On the house

Don't be afraid, says Richard Ehrlich, the most frightening aspect of buying wine at auction is what great bargains you'll find

Roald Dahl might have made this one up. An auctioneer is sitting in his office when the telephone rings. The caller says that a family member has died and he and his brother have to clear the house - a modest terraced house in the Welsh valleys - very quickly. The deceased had some old wine, and the caller asks if it's worth anything. Sceptical auctioneer says, "Well, I can't tell without looking at it." Man says: "We'll bring in a dozen bottles." He brings them in, well scrubbed, and the astonished auctioneer reads labels that include Mouton Rothschild, Latour and Lafite - and all from 1945, one of the great vintages of the 20th century.

Roald Dahl might have made this one up. An auctioneer is sitting in his office when the telephone rings. The caller says that a family member has died and he and his brother have to clear the house - a modest terraced house in the Welsh valleys - very quickly. The deceased had some old wine, and the caller asks if it's worth anything. Sceptical auctioneer says, "Well, I can't tell without looking at it." Man says: "We'll bring in a dozen bottles." He brings them in, well scrubbed, and the astonished auctioneer reads labels that include Mouton Rothschild, Latour and Lafite - and all from 1945, one of the great vintages of the 20th century.

And, in the touch that Roald Dahl would have cherished (had he not been a major wine lover), the heirs to the estate had already smashed a couple of dozen bottles "because they were old". The auctioneer saw the wreckage at the bottom of the garden when he raced to the house later the same day.

This story comes to me from the man who took the call: William Chadwick, proprietor of the Abergavenny auction house J Straker, Chadwick & Sons. Straker, Chadwick is one of a number of auction houses outside London that hold regular wine sales - good hunting ground for people seeking to buy at reasonable prices. Don't expect to find 1945 premier cru claret for £50 a case. Bidders come from all over the country, or place absentee bids, and they know what they are doing. But hammer prices at auction may be as little as two-thirds the levels of retail prices, even in the big London houses.

The headline-grabbing side of wine auctions is dominated by venerable claret, Burgundy, port and champagne. If a famous name is attached to the sale, the headlines are even bigger. For instance, last month's Sotheby's wine sale presented lucky zillionaires with such splendours as Château d'Yquem 1962 for £3,910 a case and La Tâche 1985, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, for £14,375 a case. But look lower down the scale and you will find wines that non-zillionaires can easily afford - and sometimes at prices considerably below what you would pay in a shop. At Straker, Chadwick, lots start at just a few pounds a bottle.

The same is true at Bonhams and furthermore, the long-established London auctioneer is to take a rather unusual approach to wine auctions in its next sale in London on 6 July. Its department is run by Anthony Barne and Richard Harvey, both ex-wine merchants, and they have hit on an interesting idea. Instead of relying solely on estates, they have set aside a major portion of the sale for wines from one of Tuscany's best wine towns, Montalcino - the famous Brunello, the lesser Rosso and some interesting modern-style wines made from non-traditional grape varieties - which they've sourced directly from the producers. "Some of these producers do not export to the UK but are looking to see their wines here," says Harvey, and Bonhams is taking the chance that this will be its entrée. Harvey points out that this may herald a new development in wine auctioneering: "You can't go on relying on old cellars; the supply dries up."

That isn't to say that Bonhams has completely abandoned the traditional approach of selling whatever descendants haven't smashed in the garden. A good third of the auction is taken up by the estate of a Midlands restaurateur who bought largely for his own pleasure, and includes excellent mature vintages from France, Italy and the New World. Much of the sale is eminently affordable, as in all Bonhams auctions. "I like to see sales where people are buying to drink," says Harvey, "where they'll spend £100 and go home and pull the corks." Many of its customers are younger drinkers looking to expand their horizons.

How do you go about buying at auction? Take a look at the five-point beginner's guide (below) supplied by Toby Bailey, proprietor of www.finewinediary.com, who has been buying wine at auction for around five years.

But hang on, what happens if there's a problem? If you buy a bottle from a supermarket or a specialist, you have some recourse if the bottle disappoints. Do auction houses give the same service? There's no uniform rule beyond the fine print, but every auctioneer I have spoken to says they will listen to any reasonable complaint. Most surprisingly, to them as well as to me, is how infrequently complaints come in. One or two a year; three or four a decade. A tiny number considering how many cases they shift, and the variable, relatively fragile nature of the product.

In this regard, the story told by an informant who chooses to remain nameless is both amusing and instructive. He bought several cases of white Burgundy amazingly cheaply from a provincial saleroom. To his chagrin, four bottles or so of the first case were corked. He chose not to complain, but consigned the remainder for sale at the same auction house. After the sale had gone through (at a profit), he got a letter of complaint from the auctioneer: "How dare you put this stuff through my saleroom?" Caveat emptor. Caveat vendor. All part of the fun of the auction game.

Getting hammered: Tony Bailey's beginner's guide to buying wine at auction

Point one "Syndicate. If you are like me you don't want a whole case of one wine, and it spreads the risk."

Point two "Watch out for the charges," says Bailey. Once you've paid commission and delivery, you're looking at a price quite a bit over the "hammer-price" you bid. "Look out too for the minority of lots on which VAT is chargeable."

Point three "Provenance is everything: you really need experience here. Notice the descriptions in the catalogue. Note the ullage [shrinkage due to evaporation] indicated in the catalogue for an indication of storage."

Point four "Know what you are buying - there is a lot of rubbish out there."

Point five "Be suspicious of 11-bottle lots." The implication may be that the vendor had drunk one bottle and disliked it, but others point out that there are many reasons someone might just drink one bottle. Buying well at auction, says Bailey, is mostly a matter of "accumulated experience".

And a final tip if there are multiple-case lots of the same wine, "they can go for quite different prices, sometimes you'll see the last ones going quite a lot cheaper than the first".

Bonhams, London SW7, tel: 020 7393 3900, www.bonhams.com. Provincial auctioneers: Lithgow Sons & Partners, Stokesley, Middlesborough, tel: 01642 710 158, www.lithgowsauctions.com; Bigwood Auctioneers, Tiddington, Stratford-Upon-Avon, tel: 01789 269 415, www.bigwoodauctioneers.co.uk; Morphets, Harrogate, tel: 01423 530 030, www.morphets.co.uk; J Straker, Chadwick & Sons, Abergavenny, Gwent, tel: 01873 852 624, www.strakerchadwick.co.uk

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