The Mother of All Wine Auctions

All hospitals have a Director.  But only one–Les Hospices de Beaune–has a Director of Winemaking.  (As a physician, I am especially interested in seeing that organizational chart.)  The hospital needs a director of winemaking because it owns vineyards–over 150 acres of them, 85 percent of which are classified as Premier and Grand Cru, making it one of the largest vineyard owners in Burgundy.  It, or rather Ludivine Griveau, the current winemaker and the first woman to hold that position, makes wine from these vineyards every year.  She supervises the 23 vignerons (wine growers) each of whom is responsible for about 6.5-acres of vines. This year she made, and the Hospices sold at auction, 50 different wines (cuvées), 33 reds and 17 whites.  

The auction is unlike any other wine auction, charity or otherwise.  There are no old vintages, no giant bottles, no cases for sale.  And unlike other charity auctions, there are no gourmet dinners with famous chefs, no winemaker dinners, no spectacular vacation retreats on the block.  At the Hospices de Beaune auction, wine from the current vintage, barely three months after harvest, is sold exclusively by the traditional Burgundian wine measure, une pièce, a 228-liter barrel, so it’s not even ready to be bottled, let alone consumed.  In addition to what will eventually be 300 bottles or 25 cases of wine, the winning bidder also gets the barrel.

Although the French government, through its medical system, covers the operating expenses of the Beaune hospital, all capital improvements, such as the just-complete ambulatory center, come from money raised at what the Burgundians themselves call simply “La vente des vins” (the sale of wine).  Most everybody else calls it Les Hospices de Beaune.  (The official name is La Vente des Vins des Hospices de Beaune.)  By whatever name it’s called, it remains the most important event on the Burgundy wine calendar.  

Thousands of visitors transform the usually sleepy town of Beaune into an overflowing in-the-streets weekend party whose penultimate event is the auction, which takes place on the third Sunday in November.  The final event of the weekend, held on Monday, is the Paulée de Meursault, sometimes referred to as the longest lunch in the world, where more than 1,000 Burgundy enthusiasts–including prominent producers–bring bottles of Burgundy to share generously and liberally with tablemates.

At the recently completed 158th annual auction, a total of 828 barrels (631 of red and 197 of white) were sold during the 7-hour event, raising $16.2 million, an all-time record.  Prices, unsurprisingly since it is Burgundy, were up compared to 2017 and 2016, 19 and 29 percent, respectively, and foretell retail prices when the 2018 wines final arrive on our shores in two years’ time.

The Hospices de Beaune, founded by Nicolas Rolin, Chancellor to Phillip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, and his wife, Guigone de Salins, in 1443, has acquired its vineyards over the centuries, staring with its first bequest in 1457 by Guillemette Levenier.  Donors continue to add parcels.  In 2010, William Friedberg, formerly a Boston-based wine importer, donated just over 1.5-acres of a vineyard located in the village of Santenay in honor of his recently deceased wife, Christine.  That wine, like all the wines auctioned at the Hospices de Beaune, is sold as, and will be labeled with, both the appellation and name of the honoree, such as Beaune 1er Cru, Cuvée Nicolas Rolin or Santenay, Cuvée Christine Friedberg.

In the past, the only people allowed to bid at the auction were the important Burgundy wine producers or négociants, such as Maison Joseph Drouhin, Maison Louis Jadot, or Maison Louis Latour.  After acquiring the newly made wine, they would perform the élevage (literally, raising the wine) by completing the winemaking and offering it for sale via the usual commercial channels.  In 2005, to expand the reach of the auction, the Hospices de Beaune partnered with Christie’s, the prestigious London-based auction house.  Christie’s encourages ordinary consumers to bid by introducing Christie’s Live™, on-line real-time bidding by anyone via a computer, and now, a smartphone, anywhere in the world.  They also reduced the size of each lot to a single barrel to make it easier for consumers to buy.  

Christie’s involvement has clearly worked.  This year about 70 percent of the barrels went to traditional Beaune-based négociants, while the remained were snapped up by private buyers, with Asians accounting for 55 percent by value.  Private buyers from the U.S. accounted for only about 7 percent of the purchases, while Europeans accounted for the rest, according to Christie’s.

Although now open to the public, the auction still poses hurdles for the ordinary consumer.  Off-site bidders have no opportunity to taste the wines before the auction so are forced to bid solely on the reputation of the cuvée and the vintage.  The winning bidder must arrange for and pay a négociant to perform the élevage.  “Christie’s will be delighted to advise you if you are not already in contact with a local négociant,” according to the auction catalogue.  But it might be difficult to convince a négociant to raise a single barrel (those in the trade typically buy multiple barrels of the same wine), especially a wine they didn’t think enough of to bid on themselves.  After all, the name of the négociant still appears on the label along with the buyer.

The role of the négociant performing the élevage is critical.   Since the négociants buy the wine in barrel, which by tradition has always been made of new French oak, they must decide whether and when to transfer (rack) the wine into older oak barrels.  (Over the last several years, the Hospices has experimented by fermenting and selling several of the cuvées in one-year old oak barrels, but the practice remains selling the wine in new oak barrels).  Négociants must make other winemaking decisions to achieve the style of wine they want, including how long to age the wine in barrel, whether and how to control the malolactic transformation and whether to fine and filter the wine prior to bottling.  Indeed, the same wine, made by Ludivine Griveau, a barrel of which is sold to two different négociants, will taste entirely different once bottled, ultimately reflecting the style and talent of the négociant as well as the vintage.

Despite these hurdles, there are more and more individuals who want to see their name on the Hospices de Beaune label and will continue to drive up the prices.  Those interested in buying wines next year should contact Christie’s ([email protected]) for details and instructions.

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January 2, 2019