A series: Selling wine in New Zealand – Part 1

Featured on WineFolio.co.nz. A series of interviews and articles with a theme of buying and selling wine here in NZ. Part 1: The Auctioneer. Interview: Reece Warren, The Wine Auction Room​

The Wine Auction Room

An obvious first question – how do you end up in a business auctioning wine? I’ve been around wine for all my life – I consider myself very lucky. My parents owned restaurants and nightclubs when I was growing up, so I guess I was exposed to wine at a very early age. But in was the ‘70s and wine in New Zealand wasn’t that flash. I have worked for a number of companies throughout New Zealand, and I’ve done a number of different things in the wine industry; from driving a truck for Negociants – that was my “in”.

I’ve grown grapes – in Waitaki, but no longer have the vineyard, which is, I suppose, a blessing. Apparently I have the reputation of being the only person to make money out of growing grapes in the Waitaki – because I sold at the right time! Glad I’ve done it, but I’ve moved on.

I’ve been in the auction thing for a few years now. I was the Head of Dept at Webb’s; and then Webbs became Mossgreen Webb’s; I also ran the wine department for Mossgreen in Australia.

Unfortunately Mossgreen went bust, and when the receivers came in the Heads of Dept were the first to go… but I loved what I had been doing, so my wife and I thought “why don’t we do this ourselves?”

So we have my wife and I, and one full-time employee. We streamlined everything we were doing at Webb’s, and made it a one-man business for the first two years. And now we have my ex-colleague Steve on board as well, and we work really well together.

One of the reasons I wanted to get into the auction game years ago was whilst sitting my WSET Diploma, there was myself, an Australian guy and another girl from New Zealand; and we would go to auctions they had at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. It used to cost about £15 to get the catalogue and then go to the odd tasting. And for us, broke students in London – we’d go there to taste as much wine as we could and to learn about it – take the opportunity to try as many things as possible.

How does the auction work – there are people investing in wine, I know; but do you get a bit of “oh, we found all this wine in Gran’s cupboard, is it worth anything”? There is a bit of that. We turn down a lot of stuff as well. And it’s one thing we’re very conscious of. One of the things about doing this – and we say it in our material – is that ‘we love wine too!’ We want to make it as easy as possible to buy good wine, from whether it’s an online auction or a live auction – because we are our customers. We buy wine for ourselves as well.

Do people have an idea of what they want for it, or is that your expertise that comes into play there? It’s a bit of both. A lot of people have no idea. There are some great stories.

I had a woman a while ago who called and asked “do you auction single bottles of wine?” And I say ‘yes, but it depends on what they are and how they’ve been stored – first tell me ‘how has it been stored’?’ She said she’d had a case of wine, got one bottle left, and it’s been sitting in a clay tubes, in a stone garage, in Christchurch. So I said ‘not perfect, however, better than some of the things I look at – what’s the wine?’ She said “Rousseau” so my ears prick up! ‘anything else on the label?’ She said “Chambertin”. So I said ‘OK, does it have 1-er Cru written on the label’ She said “No, it’s got Grand Cru”. I said ‘Can you send me a photo of the bottle – the label and the bottle standing up’ (as I want to see the ullage). When I saw the image, the wine looked in fantastic nick, and I said to her ‘you’ve got quite a bottle of wine there’ She said, “I’ve got one bottle left and I was going to drink it with my daughter, but then she thought it might be quite expensive.” I said, ‘well, yes it is – conservatively I’d put an estimate of $1600 on that, and look to achieve between that and 2500 dollars – and she almost fell over’

I can’t check every cellar that we get wine from.. however there’s a lot of questions you can ask people to find out if they know what they’re talking about. We do turn down a lot. We have a thing that we say in the auctions – ‘Buying old wine is not for everyone’. You can get some great highs, and we do everything we can to make sure that the provenance of the wine is good, that it’s been stored in the correct way

Wine Auction Room van

There must be some wines though, where you take them, and you must wonder, rather than know, if they’re going to be OK? I don’t suppose you can offer a guarantee, can you? No, we can’t. We do price things accordingly. People who come to our auctions aren’t following ME – they are following the wines I put on offer. Hopefully the other things we offer – like provenance, like weeding wines outstands us above our competitors. Whilst this is a business by wine lovers for wine lovers, it is a business; there’s only going to be one time where you try to pull the wool over someone’s eyes – they won’t come back and they’ll tell other people.

The majority of what we sell is Reds. There are wines that are followed by a lot of people – for quite a while the 2013 Coleraine, it was getting really big money – now, we’re just getting reserve on it. We’ve had ’98 Coleraine going for $300 a bottle, and I remember I bought a case from Webb’s many many years ago, and I think I would have paid $40 a bottle.

Wines with residual sugar are not popular at the moment – your Ports, Sauternes and so on, but we do a bit of champagne. Dom Perignon is by far the biggest prestige champagne that we sell. We do Krug, Cristal – we had Salon – got passed in – they set their own reserve, higher than I would have set. There are some people who want to set their own reserves. But one of the things that people fail to remember is that with the internet, you can find whatever you want; and with six bottles or less coming into the country – there’s no duty.

If someone brought you a sealed wooden box, do you open it? Interesting you should ask that, because that’s something I never used to do. However, I’ve recently been on a preliminary course in Hong Kong with Margaret Downey from Winefraud.com, and she was a big person in the case of Rudy Kurniawan. I’ve now enrolled to do the full course with them, so I will be an ‘official wine authenticator’ and that ties in very well with our business. We have a bit of that in New Zealand, but there’s a lot of guys who’ve never come forward. They have been caught out and don’t want the publicity.

Is there a wine you’d love to get hold of – that you think ‘one day I’ll find one of those’? Chateau Y’quem. I’ve got a few vintages in the cellar. The ’67 is apparently spectacular – never tried a ’67. The ’76 – that great year all through Europe.

Or Burgundy. I love Burgundy. It’s such a minefield for most people.

One of my first wine jobs here in New Zealand, was with Negociants. With Robert Hall-Smith, the owner, we were at a restaurant in the Adelaide Hills around 1988, and he pulled out a ’62 Ducru Beaucaillou. That for me, was one of the reasons I wanted to get into wine – to have those moments in life where you taste something and it’s like nothing you’ve ever had before.. Just, wow.

Being a New Zealand auction house, do get more interest in New Zealand wine? Beyond your obvious ones like Dry River, Felton Road, Coleraine? People come along to an auction looking for a bargain. In the last auction we had, I paid $30 a bottle for them – some Fromm Pinot Noir 2000. Things like that – the wines you don’t expect, that will surprise you. Like, recently, a few bottles of Muddy Water 2000 Pinot – just, wow. Those are the things.

Plans for the future? We are planning to extend our business, authenticating wine will be a part of it, but also we are in the process of building temperature and humidity-controlled cellars for storage. We believe we will have the best – 100% redundancy – so we have two refrigeration machines working alternately, so people can store wines in the correct conditions.

And investments? When you see an old box of Grange – untouched.. someone has bought that as an investment surely? Bordeaux is very good. Have a look at the price of Grange as it is on release now – at $1000 a bottle. And we get between $400-650 a bottle, excluding fees. Penfolds have done a great job of convincing people that Grange is a great investment wine. The people who are doing best out of Grange, in my mind, are Penfolds. Unless you’ve had something for an incredibly long time, you’re not going to make money on it. You make your money when you buy. If you haven’t bought well, or you’ve bought off the shelf – it will be a long time before you recover that money. My own wine cellar is an investment in a good time! It’s there to enjoy.

It’s been a very male-orientated industry, but we’re getting a lot more girls buying now than previously. And a larger number working in the New Zealand wine industry – a lot of female winemakers. But a lot of wine we get consigned are from guys in their 60s and 70s with these huge cellars of thousands of bottles, that they realize they’re never going to drink.

In New Zealand we very much put wine on a pedestal. Wine is an everyday thing in a lot of people’s lives. So people go ‘wine’s expensive, it’s a rich man’s game’. There are a lot of expensive wines out there, but a lot that aren’t – that people can consume on an everyday basis. Trends I see is people drinking less, but drinking better.