They say every bottle of wine tells a tale and Cult Wines International, a small seller of rare wines at bargain prices, has its own interesting story.
Initially starting with a personal wine collection, owner Frank Hartland turned his passion for wine into a thriving business on eBay’s global marketplace where people can both purchase rare wines, and also sell from their own collection to other enthusiasts.
“We now feature wines from collectors all over the world,” Hartland said. “This gives hobbyists access to a large audience at much less cost than traditional auctions.”
Cult Wines, which is based in Port Charlotte, Florida, features wines worth thousands and some for under $20.
A simple beginning
Starting small, Hartland began selling his collection of wine and also those owned by his friends on his eBay account. That practice eventually turned into a bustling consignment business.
“As the value of my wine cellar got higher, I decided that I would auction some off,” Hartland said.
Cult Wines' current cellar houses a maximum of 3,000 premium wines. Given market conditions and availability, the number of bottles can vary from 1,000 to 3,000 in any given month. The Venice, Florida cellars feature climate-controlled storage in multiple locations.
Hartland eventually became licensed to sell wine on eBay. He looked into selling via other auction format sites like Sotheby’s and Winebid.com, but the terms were prohibitive.
“You needed to have a large initial investment in wine to get started on those platforms, you needed to send your wine directly to their warehouse, and they’d appraise it at their leisure,” the wine seller said. “It wasn’t an easy route.”
“Now, most of our wine is on eBay,” Hartland said. “On our own site, it’s difficult to come close to the amount of traffic that eBay listings generate.”
Cult Wines has come a long way since the first bottle sold on eBay. It was a bubbly way to start: Veuve Clicquot. Cult Wines now has $550,000 worth of wine up on eBay in 800 listings.
“You hit such a huge market with eBay,” he said. “Everyone’s heard of eBay, and when you’re dealing with high dollar items, you need that security.”
eBay services like PayPal, Sales Manager, and automated shipping label printing make growing the business easy. “We’re really pleased with the integration,” said Hartland, who uses the eBay mobile app to track auctions when on the road.
Finding rare wines
But being in the wine business is no easy job. The wine review process is intense. After the bottles are shipped to Cult Wines, they’re inspected for clarity, cork attributes, cap bulges and other telltale signs of wine gone bad. This is critical for wines that are decades old.
“If all our quality control hurdles are passed,” said Hartland, “we know we’re selling the best possible bottle of wine.”
Those good wine sales include a 1982 Perrier-Jouët Josephine in a beautiful gold-flaked bottle (seen above).
“It might not have been the ultimate tasting wine, but the whole package was something really rare,” said Hartland.
Cult Wines also recently sold rare bottles of Chateau Petrus and a 1982 Chateau Le Pin.
“The Le Pin went for $1,200, but it should have fetched $4,000. We lost money. It was one of those rare 100 point wines.”
One of Hartland’s biggest challenges is sourcing wines. It’s not easy to find rare wine that’s in good condition.
“People send unacceptable wines all the time,” he said. “The fill levels are low, which indicates improper storage, or the labels are damaged beyond recognition.”
If inventory’s low, they’ll buy from wine auctions and search the Internet for collections that are up for sale.
Hartland even negotiates for rare bottles that have been difficult for local restaurants to move.
“A nice restaurant might have a Chateau Lafite in their basement that no one has bought for years,” he said. “If it’s in good condition I’ll make an offer. I usually know the price it will sell for, but with some off-vintage years, I have to look them up,” he said. “My girlfriend gets irritated when I look up wines on my phone while we’re eating.”
Some of Cult Wines’ consignment contacts have million dollar wine cellars and simply need to reduce their bottle counts in order to make room for more wines. “I’ve got a guy in Naples that’s always trying to make room in his cellar,” said Hartland.
One of Cult Wines’ latest no reserve sales featured two bottles of 1961 Chateau Latour a Pomerol. The first bottle sold for $13,000.
“It was the deal of the century,” said Hartland. “It went for $1,300 to the same guy! That’s one of the most rare and expensive bottles I’ve ever had on a NR auction. Why it played out that way is still a mystery.”