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Stephen Ranger on COC's Fine Wine Auction

Photo: Canadian Opera Company

Wine and opera make fine friends who should be enjoyed slowly. But this Thursday, Stephen Ranger, Toronto's infamous wine auctioneer, will speed talk a well-heeled crowd into buying an impressive array of rare vintages to raise funds for the 15th Annual Canadian Opera Company's Fine Wine Auction at the Design Exchange. Leading up to the big event, Ranger explains why he looks out for Rhône Valley wines at auctions, that the world's best Chardonnay is coming out of the Niagara region, and how a few drops of grape juice will help the COC's education and outreach programs stay afloat.

What drew you to wine?
There is a lot to be interested in when it comes to wine. It connects us to food, culture, agriculture, but most importantly, other people. It's a thoroughly social thing. You learn a lot more about others over a glass of wine than in a conference call.

What are the major changes you've seen in the auction world with respect to wine over the last few years?
The big story is really how truly global the wine auction market is and this is directly attributable to the market in Asia. Nearly all the big wine auction houses now have sales in Asia, in particular Hong Kong and increasingly on the mainland. It has had a huge impact on the price of top-flight Bordeaux wines, which has left a lot of other areas, like the Rhône Valley and Italian wines seem inexpensive in comparison.

Have you seen a difference in the types of wines being sold?
Wines are generally sold by country and then by region. The most interest in wine at auction remains the top wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Top California wines generate lots of interest as well, but still pale in comparison price-wise to the mighty French Châteaux.

Is the direct shipment from estate to auction a growing trend?
Provenance, the source and history of a wine, is key to value. If you know that a wine comes direct from the cellars of say Château Haut-Brion, you can be assured that one, the wine is genuine, and two, that the wine has been stored in impeccable conditions. It certainly doesn't hurt the brand of a great wine to have their wines sold for spectacular prices at auction either.

What are some wines that people should look out for at an auction?
I have always been a value buyer, so I tend to look to the Rhône Valley, where price/quality ratios are still within grasp of the average collector. I also have been drinking more Italian wine recently; it's invariably hugely food-friendly. Fourth and fifth-growth Bordeaux can also be a bargain, especially when it comes from so-called off vintages, which don't attract the hordes of trophy collectors focused on the big names.

To what degree does price reflect quality?
Like many things in life, price does reflect quality, although in the wine world, there is always lots of opportunity to explore little known regions or producers who, for one reason or another, fly under the radar. There is a misconception that great wine is only for the well off. This is not true. I am still amazed at what the average person can source for under $25 that will be extremely pleasurable.

Is there no reliable difference between, say, a great $100 bottle and a great $1000 bottle?
As I just said, price most often does reflect quality, however it is also true that the average person, not very much involved in the wine world would have a hard time differentiating between wines at this level. The human brain is a complicated and funny thing, as expectation plays strongly on our psyches. If you know that the wine you are tasting costs $1000 a bottle, you are going to let that factor play into your experience of the wine. There have been blind tests that prove this to be true. One thing that must be said though is that producers who are making wine at the top end of the market are people who are dedicated to excellence in a way that is always inspiring.

How about grape varietals - are there any you find particularly interesting right now?
As boring as it may sound, I find myself constantly amazed by the chardonnay grape. We are finally getting away from the internationalization of this incredible varietal. From crisp, minerally Chablis, to lush Montrachets, to beautiful complex New World wines, there is really something for everyone. I discovered a small Ontario winery this year, Pearl Morrissete, who are making some of the best chardonnay I have ever had, right here in Niagara. I am also a big fan of Grenache, it's a hot-weather grape, called different things in different places, and again, region-by-region and style-by-style, it really shines.

Tell me what one should expect from the COC Auction and to where the funds will be allocated?
A good time and more than a few great bottles of wine to add to the cellar! The COC's Fine Wine Auction is now in its 15th year, and it's become one of the company's most successful fundraising events for a reason, having raised $1.2 million to date. The funds from this year's wine auction are raised in support of the COC's education and outreach programs, which are invaluable in engaging audiences of all ages with opera and the performing arts as well as nurturing the next generation of operagoers. — Amanda Scriver

Tickets to the COC's 15th Annual Fine Wine Auction are $100 and can be purchased online at the Canadian Opera Company website or by calling 416-363-8231.

Design Exchange

234 Bay St, Toronto, ON M5K 1B2, Canada