A few years back, I invested in a case of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc that I hadn’t personally tried, thinking it would be as good as the previous New Zealand vintages I’d sampled. Later, I opened the first bottle and discovered that I absolutely hated it. The wine tasted flabby and dull, and I thought about selling off the rest of the case at auction, but I hesitated. Did I really want to burden another collector with this subpar vintage? Was I being irresponsible? Ultimately, I gave the wine to a friend who liked the wine despite its flaws.
There are two reasons why you should care about wine auction ethics: it increases your trustworthiness as a seller, and it keeps bad wines off the market. In this post we’ll give you some case studies to help illustrate common ethical auction house dilemmas.
General Rules to Remember
Wine auction ethics should always be based on the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” You should also err on the side of disclosure; even if a wine is flawed, it’s possible to ethically sell that bottle if you inform the auction house or the buyer of everything you know about the wine. This includes information about where it was stored, provenance, and whether you opened any bottles from a case and found flaws. You can never provide too much information to an auction house.
Three Ethical Scenarios
There are three common problems that collectors find most often at auction: premox, heat damage, and off-vintages that taste worse than expected. Take a look at the following three scenarios, select the option that you would choose, then read what your actual ethical responsibility is below.
In the first scenario, you buy a case of mid-2000s white Burgundy from a producer who notoriously had problems with premox. You open the first bottle in the case and find that it is completely oxidized. You open a second bottle and discover the same problem. You decide to:
- Pick out the darkest (most likely oxidized) bottles and put them up for auction, keeping the lighter bottles for yourself
- Sell off the entire case at auction without telling the auction house what you found
- Sell off the case, but tell the auction house about the flaw
- Dump the case, or drink the remaining bottles yourself
In the second scenario, you buy a case of Bordeaux online and have it shipped overnight during the mid-July heat. However, there’s a mix-up at the shipping warehouse, and your wine spends three full days in unrefrigerated storage. When your case arrives, you see that the corks are slightly raised. You decide to:
- Wait a few months for the corks to contract a bit, then sell the case at auction
- Sell the case, but mention to the auction house that the wine might be cooked
- Dump the entire case and eat the cost yourself
In the third scenario, you try a California Cabernet blend at a tasting and enjoy the wine so much that you decide to invest in three cases of the newest vintage. Years later, you open a bottle, but it’s not as wonderful as you remember. You can’t find a serious flaw; the vintage is just boring. You decide to:
- Sell the cases at auction without disclosing anything
- Sell the cases, but inform your auction house why you’re getting rid of them
- Give them away to friends or dump the wine
Your Ethical Responsibility in Each Scenario
Following the golden rule and ethics of disclosure, here are the answers to each scenario:
Options C and D are both ethically-sound choices, whereas options A and B are not. Knowingly picking out the worst-looking wine in the case and selling it means that you’re aware of a major flaw in the wine, and you don’t respect your buyer enough to disclose that information. Similarly, even if you sell off the entire case as-is, if you don’t tell your buyer about the premox problem, you’re hiding an important piece of information from them. Although the producer in question is known for having premox problems, not all buyers are aware of this issue, and you are potentially taking advantage of naive collectors. On the flip side, collectors still need to educate themselves on premox to avoid buying from unethical sellers.
Option A is the unethical choice. Any wine that’s been exposed to heat for that long is almost surely cooked, and you are willfully putting that burden back onto your buyer when you sell that wine. In addition, you might be placing the blame on the auction house, rather than the warehouse that originally shipped the wine. This could cost the auction house money out of pocket in refunds to their future buyer, which is unfair and damages the auction house’s reputation. To protect yourself in the future, shop with online retailers who take better care with shipments, and who offer refunds for cooked wine.
All three options are perfectly ethical! If you can’t find a serious flaw in a wine, and it’s simply a matter of personal dislike for the wine’s flavors, you have no obligation to disclose this to your buyer. Your buyer can find hundreds of tasting notes on that wine, along with reviews from critics explaining all of the flaws of the vintage. Your buyer might even enjoy the flavors that you found distasteful. In this case, it’s your buyer’s responsibility to determine whether the flavors will appeal to their palate, since you can’t provide this information for them.
As the three scenarios show, it’s the seller’s responsibility to give the buyer all of the information he needs to make an informed choice. As long as you meet this bare minimum requirement, you retain your integrity and prevent flawed bottles from making other collectors’ lives miserable.
Whether you are starting your high-end wine collection or adding to an established portfolio, Vinfolio is your partner in buying, selling, and professional storage. Contact us today to get access to the world’s best wine.
Ryan has worked in every restaurant capacity from bartender to management, and in wine distribution as a consultant and advisor to Chicago’s most elite restaurants and retailers. As a new member of Vinfolio’s Executive Fine Wine Specialists, he is thrilled to share his expertise and passion for wine. Outside of the office, he can be found learning to cultivate vines in the garden, with a glass of White Burgundy in hand, or hiking with his wife and dogs.