Tuesday, September 15, 2009

It's good to be Lafite

I got a press release today from Hart Davis Hart, an auction company, bragging that its most recent wine auction sold all its lots and netted more money than expected.

In this economy, that's worth bragging about -- all we keep reading is that sales of expensive wines are down.

That said, the brands that really scored weren't the auctioneers. The top 10 lots of wine were limited to just three brands: Chateau Petrus, Chateau Lafite-Rothschild and Domaine Romanee-Conti. And because Petrus and DRC are so expensive to begin with, Chateau Lafite-Rothschild was the one that showed the greatest escalation in value.

Two cases of 1982 Lafite sold for $38,240 each: almost $3200 per bottle. Four other lots of Lafite wine also made the top 10 total sale prices, for clear domination of the big money.

Now, HDH can brag all it wants, but $3200/bottle is still a comedown from some crazy pre-recession bids. Yet it's still markedly better than big names like DRC, Chateau d'Yquem, Screaming Eagle and others.

The press release says the big money came from Asia. Chinese buyers in particular tend to be more brand-conscious than others. So it's happy days at Chateau Lafite, as that winery is suddenly regarded by rich collectors as the brand to have.

Don't underestimate the appeal of that status to winery owners. There are many Screaming Eagle wannabes in Napa Valley, and Screaming Eagle itself has lost some luster since being sold and having production increase. The title of "most desirable expensive wine" is out there for the taking. As good as Lafite is, it's still a large-production wine that could easily lose that status to a well-marketed micro winery based on exclusivity.

For people holding bottles in their cellars, while Lafite's reputation relative to other wineries can't get any higher, the overall downturn in prices makes selling it now a dicey move. What if the economy improves next year? The per-bottle price could double if more Chinese people have more money to spend.

One thing is for sure -- Lafite is now an investment, rather than a wine. It will only be drunk by people who want to drink the world's most desirable expensive wine purely for that reason.

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