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Steep Thrills

Collecting pricey rare vintages for love or money? Everyone needs a hobby, if not an investment.

By Mark Spivak

 

How much is a prized bottle of wine really worth?

At some point, almost every wine drinker will ask this question. You may be a high-end collector, a consumer who has made a few spectacular purchases over the years, or someone who stumbled across a bottle of Château Lafite in your grandfather’s attic. The conventional wisdom is that wine is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it. This accounts for the significant fluctuations that occur in the auction market—like female hemlines, certain types of wine go in and out of fashion. The true “blue-chip” collectibles retain a fundamental level of value, but even they are subject to the whims of supply and demand.

“The auction market has always been fueled by Bordeaux and Burgundy, and we see that pattern continuing,” says Paul Hart, president and CEO of Hart Davis Hart Wine Co. in Chicago. Along with Hart Davis Hart, auction houses such as Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Acker Merrall & Condit, Zachys, Bonhams & Butterfields, Morrell & Co. and The Chicago Wine Company sell the bulk of older vintage wine purchased in the United States. The key factor with older wine is provenance, or where the wine has been stored. Fine wine ages best in conditions of controlled temperature and humidity, along with absence of light and vibration; it’s important to choose a reputable auction house that can provide a guarantee of the wine’s condition.

Here’s a quick guide to the classic collectibles on the commercial auction block.

FIRST GROWTH BORDEAUX Red Bordeaux is the king of older wine, and the First Growths (Lafite Rothschild, Latour, Mouton Rothschild, Margaux and Haut-Brion) are its standard bearers. “Look for the classic vintages that stand the test of time,” says Philip. “1982 still has a strong hold on the market.” She is not exaggerating. In May 1999, a case of 1982 Lafite Rothschild sold for $3,700 at Hart Davis Hart; this March, the hammer price was $24,000. Lafite is first among equals in this group, particularly in Asia.

PETRUS This legendary Bordeaux from Pomerol is in a class by itself. Long prized for its luxurious, opulent texture and minuscule production, it has become one of the wine world’s ultimate status symbols. Prices for vintages such as 1982, 1990 and 1998 have reached $3,000 per bottle at auction.

RED BURGUNDY The wines to buy are those from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC), particularly La Tâche, Richebourg and Romanée-Conti itself. An average of only 450 cases of the flagship wine are produced each year. In 2006, Christie’s sold a case of the 1985 for a record-breaking $170,375 at an auction in New York.