The colourful Charlie Foley (29) takes up the gavel for the Cape Fine & Rare Wine Auction – only the fifth auctioneer to do so since the auction’s establishment 45 years ago. Founded as the Nederburg Auction in 1975, the auction’s very first auctioneer, Patrick Grubb (1975 to 2005), holds a Guinness Book of Records record for hosting an auction for 31 consecutive years.
October marks the time of year South African winemakers showcase some of their best work on the auction block. The Cape Fine & Rare Wine Auction, considered similar in stature to famous auctions such as Hospices de Beaune in France and Kloster Eberbach in Germany, will pay homage to SA’s fine wines in an exciting new format at the Rupert Museum in Stellenbosch on 18 and 19 October.
In total, 124 wines from 64 of South Africa’s best producers are featured in this year’s auction catalogue, and bidding will be conducted by the celebrated auction house, Christie’s – a partner to the auction since 2017.
Foley brings extensive wine knowledge and a passion SA’s wines to the bidding hall. This vibrant auctioneer shares his insights and thrills of buying wine at an auction:
What is the perception of South Africa’s wines in international circles?
I think South Africa is in a great place wine-wise. It’s where the Old World meets the New World; with ripeness and complexity twirling around one other in your glass. There is so much diversity, from chewy Cabernets, to complex Chenins, to sublime Sauvignons… The Rainbow Nation has it all. The wines of the Cape should be splashed into glasses the world over and shared around to spread the message: sunshine and smiling winemakers make stunning wines.
Have you seen an increase in wine auctions internationally? What does this trend tell you?
The wine auction market is huge and growing every year. At Christie’s it is an exciting hook. People who have not dealt with Christie’s before, often come to us through a wine purchase or a wine tasting and then get a taste for collecting and end up with a Picasso or a Monet! Across the world, there is a growing trend for lifestyle events – sharing food and wine in a restaurant is one of the only things you cannot do on the internet now and this sense of the ‘real’ resonates. People want to be entertained and wine is the most entertaining liquid going!
What makes wine auctions intriguing?
Diversity. You can come away beaming with a collection of the most intriguing wines on the planet. Sitting in the auction room, clutching your paddle is your chance to think of the steak sauces you will match your Syrah with, the puddings you will plump for your Port, the friends you will invite to share your Frappato or the cheese you will munch with your Cap Classique.
Would you advise people buy wine at auction? Why?
Yes, yes and yes. It’s the most theatrical way to buy wine and the best possible way to get friendly with the most knowledgeable and entertaining wine lovers. You will have the opportunity to taste, try and buy a wealth of diverse wines and you will learn so much in the process.
Any tips for first-time auction goers?
If you have chance to make friends with the auctioneer, do it! They will love a familiar face and some banter. Know which lots you would kill for and which you would rather die if you missed out on. Go for it. You may never see them again and you only live once.
How do wine auctions compare to other auctions, for example art auctions?
An auction is an event, and the art departments have long understood the need to make a piece of theatre. The wine sales have begun to reflect this. From the dramatic gavel hammer of Christie’s $450 million Da Vinci last year to the mammoth barrel sale at Beaune in November every year, Christie’s draws in people who love the lots on offer. We entertain and intrigue them. These people become the proud new owners of the fantastic pieces on offer.
Do buyers perceive South African wines as investment pieces?
We recently collaborated with the Cabernet Collective for our Dylan Lewis sculpture sale and the chance to show some of the Cape’s top wines to our clients was amazing. The reaction was fantastic. Buyers like to discover new things and be ahead of the curve. The opportunity for buyers to try older vintages of South African wines will be interesting as Christie’s buyers like to see a wine unfurl over the years, gain complexity and blossom into an intriguing mature wine. The maturity of South Africa’s top wines will be the key to buyers appreciating them as investment wines.
Have you studied the upcoming auction lots for the Cape Fine & Rare Wine Auction? What are your thoughts?
What a fantastic offering, you couldn’t ask for a more intriguing smorgasbord of wines. I have visited the Cape this year already and spent time with many estates listed in these exceptional lots. The winemakers have a devotion to their vines that is touching. They are so happy to be swirling their wines around their own glasses and now buyers get the chance to bid and buy and taste some of the best wines they have made. Wines they have kept secret, that have lain in cellars, gaining extra aroma and added complexity.
Are you a wine collector? Any particular lots you would’ve bid on, if you could? Why?
I’ve planned myself an imaginary dinner. I begin with Ken’s FMC 2009, I match it with a light and delicate cheese souffle. Next up, I’ve nabbed the Kaapzicht 1947 Chenin and I splash it into a glass alongside a lemon drizzled cod. My steak is sizzling – it’s going to be medium rare and my red is equally as rare. It’s the Rubicon 1989 and it’s singing with my steak. A plate of cheese is waiting. I have decanted the Rustenberg 1974 and it’s sensational, the cheese is aged and mature, the wine is complex and evolved. Finally, my sweet tooth needs feeding. I have a malva pudding and I can’t resist… It’s Vin de Constance 2001. I’m in a sugar saturated heaven. Who’s joining me at the table?
An auctioneer brings an important energy to the auction hall. What would you say is your personal approach?
Colour. I cannot pass a suit shop without seeing if they have vibrant hued tailoring inside. However, the suit only does half the job, the rest is up to me. My grandfather auctioned cattle many moons ago and I have grown up trying to ape his precision, knowledge, speed, authority and general charm when wielding a gavel.
Christie's has included a South African ‘super lot’ in their Fine & Rare Wine Auction later this year in London. Do tell us more.
We are delighted to partner with the auction on this lot. It will be a fantastic feature in our catalogue and allow our buyers the chance to learn about, experience and bid on the best wines the Cape cultivates. I worked in South Africa for Steenberg some years ago and since then, I have been banging the drum for South African wines. There is special magic in those hills: it rolls in on the Cape Doctor, settles quietly over the vines and seeps through the verdant leaves into the grapes, swelling them into a fizzing energy that will excite the taste-buds of anyone who believes in the magic of wine.
This is your first South African auction and you’re only the 5th auctioneer in the Cape Fine & Rare Wine Auction’s 45-year history, with the first auctioneer, Patrick Grubb (1975 to 2005), holding a Guinness Book of Records record for hosting an auction for 31 consecutive years. Are you open to a 31-year challenge?
I am honoured to have the opportunity and the challenge is accepted. I would love a Guinness World Record. All that would be left to achieve then is a Nobel Peace Prize and my life would be complete.