Buying Wine To Heal the Sick

The centerpiece of the Trois Glorieuses weekend is the Hospices de Beaune auction, which takes place on Sunday afternoon. It is somewhat ironic that the main event of this three-day bacchanal is itself a dry affair, but given the kind of extravagant consumption that takes place over the course of the weekend, a few hours spent bidding on red and white Burgundies, rather than drinking them, is probably no bad thing. And this is no ordinary wine auction: It’s an annual rite of autumn with a fascinating history, most of it honorable, one brief chapter regrettable.

This was the 146th edition of the auction, a charity event whose proceeds benefit a cluster of local medical facilities. Some of the money is also used for the upkeep of the Hôtel-Dieu, the imposing Gothic structure that is Beaune’s signature landmark and one of France’s foremost architectural jewels. Renowned for its colorful tiled roof, the Hôtel-Dieu was built in the mid-15th century at the behest of Nicolas Rolin, chancellor to the duke of Burgundy, who wanted to give the town, ravaged by the Hundred Years’ War, a new hospital. The building served as a hospital until 1971; it is now a museum loaded with remarkable artwork, notably a 600-year-old polyptych, “The Last Judgment,” by Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden.

The building was completed in 1451, and six years after that, one Jehan de Clomoux donated a nearby vineyard to the Hospices de Beaune, the organization that Rolin created to administer the Hôtel-Dieu. In the years that followed, other vineyards were bequeathed to the Hospices—enough to make it one of the largest single landholders in Burgundy, a distinction it retains to this day. Not long after the initial bequest, the Hospices began selling wine to support the hospital’s activities. For several hundred years, the wines were sold to private clients. But in the mid-1800s, concerned by slack demand, the Hospices decided to sell directly to the public, and this led to the creation, in 1859, of the annual auction.

Although the Hospices is one of the world’s oldest charitable organizations, it hasn’t always been a pillar of virtue. In 1942, it carved out a small section of vineyard on the outskirts of Beaune and donated it to Marshall Philippe Pétain, the leader of Vichy France. Two years later, with France liberated and Pétain in exile in Germany, a contrite Hospices went to court to see if it could reclaim the gift it had bestowed on the disgraced wartime leader. Permission was granted, but it was too late to prevent bottles bearing the Clos du Maréchal Pétain label from finding their way into circulation.

In addition to its charitable function, the auction has traditionally served as a gauge of market sentiment—an early indicator of the prices the new vintage is likely to fetch. But disappointing results in 2004, combined with a feeling that the event had lost a bit of its luster, led the Hospices to make a radical move last year: hiring Christie’s to run the auction. From a historical standpoint, enlisting a British firm to oversee an auction rooted in the Hundred Years’ War was an interesting choice. From a practical standpoint, it has proved to be a masterstroke. Among other things, Christie’s has introduced direct bidding by individuals (in the past, individual buyers could take part in the auction, but they had to submit bids via négociants), scaled back the amount of wine on offer (680 barrels were put up for sale this year, down from 789 in 2005), and instituted a few changes in the cellar that are likely to yield even better wines. More important, with its deep client pool, Christie’s has given the auction easier access to international collectors.

In the run-up to this year’s auction, Christie’s sponsored pre-sale tastings in London, Paris, and New York. It also held tastings in Beaune on the Friday and Saturday before the auction and on the morning of the event. On Sunday morning, I headed over to the Centre Hospitalier de Beaune to taste the 2006s in barrel. Suffice it to say, only in France would you find a winery on the grounds of a hospital: Just around back from the emergency room was the Hospices de Beaune’s winemaking facilities and cellar.

Although the tickets indicated that the tasting was open only to members of the wine trade, judging by the crowd, it appeared that either a lot of tickets had fallen into nonprofessional hands or the definition of “wine trade” in France includes end-users. There was a huge, wraparound queue waiting to descend into the cellar, and as soon as I made it down there, my suspicions were confirmed: The vast majority of these people were here not to taste, but to drink. The line moved reasonably well at first, but by the time we reached the second long row of barrels, faces were turning red, conversations were turning a little too exuberant for 10:30 on a Sunday morning, and the pace was becoming glacial. Rather than spending three hours riding this party train, I headed for the exit, pausing en route to taste a few of the grands crus.

The auction, which began at 2:30 in a building adjacent to the Hôtel-Dieu, was surprisingly entertaining. Much as I adore wine, watching other people buy it is not something that usually arouses my interest. This auction, though, was fun. The auctioneers wielded their hammers with a refreshing light-heartedness. There was some good stargazing: Several prominent winemakers stopped by, and the Christie’s table was anchored by, among others, the legendary Michael Broadbent, who founded the firm’s wine department. The cavernous hall, carpeted in a regal shade of red, lent a certain grandeur to the proceedings. But what I most enjoyed was the sense of history and continuity that hung over the event. Strip away the digital price display above the podium and the other modern accoutrements, and what you had was a community ritual dating back to the mid-19th century, undertaken on behalf of an organization dating back to the Middle Ages.

This year’s auction was a resounding success—maybe too successful. Although 2006 is not considered nearly as good a vintage as 2005, prices for the 2006 white wines jumped 63 percent over last year. An outbreak of irrational exuberance? So it would appear. I, however, played no part in the frenzied bidding. It was going to be difficult enough explaining to my wife how I managed to accumulate a dozen bottles while in France; laying out $30,000 for a barrel of wine would have made for a truly interesting homecoming.