Wine Auction 101: How to Score the Best Lots

How to Participate in a Wine Auction

Attending your first wine auction can be intimidating business, even for serious wine connoisseurs. Here’s our step-by-step guide to being a smart and serious bidder, all in the name of charity.

Do Your Research 

For many wine auctions, descriptions of lots are available online several weeks prior to the sale, giving you ample time to research. Always review the catalogue in hard copy, or online, to familiarize yourself with the lots on offer. Preparing and prioritizing well ahead of time is key or the options can be overwhelming.

Set a Budget

Deciding how much you’re willing to spend will help you focus your efforts on winning a lot or several lots that are most important to you. “Attendees seem to set their own budget before the night begins,” says Nancy Searle, co-chair of the Lyric Opera of Chicago Wine Auction and president of Lyric’s Women’s Board. “We try and be as helpful as we can by giving a fair market value for each lot, which should help guide you as you set up your wine budget for the night.” Setting a budget ahead of time can also keep you from getting sidetracked after seeing the bottles on display the night of the auction. “We’ve got some really exciting large formats and rare bottles that speak for themselves when you get to see them up-close and in person,” Searle says.

wine auction: Nancy Searle and Marilynn Thoma at the Lyric Opera of Chicago Wine Auction
Nancy Searle and Marilynn Thoma at the Lyric Opera of Chicago Wine Auction (Getty)

Understanding Benefit vs. Commercial Auctions

At a benefit auction, don’t be surprised if the selling price does not reflect the street value of the lot. The values achieved in a charity auction are more a reflection of support for the charity than the fair market value of the lot.

“A benefit auction like the Lyric Opera Wine Auction is based on the premise of over-spending in order to support the organization,” says Michael Davis of Hart Davis Hart. Davis has been an auctioneer for the Lyric Wine Auction for the past 30 years. “Commercial wine auctions, like those held by Hart Davis Hart, offer collectors an opportunity to acquire highly collectible wines at market prices. The contents of all of our auctions are available online several weeks ahead of each sale and our experts are always available to discuss the market and assist with bidding strategies.”

wine auction: Lyric Opera of Chicago
Lyric Opera of Chicago Wine Auction (Photo by Bob Kusel.)


Expect reserve prices (the prices below which items will not be sold) in commercial auctions; but only occasionally in charity auctions, where most items are outright donations and are frequently sold to the highest bidder regardless of fair market value.

Know the Conditions of Sale

Fritz Hatton, charity and commercial wine auctioneer and owner of Arietta Wines, cautions bidders to read the fine print before raising their paddles.

“Every auction has its own distinct rules, so glance through the ‘Conditions of Sale,’ the fine print at the beginning of the catalogue,” he advises. “Commercial auctions will often charge a buyer’s premium in addition to the final bid price. In many states the buyer must pay sales tax on purchased lots at both commercial and charity auctions. Shipping of items not delivered at the time of sale is also the responsibility of the buyer.”

Be Patient

“Be patient before you jump into the bidding and see where the bidding is going,” advises Robin Daniel Lail, owner of Lail Vineyards. “Sometimes you will find a potential buyer who is determined to buy a specific lot no matter what the price.” Lail has donated a lot to the Lyric Wine Auction this year and helped organize the first Auction Napa Valley in 1981. “As a novice I would recommend refraining from trying to help the charity by ‘bidding up’ a lot,” she says. “You can get stuck.”

Hatton agrees. “Take a moment to watch the more experienced bidders interact with other bidders and the auctioneer,” he says. “Some will express their determination to win a lot at the outset, hoping to discourage competition; others will wait to the last minute, waiting for two other bidders to exhaust themselves, before playing their hand.”

Don’t Miss These Upcoming Charity Wine Auctions

By Macon Bianucci


wine auction: Lyric Opera of Chicago 2015

The Lyric Wine Auction, one of the most elegant wine auctions around, will take place on April 14, 2018, at the Ken Pigott Stage of the Ardis Krainik Theatre. The Women’s Board hosts the event to fundraise for Lyric Opera’s community engagement efforts. A champagne reception accompanied by a silent auction will be followed by dinner and a live auction, with items ranging from fine wines to an African safari. Pricing, starting at $1,500 for one ticket, can be found here. Email to reserve your spot at this special evening. Online bidding starts March 26, so keep checking the website for updates.


Auction Napa Valley, the world’s most celebrated wine auction, will take place from May 31 to June 3 at some of Napa Valley’s finest vineyards, wineries, and private homes. Proceeds from the event support local nonprofits, ranging from children’s education to health. Events over the multi-day auction will include live auctions with exciting items and experiences up for grabs, dinners by famous chefs, and parties to celebrate the weekend. Tickets go on sale March 15, and the online auction starts May 27. Pricing and packages for the event can be found here.


The Naples Winter Wine Festival has raised $176 million for the Naples Children & Education Foundation since its first event in 2001. This year’s auction already happened in January, but keep an eye out for ticket sales for next year’s event to enjoy a weekend in Naples surrounded by the world’s best vintners, sommeliers, and chefs in the business, not to mention numerous luxury auction items and experiences.


More from Make It Better: 

Amber Gibson spends 340 nights a year in hotels searching for the latest and greatest in the travel industry. Her writing and photographs have appeared in print, online, and on the radio for outlets including Four Seasons Magazine, NPR, Saveur, Departures, Rhapsody, Hemispheres, American Way, Private Air, Wine Folly, Plate, Chicago Magazine, Tasting Table and Serious Eats. She graduated as valedictorian from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and received a fellowship to attend the 2017 Wine Writers Symposium at Meadowood Napa Valley. Champagne, dark chocolate and gelato are her biggest weaknesses. She also admires and supports CAASE in Chicago. Follow her adventures on Instagram and Twitter. 



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