DOBSON, N.C. – They’ve come from all over, about 100 people packed in a small room of the Hampton Inn — basically the only thing off this interstate exit in rural Surry County. There are a few suits, a couple of teenagers who got dragged here, and a lot of good old boys in jeans and ballcaps.

They’re here for the final chapter of Black Wolf — a nearby vineyard, winery and restaurant that shut down more than a year and a half ago, another casualty of the recession. The property has been on the market for months with no buyers.

So on this day, one Friday morning last month, it’s being auctioned to the highest bidder, no minimum price required.

The auction industry isn’t exactly thriving in the recession, but it is staying busy.

There are plenty of people looking to sell stuff, as they realize they’ve taken on a house they can’t afford or their business runs out of customers. But there are fewer buyers, and most auctioneers will tell you that sales prices for almost all items are down.

Tom McInnis, a state champion auction caller, is at the front of the room. He eggs on the potential buyers, barely taking a breath and speaking so fast that it sounds more like singing than talking. Sometimes he raises both hands like he’s Moses addressing the Israelites. “Opportunity will only knock this morning,” he tells the crowd. “It will not be knocking tomorrow.”


Everything that’s left of Black Wolf — the 54 acres of land, the restaurant building, the kitchen equipment, the wine fermenters, the barrels — will be auctioned off piecemeal in 12 “tracts.” Then McInnis will see if any single buyer will trump those bids and buy the whole shebang.

The bidders, who punch calculators and furrow their brows as beach music plays in the background, are all looking for a deal. They like the thrill of hunting for treasure, besting their competitors, and making split-second decisions to spend thousands of dollars.

But no one is reveling in Black Wolf’s misfortune, especially not the other locals. This auction may be the quickest way to get Black Wolf off the market, but it’s also just one last indignity.

Chris Longly, spokesman for the National Auctioneers Association, says auctions are the best method for selling in both good times and bad. In 2008, the latest date available from the NAA, live auctions generated revenue of $268 billion, up 37 percent from 2002. Car auctions were the biggest segment, accounting for about a third of total sales. Real estate auctions grew the fastest.

Auctions bring transparency to pricing, force buyers to be decisive, and let sellers get the highest price that the market will bear because they pit bidders against each other, Longly says. “Wall Street is the largest auction there is,” he says.


Black Wolf Vineyards is one of those “bad times” stories. It went into foreclosure last year, and the lender, Carolina Farm Credit, put it on the market but couldn’t sell it. So Carolina Farm Credit hired McInnis’ employer, Iron Horse Auction of Rockingham, N.C., to finish the job.

Among Iron Horse’s auctioneers is Sonny Weeks, a former commercial real estate broker and former golf pro who decided four years ago to go to auction school. He’d like to say it was because he saw the writing on the commercial real estate wall, but really it’s because his mother-in-law was best friends with one of the instructors. Plus, he figured, it couldn’t hurt to add another skill to his resume.

Sometimes there’s bad blood between auctioneers and Realtors, because both sides think they have the best method for getting something sold. Weeks, 39 and married with three kids, feels fortunate to be an auctioneer right now instead of a broker, considering the devastation in commercial real estate.

He also likes the finality of the auction sales: Once the gavel goes down, the property — be it a vineyard, condo, rare coin or baseball signed by Babe Ruth — is the seller’s problem. Almost all auctions sell items “as is, where is.”

“Can’t get your financing? Well, I’m sorry. There’s mold in the property? Well, I’m sorry,” Weeks said. “You’ve really got to do your due diligence.”

Auctioneers don’t all have to be callers, like McInnis. Weeks spends most of his time researching properties to see if they’re worth auctioning off and then figuring out how to price them. Land isn’t selling, Weeks said, because nobody wants to build anything.

At the Black Wolf auction, Weeks watches McInnis, the caller, kick off things at 11 a.m. McInnis is going through 20 minutes of disclaimers, mostly about how everything is sold “as is.”

Weeks and seven or eight other auctioneers, from Iron Horse and another firm called Rogers Realty & Auction, are scattered throughout the crowd as “ringmen.” They help bidders figure out how much they’d have to put up if they wanted to combine, say, tracts 3 and 4. The Iron Horse ringmen carry iPads, and at the front of the room, there’s a projector screen where each tract’s sale price, bidder number and other information pop up as people put in bids.

John Britt, who came down from Saude Creek Vineyards in Williamsburg, Va., bids $120,000 for the winery equipment, like fermenters and grape crushers, and for a while it looks like he’s won.

But then McInnis reopens the bidding to see if anyone will buy the entire property and all of the equipment outright, offering more than the combined bids of the other winners. McInnis sets a three-minute timer, turns on some music, and lets the ringmen work the crowd.

When the offers start to come in, most of the bidders start to filter out, realizing they’ve been beat. Britt leaves to grab lunch with another winemaker, rather than stick around to see how the auction ends. “It’s an auction, so you take it as it goes,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “It’s like playing cards.”

Javier Herrera, dressed in a dark suit and sitting near the back of the room with a small entourage, casts the winning bid. There’s a smattering of applause from the people who are still around.


Herrera agrees to pay about $880,000 for the vineyards, winery and restaurant, including a 7 percent fee to the auction company. That’s about 73 percent of its last listed price, and 60 percent of its tax value.

After the property is sold, everything moves in short order. In about 10 minutes, McInnis sells off pallets of wine, empty bottles and some items classified as “Miscellaneous Equipment In and Around Utility Building.” It all goes cheap.

Most everybody leaves empty-handed.

Kirk Jones did, after driving 12 hours from northern Michigan, where he’s starting a business that makes wine from honey. He was hamstrung because all the winery equipment was being sold as a package deal, and he didn’t need all 13 fermenters.

Cleve Young, who runs both a zipline course and a winery in Plumtree, N.C., stopped at the auction on his way to vacation at Myrtle Beach, S.C. Though he didn’t get the restaurant equipment, he came away with dozens of cases of wine, some bottles for less than a dollar each.

“I didn’t get what I wanted,” Young cracked, “but I got what everybody else wants.”