THE PURCHASE of wine, already fraught with plenty of pitfalls for consumers, becomes immensely more complex and risky when one enters the wine futures' sweepstakes.
On the surface, buying wine futures is nothing more than investing money in a case or cases of wine at a predetermined "future price" long before the wine is bottled and shipped to this country. You invest your money in wine futures on the assumption that the wine will appreciate significantly in price between the time you purchase the future and the time the wine has been bottled and imported to America. Purchasing the right wine, from the right vintage, in the right international financial climate, can represent significant savings. On the other hand, it can be quite disappointing to invest heavily in a wine future only to witness the wine's arrival 12 to 18 months later at a price equal to or below the future price and to discover the wine to be inferior in quality as well.
For years, future offerings have been largely limited to bordeaux wines, although they are seen occasionally from other regions. In Bordeaux, during the spring following the harvest, the estates or chateaux offer for sale a portion of their crops. This first offering, or premiere tranche, usually offers a good indication of the trade's enthusiasm for the new wine, the prevailing market conditions, and the ultimate price the public will have to spend.
Those brokers and negociants who take an early position on a vintage frequently offer portions of their purchases to retailers to make available publicly as a "wine future." These offerings are usually made to the retail shopper in the fall and second spring after the vintage. Purchasing wine at this time is not without risks. Wine in its infancy is difficult to evaluate, and goes through so many different stages of development that extreme care must be exercised by professional tasters to get a broad and accurate view of the vintage quality. When wine futures are offered for sale, there is generally little independent consumer information available to prospective buyers. While retailers unabashedly declare any future offering as an opportunity to purchase "great wine from a great vintage," few retailers ever take the trouble to sample the new wine, relying instead on the heavy propaganda issued by the wine trade.
In short, the consumer must satisfactorily resolve several issues prior to making a commitment to purchase a wine future.
(1) Is the financial climate such that the wine will be at least 15 to 20 percent more expensive when it arrives on the market in 12 to 18 months?If your answer is no, then you are better off investing your money elsewhere.
(2) In the particular vintage that is being offered as "future," which areas and specific chateaux produced the finest wines? This information can only be obtained by consulting reliable independant sources who have visited the chateaux and have sampled a broad range of wines from the different regions.
Recent history of the 1975 and 1978 bordeaux future offerings provides a revealing prospectus to "futures" buyers. Purchasers of 1975 futures have done extremely well. When offered in 1977, the 1975 future prices included $140 to $160 per case for such illustrious wines as Lafite Rothschild and Latour, and $65 to $80 for second growths, including such proven thoroughbreds as Leoville-Las-Cases, La Lagune, and Ducru-Beaucaillou. By the time these wines had arrived on the market in 1978, the vintage's outstanding and potentially classic quality was an accepted fact, and the first growths were retailing for $325 to $375 per case, with the lesser growths selling for, $112 to $150 per case. Buyers of 1975 futures have continued to prosper, as this vintage is now very scarce and its prices have continued to escalate to $600 to $1,000 a case for first growths, and $185 to $375 for second through fifth growths.
The 1978 bordeaux futures, offered in 1980, present a different picture; 1978 was another very good vintage year, with wines similar in style, but perhaps less intense than the excellent 1970 vintage. Opening prices for the 1978 bordeaux were very high, and were inflated because of a weak dollar abroad and an excessive demand for first growths were offered at $429 to $499, prices for second through fifth growths at $165 to $230. Consumers who invested heavily in bordeaux can rest assured that they have purchased good wine, but the current retail prices for these wines, which are just now arriving on the market, are virtually the same as last year's future price offerings. Thus consumers who purchased 1978 futures and invested their money to the tune of 100 percent of the case price, could have easily obtained a better return by investing in any simple interest-bearing account.
The lack of significant increase in the 1978 bordeaux prices is attributable, in part, to a much stronger dollar abroad, a sluggish premium French wine market, and a giant, yet surprisingly good, 1979 bordeaux harvest. f
The question now is whether the wine buyer should purchase 1979 bordeaux futures which have just been offered for the first time. The prices are the lowest future prices for bordeaux since the 1976 vintage. The vintage is generally good, but somewhat inconsistent: Some chateaux produced exceptional wine; other estates produced thinnish, rather hollow wine.
Although the dollar is strong and prices are low, I recommend purchasing 1979 bordeaux very selectively. I tasted most of the major 1979 bordeaux when the wine was a mere fledgling of nine months. Despite the difficulties in predicting a wine's pedigree at so young an age, several wines stand out, and I am confident that these wines will be representative of the finest wines the 1979 vintage produced. Several of those chateaux that produced very fine wine in 1979 include: from Graves, La Mission-Haut-Brion, La Tour-Haut-Brion and Haut-Brion; from Saint Emilion, Cheval Blanc; from Pomerol, Nenin and Lafleur; and from the Medoc, La Lagune, Palmer, Talbot, Ducru-Beaucaillou, Leoville-Las-Cases, Grand-Puy-Lacoste, and Pichon-Lalande.
With careful consideration and reliable advice, buying wine futures does not have to be like buying the proverbial "pig in a poke." WINE BRIEFS
Looking for an inexpensive white burgundy from France? Wines from this region are almost always priced in the double digits, but there are some values around, particularly from the Macon region. One of the best is the 1979 Macon Villages "Le Grand Cheneau." Imported by Mosswood Imports, it retails for less than $5.99, is widely available, and offers a lot of solid chardonnay flavors.