Gavel at the ready for 30th Nedbank Cape Winemakers Guild Auction

Henré Hablutzel, seasoned auctioneer of the annual Nedbank Cape Winemakers Guild Auction which marks its 30th anniversary this year, has seen the auction grow in stature from a niche event to the quintessential showcase of South African wine achievement.

Hablutzel who took over the gavel as Guild auctioneer in 1998, will be presiding over the auction for the 17th time at Spier in Stellenbosch on Saturday, 4 October 2014. A showcase of rare, exceptional wines with creative flair and great diversity, this year’s auction sees the culmination of three decades of winemaking prowess. Benchmarking wines of remarkable lineage and enduring quality, all Guild wines are crafted in small volumes exclusively for the auction by its members.

The first Guild auction was hosted by Sotheby’s in Johannesburg on Saturday, 7 September 1985 with a line-up of 18 wines submitted by just 13 members. The first auctioneer, respected UK Master of Wine David Molyneux-Berry, presided over the auction for seven years before it moved to Cape Town in 1992. With various auctioneers taking their turn over the next six years, the gavel was finally handed to Henré Hablutzel of Hofmeyr Mills Auctioneers in 1998.

By this time the Guild had grown to 21 members and the auction had amassed a line-up of 28 wines with a total turnover of R1,7 million. Today, in comparison, the Guild has 45 members representing the pinnacle of South African winemaking and the auction now boasts a line-up of 59 wines with record sales of over R8,4 million in 2013.

Besides the auction’s phenomenal growth in stature, for Hablutzel one of the major changes has been the increase in larger lots: “Today there are far fewer small lots compared to the early auctions. These 2-case lots are sought-after by the private collector and typically fetch higher prices compared with the six and eight case lots that are usually bought by professional wine buyers.”

Over the past 16 auctions, Hablutzel has seen the interest by local buyers grow substantially from 50% in the late 1990’s when the lifting of sanctions generated keen interest from overseas buyers, to just over 80% in 2013.

“We have seen the number of local buyers, particularly private collectors, versus overseas buyers increase substantially in recent years which is a clear indication of the growing interest in the Guild wines locally,” adds Hablutzel.

Years of experience have honed his skill and expertise at reading the auction floor and what the buyers want: “You just develop a feel and rapport with them. Certain buyers sit in the same place in the auditorium year after year, others like to retain their same numbers. You get to know their choices, and can sometimes even pre-empt when they are going to bid.”

The Guild’s most significant bidder for Hablutzel is undoubtedly Alan Pick of the Butcher Shop and Grill in Sandton, the auction’s biggest buyer with total purchases exceeding R12,1 million since making his first bid in 2000. “I have a really good relationship with Alan and he is very supportive of the auction.”

Pick has the following take on Hablutzel: “I’ve been to auctions all over the world and I think that Henré is in a class of his own.”

Other noteworthy buyers include Willy Rouseu of Rouseu Wijnen in Belgium. “Willy is another character who has been here since our first auction. A perfect gentleman always in his suit. Recently, though, he has not been coming out to the auction but has been buying over the phone,” adds Hablutzel.

Erik Ahlmann, a regular buyer from Denmark and Paul Plant from the UK are also among his most memorable overseas buyers. “On the local front Manfred Brand comes to mind, a private collector who attends every year, as well as the rows of regular local trade buyers.”

Hablutzel’s association with the Cape Winemakers Guild runs far deeper than presiding over the annual auction. Since 2000 he has been a regular contributor to the Nedbank Cape Winemakers Guild Development Trust and the Guild’s ground breaking Protégé Programme with personal donations amounting to over R205 000: “From the onset I felt it was a brilliant initiative by the Guild to bring about transformation by cultivating, nurturing and empowering promising individuals to become winemakers of excellence, and am very happy to be able to contribute towards it.”

In addition to his personal donations, Hablutzel helps the Guild to raise funds in support of the Protégé Programme by auctioning off a unique charity item representing the collective efforts of members of the Guild as part of the annual auction. Since 1993, the Guild has raised a total of R8,8 million in support of these development initiatives and numerous community charities.

“Henré is as passionate about auctioning wine as we Guild members are about making wine,” says Jeremy Walker who had seen Hablutzel in action at a wine auction all those years ago and felt he would be the right person to preside over the Guild’s annual auction.

“Time has proven this to be correct – the auction results speak for themselves. He handles the auction with confidence, professionalism and has a sense of humour. Moreover, he loves wine, which enables him to get a positive and enthusiastic message across to the bidders,” adds Walker.

When it comes to the opening bid, Hablutzel has it taped: “I mainly base the starting bid on the previous year’s prices but sometimes, like last year, this can be too low!”

Hablutzel is a true master when it comes to keeping focus and the momentum going on auction day. “Doing the same job day in, day out for 37 years does help,” he concedes.

With an interest in wine spanning over 40 years, Hablutzel has a sound knowledge of the wines on auction and is well acquainted with many of the winemakers.

“I make a point of attending the Final Pre-auction Tasting on the Friday night as it gives me an idea of what the wine is like. My wife and family also attend so we can compare notes. It does help during the auction.”

The annual Guild Auction is certainly a Hublutzel family affair, with his wife, Wendy, daughters Leanne and Caryn, and their husbands, Brendon and Jason, hard at work taking telephonic bids on the auction floor: “I don’t have a large staff so our families have always been involved since day one.”

When he’s not selling wine, Hablutzel enjoys drinking good red wines. “I love the traditional blends, particularly when the wines are older. I sometimes feel that some of the winemakers do themselves an injustice by selling their wines a year or two too soon though.”

Looking ahead at the future of the Guild Auction, Hablutzel hopes that modern technology will improve the pace of online bidding. “Online bidding has its moments, but at this stage the technology is a bit slow to keep up with the pace of our auction. It definitely has a slow-down effect as we have to wait for the online bidder to respond.”

After the unexpected jump in sales last year, prices are expected to level off somewhat for the next year or two. “I will admit that I never expected such a big jump in turnover last year but who is complaining! This year, not knowing the wines as yet, I would be very happy to be near or equal to last year’s figures although one hopes that the rising trend continues,” says Hablutzel who believes that the success of certain top tier South African producers in fetching some really high prices for their wines, bodes well for future Guild Auctions.

“If you compare our prices to French wines, however, we are still cheap!” he concludes.