• Shelley Boettcher

Auctioning wine

You’ve been cellaring a few cases of Yellowtail since 1998, and now you want to cash in on your investment. Sell it all at a fancy wine auction and retire rich, rich, rich.

Keep dreaming. And maybe don’t give up that day job quite yet.

“No, no Yellowtail,” says Frank Hall with a laugh. “Baby Duck is out, too.”

Hall, president of Hodgins Art Auctions, is a Calgary-based auctioneer who specializes in selling the finer things in life: art, antiques and yes, booze.

Once or twice a year, depending on the demand, he and his team auction off some of the world’s best wines — first-growth Bordeaux, rare Burgundies and Super-Tuscans — and spirits such as limited-edition whiskies and cognacs.

And they’re not alone. Waddington’s Auctioneers in Toronto is looking to host an auction or two soon in Calgary, too.

“We know there are great buyers there and we have a pretty good idea that there are great sellers there, too,” says Stephen Ranger, Waddington’s vice president.

“And our Western Canadian buyers are after the same kind of things all our buyers are after: good quality Bordeaux, Burgundy, that kind of thing.”

While wine auctions aren’t exactly common in Calgary — they happen once or twice a year, at most — the demand is there, and it’s growing.

“It’s not a big trend here, but we’re trying to encourage and develop it,” says Hall.

“It’s something that will develop over time.”

Of course, despite the lousy economy, not everyone is interested in selling their prized wines. Many Calgary collectors are more focused on buying than selling. That’s what brings them to auctions; they’re looking for rare back vintages and special bottles to add to their ever-growing cellars.

But on the other hand, people move. They get old. They stop drinking. They die. Their interests change. They lose their jobs and they need to liquidate — no pun intended — their assets.

While they’re only a small part of his business, Hall says he has seen interest in wine auctions in Calgary increase considerably in the past 15 to 20 years, something he attributes to the privatization of the province’s liquor stores and the general growth in wine drinking as a trend.

“These new wine shops have done a very good job of educating the public about wine, and they’re handling some top-end wine and spirits,” he says. “And now the younger generation has gotten very much involved, too.”

The result? “Some really good cellars have been laid down in Calgary,” he says. “And a lot of the high-end houses now have cellars built in.”

If you’re a wine lover with money, you know a cellar is made to be filled. Ranger says Waddington’s is looking to hold four wine auctions in Toronto this year, and they regularly get inquiries from collectors in Calgary — hence Ranger’s interest in hosting a Calgary-specific wine auction this year.

“We think we’d be a good fit,” he says. “We have lots of good friends and clients in Alberta, and there’s a real thirst for good wine in the province.”

Hall and his team at Hodgins held a wine and art auction in 2015, offering rare whiskies, plus French and Italian wines alongside art from the likes of Marion Nicoll and A.Y. Jackson. It was a huge success, with interest from around the world. (They sell art to six different countries.)

“It’s many of the same people, to some extent: people who collect art often collect wine,” says Hall.

Hall’s own interest in wine started in the 1960s, when he was a young stockbroker in London, England. “I was invited to a venerable city wine merchant for lunch,” he recalls. “They plied us with delicious wines all the way through the meal and at the end of the lunch, we were called into one of the young director’s offices and asked what we were going to buy.”

“Keep in mind, I was a trainee stockbroker, earning nothing. But my friend and I ended up buying a pipe of port from 1963, which has turned out to be one of the greatest vintages of all time.”

The port — about 620 bottles — appreciated 12 times in 10 years, he says, “and it proved to be one of the better investments I’ve ever made.”

The downside? “I was so broke after buying it, I couldn’t take any girls out for about six months afterward.”

Hall went on to move to Calgary, where he started Hall’s Auctions. It’s now owned and operated by Kevin King, but any time someone comes to King about selling wine, he refers them to Hodgins, where he is also a partner. “It’s just a nice fit: wine and art,” says King.

These days, Hall has developed pancreatitis and can’t drink. But he still maintains a deep interest in wines and spirits, and does all the appraising himself.

“It takes a long time to catalogue wines and do the research, but it’s an interesting subject,” he says. “And there’s pretty good information available on the internet on values, all those sorts of things.”

It’s illegal, by the way, to sell your collection directly to a wine shop. And years ago, the thought of a wine auction in Alberta was also unheard of — and illegal.

“It used to be impossible to sell wine at auction except in the case of bankruptcies or estates,” Hall notes.

“But we appealed to the Alberta Liquor Commission and now they’ve granted us and other companies permission to auction wine as long as it’s properly and, I would say, professionally done.”

“We’ve assured them we have a good reputation and we’re going to keep it that way.”

With that in mind, Hodgins Art Auctions only takes wine for auction that has been properly cellared. And only the good stuff, the really good stuff.

“We often get offered the tail end of an estate, where someone has discovered half a dozen bottles hiding in the basement, but we turn that sort of thing down,” he says.

“If it hasn’t been properly cellared, no one’s going to win.”