THE NEW YORK-BASED SPECIALIST AND FORMER SOMMELIER ON HIS MOVE FROM RESTAURANT TO AUCTION HOUSE
By Michael Madrigale
When I was the head sommelier at the Bar Boulud / Boulud Sud on New York’s Upper West Side, one of the keys to my success in building the wine program into a James Beard Award finalist (2014) was buying wines at auction. I loved the opportunity to purchase well-stored and properly aged wines that you could offer to guests to give them a truly unique experience at the restaurant. The best-kept secret in the world of wine is that oftentimes you can purchase certain 25- to 30-year-old Bordeaux, Burgundy or Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon at auction, drinking at its absolute apogee, for less than the current release price of the same wine. With this knowledge I did a good amount of damage to the restaurant’s balance sheet, but the guest experience went through the roof and, as a result, we became a destination wine restaurant where people from all over the world would make reservations to see what the buzz was about.
The driver for me to allocate an inordinate amount of my monthly budget to buying wines at auction was simply to enhance the client experience. It was my raison d’être to give the clients something they weren’t likely to find other places. I wanted to be a proper guide for clients, where I knew the wines front and back but wasn’t overbearing or arrogant in my demeanor. Quite simply, it was all about service to the clients.
The best-kept secret in the world of wine is that oftentimes you can purchase certain 25- to 30-year-old Bordeaux, Burgundy or Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon at auction, drinking at its absolute apogee, for less than the current release price of the same wine.”
When I came onboard to be the Director of Rare Wine in New York for Heritage Auctions, the fundamentals of service to the guest and creating a positive client experience that drove me in the sommelier world came to serve me well. The stakes were higher obviously. Instead of interacting for an hour and 30 minutes with mostly smiles and laughs, on the auction side you are interacting over several months and dealing with people’s prized possessions that they spent years acquiring and maintaining. The gravity of the situation struck me like a bucket of cold water with the very first consignment I brought in the door. We are being trusted by the consignor to steward their collection to the marketplace and are expected to deliver results within expectations but more so to surpass them. It isn’t enough just to close the deal and let it ride. To deliver a proper client experience, one must get the word out via email marketing and contacting personal friends, restaurant sommeliers and buyers who had bid on the same wines previously. The idea is to shake every tree and shout to every mountaintop about the collection to be auctioned. It is important for me to know that I attempted every possible way to bring the best result for the consignor and their collection. We can’t control the market, but we can do our best to get the word out.
The most advantageous part of transitioning from being a head sommelier to a director of rare wine is that I am interacting with so many clients that I knew from the restaurant world. Being part of the circle of collectors allows me to softly market myself as a Heritage Auctions consignment director. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to build relationships with these collectors on a friendship level first, which has been proven a winner to getting pieces of their collection to bring to auction. I was at a dinner a few months back with a few of these collectors in Water Mill, New York, and the subject of auction houses came up. The consensus around the table was that Heritage isn’t the biggest out there for wine auctions, but our credibility, honesty, commitment to client experience and ability to get some of the best results in the marketplace put us in great standing among the collectors. I’m good with that.
Heritage’s next Fine & Rare Wine Signature® Auction takes place February 23 in Beverly Hills.
MICHAEL MADRIGALE is Director of Rare Wine at Heritage Auctions in New York. He can be reached at 212.486.1678 or MMadrigale@HA.com.