Just what we need–Not!
When I started writing about wine, I met a lot of wealthy collectors. They had cellars in the tens, if not hundreds of thousands of bottles, almost always the usual suspects: Bordeaux First Growths, Burgundy Grand Crus, Yquem, and California Cabs that were popular then, like Dunn Howell Mountain and Opus One.
I would talk with these gentlemen, who seemed perfectly normal in every respect, except for the obsessive-compulsive disorder they seemed to suffer from in their mad accumulation of wine. But the fact was that they were crazy-passionate about wine, which was good. If they went a little overboard, well, that was their business, not mine.
It wasn’t until a few years later that I came to learn about collecting wine, not for the pleasure of aging and drinking it, but for investment. At first I was surprised, although maybe I shouldn’t have been. Then I came to see it as pernicious. Reselling wine to make a profit drives up the cost of wine, which is bad, but it also is responsible, at least in part, for the way so many people still perceive wine: as a snobby, elite thing. Every time people read about a bottle that costs $50,000 or $100,000, it reinforces that notion that maybe they better stick to beer.
During the Great Recession, investing in wine for resale seemed to drop off a bit. But now, it’s roaring back, in troubling ways. For instance, here’s Fox News reporting two days ago that an Italian firm is asking for a minimum investment of $50,000 to invest in a wine portfolio that’s pretty much exactly the same as a stock portfolio.
And here’s Forbes, that bastion of capitalism, writing on the same phenomenon, also from Wednesday, with the punchy headline, “Will More Collectors Turn Wine Into Cash?” Seems that rich collectors already are offering their wine cellars as collateral for loans, the same way they put their expensive art works and jewelry on the line.
Normally I couldn’t care less what the über-wealthy do with their Barolo, but it somehow seems wrong, in spirit if not in the law, to commoditize wine that way. It bothers producers, too. Last year, Nick Gislason told me how troubled Screaming Eagle’s ownership was by the aftermarket. Here Nick does his level best to produce a great wine, and some percentage of the people on the mailing list just flip it onto eBay or wherever, sending the price soaring ever higher, distorting markets, and placing, not only Screaming Eagle but, by some inevitable domino process, other wines (Harlan, for example) impossibly beyond the reach of ordinary people. And don’t think the domino effect stops with the cults. It trickles down.
Here’s another negative effect of investment-mania: It can result in grotesqueries like this one, in which a pair of “wine collectors from New York” are suing celebrity chef Charlie Trotter for selling them an allegedly counterfeit bottle of 1945 Romanée-Conti.
This sort of thing is no longer about wine, or pleasure, it’s about money, profit and fear. Nothing cool about it, and not what this industry needs, or deserves.