$32,000 . . . sold!

Wine auctions enable executives to donate money, acquire bottles for their private cellars, and even increase the value of portfolios.

To understand what it's like to attend the annual Napa Valley Wine Auction, the country's largest wine auction dedicated to charity, picture yourself on a golf course in an enormous white tent filled with 2,000 tanned and casually dressed adults waving their bidding paddles, drinking fine wine, and cheering each other on. Then count from 5,000 to 32,000 as fast as you can in increments of 1,000 without taking a breath. When you reach $32,000, yell "SOLD!" and pound hard on your desk. O.K., it's not exactly like being there, but this scenario will give you a pretty good indication of how fast and how far the bidding goes for a typical lot of wine at the event held every June in California's Napa Valley. With single bottles going for as much as $100,000, it's easy to see how the 1998 auction raised more than $3.1 million in a single afternoon. Although wine auctions have been around in Europe for quite some time -- France's Hospices de Beaune dates back to 1443 -- they are a relatively new phenomenon in the U.S. California and Illinois led the way in the 1980s, but these early events were usually attended by only the most pretentious of wine snobs. It wasn't until New York legalized wine auctions in 1994 that they became popular among more casual drinkers. "With the legalization of auctions in New York came the press, followed by charity auctions, followed by knowledge that auctions existed, followed by a food, wine, and economic boom that has pushed attendance way up," explains Ursula Hermacinski, vice president and director of the Los Angeles Wine Dept. at Christie's Auction House. Last year, the country's two largest wine auction houses, Zachys-Christie's and Sotheby's, sold a combined total of $31.5 million worth of wine at auction. If you like wine and have never attended an auction, charity auctions such as the one sponsored by the Napa Valley Vintners Assn. are a great way to familiarize yourself with the process. They're energetic and entertaining, and they raise money for good causes. But with wines selling anywhere from 10 to 100 times above their stated value, the only practical reasons for an executive to attend are the publicity and tax-deductions they generate. An auction regular -- B.A. (Red) Adams Sr., chairman of Oil & Gas Rental Services Inc. in Morgan City, La. -- explains, "These auctions are about charity, friends, and good wine -- in that order." However, for connoisseurs interested in obtaining hard-to-find wines for enjoyment or investment purposes, commercial wine auctions are the way to go. Offering rare vintages from private collections, these sales allow epicureans to snare bottles below retail prices as well as find rare wines that aren't available anywhere else. In April, for example, one bidder at Zachys-Christie's in New York paid $57,500 for a case of Chteau Ptrus 1961. Serious collectors are willing to pay these prices because they understand smart wine buys can be good investments. How much of a good investment? According to Peter Meltzer, auction correspondent for The Wine Spectator magazine, total revenues from wine auctions have increased between 200% and 300% during the last three years. Some of this is because more people are attending auctions, which pushes up prices. But it also is because prices on rare bottlings do appreciate, especially in a booming economy. For example, a case of 1982 Chteau Mouton-Rothschild that went for $450 upon its release, sold for $6,000 last year -- a 750% increase. "A booming stock market has created a new breed of international, cash-rich collectors who are all vying for a finite number of status labels," Meltzer explains. Still, wine is a tricky investment because buyers have to arrange for shipping, storage, and insurance. Additionally, wine is not easily liquidated. It's certainly an inefficient investment compared with stocks. For this reason, Meltzer suggests that bidders buy wine because it suits their tastes, not for its investment value. "It is a luxury purchase. Only invest if you're prepared to appreciate the contents in the glass." For those planning to attend a commercial auction for the first time, experts suggest a few steps for getting started. First: taste, taste, taste. Attend wine tastings sponsored by restaurants and wine retailers to learn about the kinds of wine you like. Second, familiarize yourself with retail price lists. "Never pay more than the going rate for merchandise that sits on your wine merchant's shelves," Meltzer says. Rookies also should subscribe to the auction-house catalogues, which are published prior to sales, that list the lots' estimated values. Although commercial wine auctions are legal in just a handful of states, executives can email, fax, and phone in their bids from anywhere. A few auctions are even held on the Internet. One Web site to check out is Wine.com at www.wine.com/auction. "No one is restricted from purchasing wine in another state," Hermacinski explains. However, states do have different laws regarding shipping of wine. For this reason, bidders should check with auction houses ahead of time to determine the best way to take delivery of a purchase.

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