Increasing numbers of individuals are looking seriously at wine, not for drinking, but as a commodity capable of yielding a profitable return on their investment.
Investment in wine is certainly not new. For years, shrewd wine enthusiasts have purchased an extra case or two of wine to use, not for drinking, but for "trading in," or selling five or 10 years down the road to finance additional wine purchases.
This has always been a common practice in England, where wine collections can be easily disposed of without stringent legal sanctions like those imposed in America. Here, a private individual cannot legally sell wine, but must offer the wine through a legally designated agent such as an auction house like Sotheby's or Christies.
If one does decide to invest in wine for financial profit, then what are the types of wines that are likely to appreciate in value? Furthermore, at what time can these wines be purchased in order to yield the maximum profit?
First, well over 95 percent of the world's wines are made to be drunk young. While they may hold up with bottle age, they are not likely to improve. Even those few wines that do significantly improve in the bottle, for example French burgundy, German wines, California wines and vintage port from Portugal, represent poor wines from an investment potential.
French burgundy is a notoriously bad investment for a number of reasons. First, the overall quality level of this French wine, despite a new-found commitment to excellence, is still quite mediocre. Furthermore, since so little burgundy is produced, and the worldwide demand continues unabated, supply simply never matches demand. This has caused burgundy wines to be prohibitively expensive even when released. Because of that, and because so many knowledgeable wine enthusiasts know of their unreliability, they appreciate very little in value.
As for German wines, the top estates produce excellent wine that ages well in the bottle. However, the incredibly complex hierarchy that establishes the quality control levels for German wines serves as a deterrent for most wine investors, who do not have the time to learn these complicated laws. Lastly, the really top German wines are produced in such incredibly small amounts and released at such high prices that they have little investment potential.
California wines have not represented a good financial investment to date. Of course, collectors can point to wine auctions and show that an old vintage of cabernet sauvignon from Beaulieu or Inglenook sold for an extraordinarly high price. But except for these two wineries, most California producers of cabernet sauvignon have not even been in existence for a decade. Additionally, one of the major prerequisites for the proper investment in the right wines is that the wine have an international appeal and reputation, and that the wine age, improve and appreciate in value in the bottle. Today, few California wines meet such criteria.
Vintage port is often called a good wine investment. This heady, full-bodied wine is made in very limited quantities, with usually no more than three or four "vintage" years a decade. It is kept aging in small barrels for two years, then released in allocations throughout the world. Great Britain is the largest market, followed by America. In most vintages, port needs 10 to 20 years to reach maturity and the old vintages can fetch enormously high prices. For example, an auction sponsored this past November by an American auction house, the Chicago Wine Company, saw single bottles of well-known vintage port such as Dow 1945, Graham 1945 and Taylor 1945, fetch $125, $140 and $175 a bottle respectively. When they were first offered for sale in the late 1940s, they could have been purchased for less than a dollar a bottle.
However, vintage port, because it takes so long to be mature, is really not a sound wine investment when first offered for sale. It usually appreciates in price very slowly until it is 10 years old. Then, as it begins to accelerate in price and potential, investors should look at vintage port as a wine suitable for purchase. The 1970 vintage and great 1977 vintage should attract the eye of potential investors.
The one wine that stands well above the crowd in terms of investment potential is bordeaux. The wines from this region in southwestern France meet and exceed all the criteria for investment. First, they are made in significant enough quantities so that they have an international reputation. Secondly, they age very well in the bottle, improving in both quality and value for 10 to as long as 40 to 50 years.
The Bordeaux region's production is large, yet it is also finite. The top vineyards are already producing to the maximum, so as consumer and investor interest continues to grow in fine wine, the demand for top-class bordeaux will accelerate even more rapidly. For example, if famous estates or chateaux such as Lafite Rothschild and Petrus have perfect, textbook vintage years of high quality and abundant quantity, they will still only produce 30,000 and 3500 cases of wine respectively. This is the production for the entire world, and it will be the same in the year 2000 or 2050 given the same climatic conditions.
Interestingly, there is a London-based company called John Armit Wine Investments Ltd. that has an enviable record of wine investment for its clients. The company's only business is to invest in top-flight bordeaux wines for reselling at a future date for profit. The company is staffed by some of England's most prominent wine authorities, including the president, John Armit, and one of the country's most influential wine writers, Harry Waugh. Their advice is to buy only bordeaux wines from 40 or 50 "blue chip" chateaux that have long track records of high quality. Additionally, they recommend purchasing wine only in very good or great vintages.
The following figures show clearly just how well the investments in top bordeaux properties have done for Armit's clients. These figures have been provided by Armit and are based on purchasing bordeaux at its opening or future price in the spring following the vintage. The present value has been calculated using the sale price of the same wines at the fall 1984 sales held at the two English auction houses, Sotheby's and Christies. The increase in value has been compounded per annum and expressed as a percentage.
The figures are based on an investment in 100 cases of second through fifth growth bordeaux at the opening future price.
For example, if 100 cases of 1978 bordeaux were purchased in the spring of 1979, the cost would have been 17,035 pounds. The October 1984 present value of these wines is 40,300 pounds, which represents an 18.8 percent compound interest per annum increase. The 1979 vintage has not represented nearly as attractive an investment. The cost of 100 cases of 1979 bordeaux in spring, 1980, would have been 19,570 pounds. The October, 1984 present value of this investment is 25,200 pounds, which represents a 6.5 percent compound interest per annum increase. The 1981 vintage would have cost an investor 16,025 pounds to purchase 100 cases of top bordeaux. That investment is now worth 23,500 pounds, which computes to a 21.1 percent compound interest per annum increase.
The vintage that looks to be the best investment is 1982, which would have cost 20,460 pounds in spring of 1983 to purchase 100 cases of bordeaux. Even though most of these wines have just been bottled and are not yet available for shipment to the United States, this investment is now worth 28,525 pounds, or a whopping 39.4 percent compound interest per annum increase.
These figures support statistics that I have kept for American prices for these wines. The 1979 vintage, purchased at a time when the dollar was worth only 4.4 francs, has represented a poor investment value. The 1982 vintage, purchased when the dollar was very strong, looks to be a great financial investment that is only likely to get better because it is a sensationally superb vintage combined with insatiable worldwide demand.
Speculation in wine has its risks. First, the investor must be certain to purchase bordeaux futures only from a reputable merchant who has a history of dealing in wine futures and making delivery of them. Investors must remember that they will be required to put up 100 percent of their money a good two years before taking delivery.
Secondly, while some firms such as John Armit Wine Investments provide storage in Europe for the wine their clients purchase, other investors must make plans to store their wine in a cool, dark, vibration- and odor-free place. If such storage conditions are not present, the wine will spoil and be unsuitable for resale.
Thirdly, an investor will have to sit on the wine for five to 10 ears to realize a maximum financial gain. Impatient investors who like to trade commodities in quick succession will, for obvious reasons, be leery of bordeaux wine futures. Then, the investor will have to sell the wine through an auction house such as Sotheby's or Christies. The investor will be charged a 10 to 15 percent commission for the sale and handling of the wine by the auction house.
Finally, the investor should also be aware of the great wine crash of 1974. In that year, a number of English and American whiskey and beer companies lost millions of dollars in wine investments that went sour. Ridiculous speculation in wines from poor vintages in bordeaux such as 1972, 1973 and 1974, led to massive dumping of these poor wines on a marketplace that was unwilling to accept them. This was followed by the international energy crisis and worldwide recession.
Yes, wine, particularly bordeaux, can make a handsome investment, but you should also be prepared to drink your profit. If not, then perhaps commodities such as pork bellies or corn are better suited for your investment portfolio.