Maintaining a successful back vintage wine list is not an easy task. Anything back vintage, by its very nature, is no longer in-stock, difficult to source, rarely available in quantities that you need and the tasting profile can change so much over time that a wine you have been intimate with in its youth could now have reached its peak and be on the decline. Many sommeliers and beverage managers refuse to maintain more than a handful of back vintages because of the time, energy and cost involved in such specialisation. But the rewards to the profit and loss statement and the intangibles such as the establishment’s reputation and customer satisfaction, can be worth going that extra mile for.
Selecting the wines
Choosing which wines to include on the wine list is usually a combination of experience and opportunity. Unless you have tried the wine personally in recent times or are familiar with its current tasting profile then there is an element of risk involved when your choices are based on hearsay.
To gather a likely list of candidates you will need to trawl online wine forums, bloggers and subscribe to professional wine critics to search for viable candidates. You can further develop your list by getting involved or taking part in back vintage tastings at auction houses, retailers, wine shows and awards. Often the winemaker will be in attendance and snippets of personal insight and history they may offer can add further depth to your choices and, inevitably, to your customer’s experience.
Keep comprehensive records and once you locate a likely candidate you will need to pursue it aggressively from any and all of your trusted sources.
Choose your trusted source(s) wisely
For any sommelier planning to include mature wine in their list, sourcing it can be the most frustrating part. You know what you want, you know which vintages would complement your list but unless you have multiple sources of trusted private collectors willing to relinquish their old wine in quantity when you need it, your choices are limited to specialist retail sites and auction houses.
Specialist retail stores
There are literally thousands of wine retailers but only a limited number will stand behind their back vintage stock. However, they are a very convenient source once you have established a trust relationship with them. If they have the stock you need they will be able to fulfil the transaction immediately. They will also be as discerning about where they have obtained it. Shop around, ask questions and get to know which ones stand by their reputation.
A wine auction house is typically the best solution for range and value, they are always actively sourcing new & interesting supplies of older and mature stock with valuations typically 40% to 70% less than the specialist stores and most often they have larger quantities on offer.
However, you will have to compete for the stock you are interested in and will not know if you have been successful until the close of the auction. There is also the matter of provenance and not knowing where the wine has been sourced and how it has been stored.
When choosing an auction house, make sure they have a good reputation and ensure you know what their provenance policy is before you bid. For example, Wickman’s provenance policy will guarantee selected vendors and describes, if known, the details on the origin and how the wine has been stored for each lot. With the internet you can easily search for reviews on each business either at specialist review sites such as TrueLocal or by typing in the business name to google search.
Experiment & be creative
Back vintage wines can offer that extra depth to a wine list and enhance any restaurants reputation. If you develop your sources carefully then you will have access to wine not typically available elsewhere, enabling a little extra creativeness to slip into your offerings that would otherwise be denied. You can always ask your regular clientele to suggest a theme that you can run with if you need inspiration.
Some possible suggestions;
- Large formats
- Winemaker Spotlights (Wine from different wineries by the same winemaker)
- Aged chardonnay discoveries (Chardonnay well outside the accepted drinking window but enthusiastically hunted down by an ever increasing number of enthusiasts).
- Special Occasion Ports; Older Australian ports at the moment are very cheap at auction and offer all sorts of opportunity. Horse ports for the Melbourne cup, football ports for the Grand Final, Yachting ports for the Sydney to Hobart etc..
At auction; have a strategy, set your limits and manage your risk
If you set and stick to your limits then auctions can be exciting and fun.
Research the price
If you will be sourcing your wine from auction you will be able to research value by using an online tool such as Wickmans Vintage Wine Price Guide, which averages the price sold at auction around Australia over the last 6 to 12 months. Beware of auction sites that use the retail price as the suggested value. Vintage wine contains a certain emotional premium for most diners and they will be willing to pay more for older and more established brands than for the current release enabling you to apply a higher margin.
Setting your limits
Once you have established a price range that you are comfortable paying it is best to set a proxy bid with the auction house rather than micro-managing the bids. This will save you time and removes the danger of getting caught up in the emotional context of the bidding. There is nothing worse than explaining Winner’s Curse to your accountant.
Manage the risk
One of the biggest risks of buying at auction is knowing where the wine has been and how it has been stored. This is why you should only bid on lots where you have confidence that the wine has been stored appropriately, which is a direct factor of the auction houses provenance policy and system.
Another tactic you can use to mitigate risk while you are getting used to your supplier is to set a vintage limit and don’t buy any wines older than 10 years.
Feel free to call and discuss the origin of the wine with the auctioneer.
Managing your inventory
Occasionally you need to make room on your wine list for new ideas and for changing demands from customers as well as the odd bit of dead stock. An auction house will be able to assist with your rotation plan and recover some of that cost. They should even offer favourable discounts and incentives if you are a regular trade buyer and a trade vendor. Some auction houses offer integration with their IT systems which can make financial, purchasing, inventory and historical pricing data available directly to your in-house IT system.
Practical information for selling wine at auction.
Author: Mark Wickman
Copyright ©2015 Mark Wickman, All Rights Reserved.