Wine Auctions: Tips for Getting The Best Bottles

4 min read

Wine collectors and aficionados know that one of the best ways to access fine or rare wines is to observe or participate in auctions. Why? Because wine auctions, regardless of their size or type, often feature unique bottles that people would not typically see in retail shops.

For instance, there is a better chance of seeing a Far Niente 1994 Cabernet Sauvignon at a wine auction in New York than coming across it at a typical liquor store. You will need the right connections to make the former happen.

An expert in live, silent, and charity auction experiences shares a few tips on what to do and what to look out for when it comes to wine auctions. Regardless of your level of expertise or your intent (i.e., observer or active bidder), there is much to be learned about these special events. 

1. Study the auction catalog

For some auctions, organizations will release a list of items in a catalog that lays out what will be at the event. Once you get a copy, study the material carefully. Catalogs include detailed information about each item up for bidding so bidders can make an informed choice in advance. 

Out of all the details included in the catalog, take note of the storage information and ullage levels with utmost care. What is indicated in terms of these two factors can affect a specific wine’s value. They can even indicate if the item is legitimate or a dud.

Theullage level, for instance, refers to the space between the alcohol and the cork and is an indicator of the wine’s health. Wine experts know that this level can change depending on the age and how it was stored. In bottles that are 20 years or younger, the levels are expected to be around the neck – any lower and it would be a red flag for aspiring bidder.

How the wine was stored can also affect its health. Wines stored in professional storage units with temperature and humidity controls are preferred over passive cellars. Using more professional methods keeps the alcohol in good condition.

2. Determine the wine’s value

Check several sources to get a good idea of the value of the bottle you are eyeing. There are books and websites that provide comprehensive information about different bottles and vintages. 

Auction catalogs can also provide an estimate of the wine’s value. Keep in mind, however, that this estimate is based on sale prices for similar bottles but rarely for the exact same one. As such, the estimates can still get askew every once in a while.

Having said that, this does not mean that people can buy any item at a drastically reduced price. Almost all wines have a reserve of around 80 to 100 percent of the lowest estimate. Wines that don’t meet the reserve are considered not sold and will be “passed.”

Other than the hammer price, or the price the item is sold for, there are additional charges you need to consider as well. Most major auction houses will add up to 23.5 percent on top of the winner’s bid, which is often referred to as the buyer’s premium. Additional hidden charges such as shipping fees, sales taxes, and insurance fees can mean an additional 15 percent.

It’s also important to note that a majority of auctions benefit non-profit organizations, so the proceeds from your purchase of a fine bottle of wine go right back to some good in the world. Win-win. 

3. Try it out

Contrary to what is implied in the movies, wine auctions are not stuffy events reserved for the rich and famous. Wine auctions can be conducted in many ways – there are auction houses, charity auctions, and online types. Each has its pros and cons.

  •  Live auctions

Traditional bidding events often involved wearing a coat and tie, although nowadays, the formal ones are reserved for evening events. Bids can be made on the floor, using the order book, going online, or by phoning in the bid. Major auctions are only held a few times a year, so they tend to be charged events.

Live auctions are a fun and fast-paced way to learn about different wines. Catalogs are released at least a month in advance, which gives bidders ample time to see what’s being offered and to cross-check the details. Some auctions provide snacks and tasting sessions that allow bidders to sample what’s to come. 

  • Charity auctions

As the name implies, charity auctions are designed as fundraisers for a specific foundation, organization, or cause. Charity auctions offer bottles not commonly sold in major houses. The downsides may include a high entrance fee, and because the wines often come from a donor’s private collection, there is no way of knowing their storage practices.

  • Online auctions

The Internet has made it possible for more people to participate in wine auctions. Durations are longer, sometimes lasting for a week or more, giving bidders more time to send in their bids. Wines here tend to be cheaper, but bidders need to be wary about additional fees. 

These are great times to get involved in wine auctions. With plenty of options available, people can find a wine that suits their taste and budget. Keep these factors in mind when bidding to make the most of the experience.


Darran Brown is the CEO and Founder of Go Charity. A graduate of UMASS Amherst, Darran has spent the last 20 years managing auctions across the United States. Having run some of the most successful live and silent auctions in the US, Darran has the insider know-how to every aspect of the industry. From memorabilia to trips and experience hospitality to fundraising 101, Darran is the leading expert on auction management and fundraising success.