So, someone paid $24,000 for a case of wine, unseen and unsipped, a wine that is still maturing gently in its French oak barrel in Oakville, Calif. It was another Big Gesture, without which a wine auction in America would be considered a flop. Once again, it's the Big Gesture that makes the headlines and, once again, the less-mercurial amateurs and professionals ask the question: do auctions inflate the general wine market?
If a wine, any wine, goes for $20 at an auction and is locally available for $15, will the local trade change the price sticker? Probably not, but there's nothing to stop them from doing so. Auctions can influence the trade by giving a wine a specific value on the national market.But are the auction houses themselves to blame for excitable, inflationary bidding?
In the United States, auction houses have a notoriously difficult time when applying for licenses and permits. Licenses obtained, they still have to comply with regulations which stipulate that, by and large, the wines offered for sale must be wines that are not commercially available. The winers must be rare, or over 15 years old, or bottled in unusual sizes, or very young and not bottled at all.
This is the key to the malaise known as auction fever. As the interest in fine wines spreads, there are not enough wines to meet the demand. From the calm distance of Washington's comparatively sophisticated market, it's easy to be critical of auction fever. However, many of those affected are buyers from less fortunate markets, usually states with more stringent government controls. As they can't buy the wines through local sources, they'll happily bid up at the auctions.
Much of the fever can be diagnosed as growing pains. Wine auctions in America are new and infrequent. We're not going to reach maturity until our auctions become as routine, brisk, businesslike, and often dull, as those in London. Sotheby's and Christie's each hold 20 auctions a year. Few have star attractions, many being bin ends and inexpensive wine sales. They offer the trade and public a venue for buying and selling wines on a regular basis.
"We are redistributing channel," says Michael Broadbent of Christie's. "The wines are bought for drinking, not collecting." Both Broadbent and Patrick Grubb of Sotheby's say that they are strongly against speculation. Grubb feels that is it only the really old, antique wines that cause specualtion, or investment purely for resale.
Do the London auctions affect prices on the general market? Both men deny that auctions have contributed to rising prices, saying that they merely reflect the current situation. They cannot control the quantity or quality of wine in circulation, but only offer a means to obtain it.
Members of the New York trade have taken legal steps to keep Christie's off their turf. This is shortsighted. There's room for both auction salesrooms and retail shop in our market. But, until the auctions receive the cooperation of the trade and the licensing authorities, they'll go on being highly publicized annual or semi-annual events. And auction fever will malinger.