The most lavish and lucrative wine auction in the world isn’t held in Napa Valley or New York City. Instead, it takes place in a petite countryside village in the middle of France. Here, the precious grapevines are world-famous. And while this storied sale regularly breaks modern-day records, its raison d’être goes all the way back to the Middle Ages.
It started in 1457 as a charitable gesture to help impoverished citizens die in dignity. The town of Beaune was coming out of the Hundred Years’ War with England, a time of unrest following plague outbreaks that devastated the area. So local winegrower Jean Guillotte le Verrier donated some of his coveted vines to the local hospital, the Hôtel Dieu (Hospices de Beaune). The wine produced from the grapes supported the institution, where patients could be cared for in a place of architectural grandeur.
You can see that magnificence today, as the soaring structure has become a museum. The glazed-tile roof is a marvel of 15th century design with interlacing patterns. Inside, you’ll find the Great Hall of the Poor, with two rows of curtained beds. Each held two patients lying head-to-toe. They were cared for free of charge, spending their final moments surrounded by visual splendor: painted ceilings, tapestries, candles and the like. The spiritual feeling inside this room, where so many souls have passed on, is indelible even now.
That poignancy forms the backdrop for this iconic wine auction held just steps from the Hôtel Dieu. Dating back to 1859, the yearly sale is the crowning event for this wine-growing region, with proceeds supporting the museum and a local hospital. True to predictions, the most recent event smashed records, taking in $32 million — the highest ever for a charity wine auction. “Representing the heart and soul of Burgundy, the auction attracted collectors from 30 countries, raising an extraordinary amount of money for charity, which will be used to help support the community,” explains Sotheby’s Wine & Spirits Worldwide Chairman Jamie Ritchie.
The seven-hour sale was conducted by four auctioneers working in rotation, with bidders in-person, online and on the phone. They weren’t buying bottles of wine, but rather some 800 barrels housing 51 cuvées, the latest vintage produced from vineyards across the hospital’s 60-hectare holdings. Winning bidders must be patient and entrust the barrels to a Burgundian négociant-éleveur for maturing. Then 18 months later, the wine can be properly bottled and labeled.
To mark this celebratory three-day affair, wine collectors descend upon Burgundy, where the cobblestone streets of Beaune are filled with revelers. An envy-inducing dinner is held at the historic Château du Clos de Vougeot. Then there’s a rousing wine lunch, where one might hear a singing of “Ban Bourguignon,” the local wine anthem. Finally, esteemed oenophiles gather for a candlelit meal held inside the Hôtel Dieu. The world’s most exquisite wines are poured. And with a toast, everyone is reminded how a generous offer to help the less fortunate changed the global wine world forever.