficiando Rusty Staub donated a 54-bottle collection of top Burgundies to Emeril Lagasse’s Foundation Carnivale du Vin, which brought in $55,000, according to a report by Wine Spectator.

Yet this hoopla pales in comparison to the century-old mother of all charity wine auctions, the Vente des Vins des Hospices de Beaune, usually just known as either Hospices de Beaune--if you are an outsider--or La Vente des Vins, if you are from Burgundy.  In its present form, the Hospices de Beaune auction started in 1859, which makes the recently completed auction—always on the 3rd Sunday of November—its 157th.  The sale raised $13.2 million (11.2 million euros), an all-time record with the proceeds going to the hospitals of Beaune and various other charities. 

The unique aspect of this auction is that only newly made wine is sold and only by the pièce--a traditional Burgundy barrel that contains 228 liters of wine.  (The price of the barrel, roughly $720, not counting tax, is added to the hammer price.)  Although there is a gala dinner at the 12th century Clos Vougeot the night prior to the auction (as well as what’s been called the world’s longest lunch, the Paulée de Meursault, the day after the auction), at the auction itself there are no fancy cars, elaborate dinners, or luxury vacations available--just newly made, and not even ready to be bottled, wine.

The Hospices de Beaune actually owns vineyards, a lot of them, just under 150 acres, which makes them one of Burgundy’s largest landowners.  (By comparison, Domaine Louis Latour, one of Burgundy’s top négociants, owns about 120 acres of vineyards in the Côte d’Or.)  This all started in the 15th century.  Nicolas Rolin, chancellor to Philippe le Bon, Duke of Burgundy, and his wife, Guigone de Salins, established, in 1443, the Hôtel Dieu (hospital) to care for the poor.  Benefactors, starting with Guillotte le Verrier in 1457, have been donating vineyards to the Hospices ever since.  The wines from those vineyards are labeled by appellation and then given a Cuvée name honoring the donor or benefactor.

For example, William (Bill) Friedberg, a prominent Boston wine merchant, donated 1.5 acres of vineyards in Santenay in 2010 in honor of his recently deceased wife, Christine.  The wine is labeled Santenay, Cuvée Christine Friedberg. In total, there were 50 different Cuvées (33 reds and 17 whites) offered at this year’s auction, up from 48 last year, with the addition of Chablis, Premier Cru Côte de Léchet, Cuvée Jean-Marc Brocard, and Puligny-Montrachet, Cuvée Bernard Clerc.  The vast majority of the vineyards owned by the Hospices are Premier Cru plots from the Côte de Beaune, though there are 4 Grand Cru vineyards from the Côte de Nuits and even one from Pouilly-Fuissé in the Mâconnais.

Starting with the 2015, the winemaking at the Hospices has been under the direction of Ludivine Griveau, the first woman ever to hold that post.  Prior to assuming that responsibility, she worked as a viticulturist with super-star winemaker Nadine Gublin of Domaine Jacques Prieur and Maison Antonin Rodet and then as winemaker for Maison Corton-André.  In addition to making the wines, she supervises 23 individual wine growers who tend the vineyards. 

Up until 2005, only the Burgundy wine trade could buy at the auction, but starting that year, Christie’s, the famed auction house, entered the picture and brought the auction into the 21st century.  Now, in addition to bidding live, individuals or a group can bid via telephone or the internet and compete to buy a single barrel.  (Previously, individuals in the trade had to buy multiple barrels of the same wine.)  An incentive for individuals to bid is that winning bidders are entitled to add their name on the label of the finished wine.

The mechanics of bidding from outside of the auction hall are quite simple:  Individuals can go to Christie’s.com and bid via Christie’s Live, or by telephoning Christie’s Client Services [+33 (0)] at least one day prior to the auction.  A Christie’s representative will call you during the auction and pass your bids on directly during the sale.

In addition to the hammer price, the buyer is responsible for a 7 percent buyer’s premium, the aforementioned price of the barrel, and cost of élévage, paying a négociant in Beaune to “raise” and bottle the wine for you. 

Elévage is rarely discussed because it is almost impossible to separate it from the winemaking since they always go hand-in-hand--except with wines from the Hospices, which are made by one person, and raised by another.  But, indeed, élévage helps determine the character of the wine.  This was brought home to me several years ago when I purchased the same Hospices de Beaune wine, 1988 Beaune, Cuvée Nicolas Rolin, raised by two different, but equally outstanding, négociants, Maison Louis Latour and Maison Louis Jadot.  Both Latour and Jadot purchased several barrels of the wine at the auction, brought them back to their respective cellars, transferred the wine into their own barrels, cellared the wine for the next 18 or so months, and then bottled it.  When tasted the wines side by side, both wines were excellent, but reflected the respective négociants’ style:  Jadot’s was more muscular while Latour’s was more taut.

Let’s run some numbers to get an estimate of what the 288 bottles (one pièce) will cost you or your group of Burgundy lovers.  The prices at the 2017 sale ranged from 6,400€ for a barrel of Pouilly-Fuissé, Cuvée Françoise Poisard to 118,000€ for a barrel of Bâtard-Montrachet, Cuvée Dames de Flanders.   Assume the hammer price of the barrel was 10,000€, which was the price of a barrel of Beaune 1er Cru, Cuvée Dames Hospitalières this year.  Add to that 700€ Buyer’s Premium and 600€ for the barrel and 3,000€ for élévage, which gives a final price of 14,300€ or about 50€ a bottle ($59 at current exchange rates).  Adding about $10 a bottle for shipping, customs clearance and duty gets a final estimated price of about $69 a bottle. 

Remember, the minimum purchase is 288 bottles of the same wine, so you might want to start getting your group together in time for next year’s Hospices des Beaune auction.

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Email me your thoughts about Hospices de Beaune or Burgundy in general at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

December 6, 2017