Mark Solomon remembers the moment he became a wine lover.
He was a neuropsychologist at WakeMed to whom wine was simply red or white, sweet or dry.
Then Solomon was invited to a neighbors house for dinner. Afterward, the host poured two glasses of port, one for himself and one for Solomon. Solomon wasnt paying any attention. But he recalls: I tried it. I had to sit down. It was so amazing.
The 1955 Grahams Vintage Port tasted intensely of licorice and blackberry. It was both dense and silky on the tongue. Solomon sat there staring at the glass. His host just smiled, reveling in Solomons epiphany.
After that, Solomon, 43, became an eager student of wine. As his tastes grew, he realized he could afford to indulge them by buying bargains at auction and reselling a few bottles at a higher price.
Thats what drew him in November 2009 to the court-ordered auction of the possessions of an accused Ponzi scheme artist from Raleigh. Amid the18-karat gold Rolexes and designer handbags were a few bottles of Romanee-Conti, one of the most sought-after and expensive Burgundies in the world. I thought I was going to get a good deal, Solomon says.
Bidding drove the prices per bottle to more than $300. One bottle of the 1996 vintage sold for $3,100. I had no chance of winning it, he says.
Still, the experience sparked an idea: There could be enough wine aficionados and collectors in the Triangle and across North Carolina to support a regular wine auction and take a little business from auction houses in New York and Chicago.
He was right. Plenty of people go to great lengths to be around wine, to collect and drink it. Solomon teamed up with Leland Little, who has an auction house in Hillsborough. Their first wine auction sold almost $25,000 in wine. Sales at their last in July reached $111,000. Their next auction is Thursday.
Now their wine auctions are the largest in the Southeast and may be the largest outside New York or Chicago, though they are small potatoes compared to the millions of dollars in wine auctioned at such houses as Christies, Sothebys and Hart Davis Hart in Chicago.
Wine auctions arent for the casual wine drinker. Bidding lots can cost several hundred to several thousand dollars, although there are bargains to be found. Per bottle, a smart bidder can end up paying significantly less than retail. The auction house takes a cut of each sale.
Even some experienced wine drinkers shy away from auctions, suspicious of the bottles authenticity. Earlier this year, the wine world was rocked when Rudy Kurniawan, a Los Angeles man considered an authority on the worlds rarest wines, was accused of filling empty bottles with lesser wine and slapping on counterfeit labels. Kurniawan, whose own bidding drove up prices, netted more than $30 million auctioning his collection. Solomon says none of Kurniawans bottles filtered through the Hillsborough auction. It shows how much money can be at stake in the world of high-end wine.
Living with wine
Solomon quit his job earlier this year and works full time on the auctions. His days are filled with talking to people who love wine. He goes to wine events to meet potential bidders and spread the word about the auctions. People who love wine love to talk about it; their particular vice, their epiphany moment, and they love to drink it together.
Solomon is being invited into collectors cellars, hashing out what they might part with and sometimes sitting down to enjoy a glass of wine.
He has traveled as far as Georgia and Pennsylvania. By far the most interesting cellar Solomon has visited was owned by a businessman who lived off a golf course not far from Greensboro. The nice but not ostentatious home had an underground cellar (The man used 146 sticks of dynamite to dig it out) lined with bricks that held 3,000 bottles at a constant 50 degrees. Solomon helped sell off the mans last bottles before the man and his wife downsized to a condominium. A $50,000 investment yielded $700,000 for the savvy collector.
Earlier this spring, Solomon visited the home of a Chapel Hill businessman to inspect his 1,200-bottle collection. Solomon didnt look very long before spotting something interesting.
You have an 82 Mouton. Wow! he says.
Chateau Mouton-Rothschild is one of the top five Bordeaux vineyards in France, and 1982 is considered one of the best years for it in the last century. The bottle labels are highly prized because each year features illustrations by such artists as Andy Warhol and Joan Miro.
Do you have a 73? Solomon jokes, referring to the year the labels artist was Pablo Picasso.
Solomon carefully holds the 82, which can fetch $1,200 or more. He shines a small flashlight at the bottle neck to see the fill level, or how much wine has been lost to evaporation, and checks the cork for seepage signs of improper storage. This has been well kept.
Some of the worlds best
Solomon is reading the mans history on the shelves. I get to see really what you like to collect. Its interesting, Solomon says. Some of the best wines in the world are represented here.
The collector, who works in the wine business, responds: What you see in the cellar are also my mistakes things that didnt sell.
The next 20 minutes are a dance. Solomon admires the collection and tries to tease out the owner on what hed be willing to consign. No to the 82 Mouton-Rothschild. Yes to an 82 Chateau Latour, another one of the top five Bordeaux vineyards. Yes to an 86 Chateau dYquem, a Bordeaux vineyard that produces the worlds best Sauternes, a French sweet wine. No to any of his champagnes.
Id be buying champagnes, he says. This is the problem: 18 go out and 24 go in. Terrible.
A month later, Solomon is at the March auction, drinking a Cotes du Rhone wine and chatting with bidders. Laurie Hensely introduces herself to Solomon as a Caymus fan, referring to a Napa Valley vineyard that produces well-regarded cabernet sauvignons. She raves about the auction.
My husband used to go to New York to bid [on wine], she says. Isnt it unbelievable? Right here in Hillsborough.
Soon Solomon leads a few regulars to the auction houses wine cellar so they can look at bottles they plan to bid on. Several men one in a suit with a bow tie and a pocket square, another in a Tommy Bahama golf shirt and jeans inspect the bottles, plastic cups of wine in one hand and note cards in the other. (Theyve written down the lot numbers and the most they are willing to bid.) Solomon shines his flashlight on the bottle necks. He pulls out a green velvet case holding the evenings most anticipated item: a Remy-Martin cognac made from a blend of more than 1,200 brandies.
A blur of bidding
The bidders are soon talking about the wines they love. Travis Walsh, 41, a computer consultant from Asheboro, plans to bid on ports and champagnes. But he tells another bidder: My drug of choice: vintage Armagnac. I should have taken up crack. Its cheaper. Ten minutes before the auction starts, Solomon ushers everyone out of the cellar and locks it. The next hour is a blur. The auctioneer announces the lot numbers. Solomon pronounces the names of the wine in each lot. And the bidding begins. Within 10 minutes, the first 17 of more than 100 lots are gone. The auction culminates with that coveted cognac going for $2,300.
Afterward, the bidders pay what they owe and gather to collect their wine. They compare notes. Walsh, the Armagnac fan, got a case of vintage port from the year his son was born. Hell give it to him as a gift at his wedding or some other milestone. Derek Gominger, a neighbor of Solomons, collects his Opus One, a highly sought-after red wine blend made in a collaboration between California winemaker Robert Mondavi and French winemaker Baron Philippe de Rothschild
Handing over the wine, Solomon says, I think you got one of the best deals of the night.
A bottle of Opus One sells for about $200. Gominger got four bottles for $550.
That epiphany moment
A few days later, Solomon sits down over coffee to talk about his new life among this community of wine collectors.
All of us who collect are extremely passionate about it, he says. We like talking about it.
They talk about their moment of conversion. They talk about their collections. They talk about why they collect.
And Solomon says they will think nothing of opening a $1,000 bottle of wine for someone who enjoys wine as much as they do. Solomon says, Its the experience of sharing a bottle of wine with someone who gets it.
And they are always looking to help create that epiphany moment for someone else.
Even Solomon has done it. His sister-in-law used to drink whatever bottle of chardonnay she found at the supermarket.
One night, he pulled out a special bottle for her, a 1994 Puligny-Montrachet. Now shes a connoisseur of white Burgundies, but so far she hasnt ventured into collecting.
As Solomon says, Shes fortunate. She knows me.