We were on a student mission to furnish our shared flat, but ended up blowing our budget after placing winning bids on a tacky mirrored plinth and taxidermy rabbit. This first experience of auctions filled me with a fear of this form of purchasing for some years which, thankfully, I've now overcome as it's a great way to buy wine, from rare bottles to real bargains.
Despite being big business internationally, coupled with the rise of online auction sites more generally, bidding for wine remains under the radar for many local wine buyers. It's something that's down to the relatively undeveloped nature of the "secondary" market in the country - where wines are sold by another seller and not from the original primary release - in which a relatively small number of wine enthusiasts and investors are actively seeking out the older back vintages that are the mainstay of the auction houses.
This is as well as the relative youth of the fine-wine sector within our own wines. However, according to the country's two main wine auction houses, things are starting to change. "We are seeing evidence that the demand for New Zealand wines on the secondary market is developing," notes Simon Ward, director of the Fine Wine Department at Webb's, an auction house with a department devoted to wine that holds regular auctions throughout the year.
Although New Zealand wines account for just 25 per cent of Webb's sales, Ward explains this is fuelled by a core group of top local wines that have become sought-after and are limited in supply, especially older vintages.
"Another factor is that the best wines are proving they do have solid ageing potential," he says, "and buyers are increasingly gaining confidence that mature New Zealand wines will be in drinkable condition or possess further cellaring potential, with the added complexity that bottle-ageing can bring."
"The New Zealand wine investment market has grown significantly," agrees Frances Fitz-Gerald, who runs wine auction house, Fitz-Gerald Wine with her father, Kevin. "Limited supply, reputation and sheer quality have thrust many of New Zealand's best wines on to the world stage and we're seeing unprecedented levels of confidence in these from New Zealanders and a growing international following," she says.
"New players, new wines and international recognition keep the secondary market evolving, where wines are traded for profit and pleasure."
So what can you expect to find at auction? According to Ward, though local wines are starting to make inroads, bordeaux are still the most traded wines, with burgundy on the rise and a long trading history behind top Australian wines, especially Penfolds Grange.
At Fitz-Gerald's twice-monthly auctions, lots range from rare and collectable bottles from established regions, such as first-growth bordeaux, premium burgundy, vintage ports and wines from Italy, Spain and Germany, to well-known Aussie wines, New Zealand's leading labels and large formats.
Given auctions receive lots from receiverships, liquidations and sellers looking to offload unwanted bottles, reserves can be low and if you're lucky some can be had at surprisingly low prices.
Auctions are also not just about expensive wines either. Trade Me now has a section for wine, while Fitz-Gerald holds "Bargain Hunters" sales where reserves can be as low as $10. Both permit bidding online.
If you're looking for something out of the ordinary or to snap up a smart deal, it's worth checking out wine auctions. Just keep focused on what you want and how much you're prepared to pay and you'll avoid the vinous equivalents of the white elephants I managed to bag as my first auction buys.
Soderberg Home Block Single Vineyard Marlborough Pinot Noir 2010 $37
There's an attractive elegance to this Marlborough pinot noir, with its fresh and silky textured cherry fruit underpinned by a lick of spicy oak and a savoury gamey complexity. Available from www.soderbergwines.co.nz.
Dallington Downs Waipara Valley Pinot Noir 2010 $30-$35
Snap up the last of this svelte, satiny vintage before you have to seek it out at auction. Notes of ripe dark plum fruit are infused with aromatic nuances of forest floor, anise and florals. From www.dallingtondowns.com.
Chateau Corconnac Cru Bourgeois Haut-Medoc, Bordeaux 2009 $34
A cracking cru bourgeois with bright and supple dark berry fruit threaded with fragrant notes of violet florals and spice. Available from Glengarry.
A 1971 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, Romanee-Conti sold for $12,500 was the most expensive bottle sold at Webb's a couple of years back. However, New Zealand wines are starting to clock up high prices, such as the bottle of 1998 Martinborough Vineyard Reserve pinot noir, which reached a record price of $915 at Fitz-Gerald Wines this July.