Lafite Madness

Last month in Hong Kong, at an auction conducted by Christie’s, a case of 1982 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild sold for $90,000, including a 20% buyer’s premium. That’s $7500 per bottle. The same case of wine would currently be worth $25-30,000 in New York.

Hong Kong is rapidly becoming the center of the fine wine world, and Lafite has emerged as the ultimate luxury brand. It is synonymous with success and status, and is highly prized in the business community. “At top-level meetings, if you’re not putting a bottle of Lafite on the table, you’re just not giving enough face,” says Doug Rumsam of the British wine importing firm Bordeaux Index. “You’re in danger of offending your client.” Sotheby’s estimates that it will sell over $50 million worth of wine next year in Hong Kong.

Before you condemn these prices as lunacy, remember this: A bottle of wine is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it. There is no ceiling, and probably no floor as well. I remember purchasing bottles of 1988 Chateau Latour and Chateau Margaux on release for $60. In a good vintage, those same wines would cost $700-800 per bottle today.

If you’ve followed Bordeaux prices over the past two decades, you know that Hong Kong is just one of a series of hot spots that included Japan and the former Soviet Union. As new wealth is created around the globe, those who acquire it tend to desire the time-honored status symbols. With wines such as Lafite or Petrus, the supply is finite and competition is intense.

Of course, the supply may not be quite as finite as we think. Counterfeit wine was always the 800-pound elephant in the auction room, but it has become a recognized problem in recent years. Technology has made it easier for counterfeiters to replicate labels, and a newly minted multimillionaire in China won’t necessarily know what 1982 Lafite is supposed to taste like. Hopefully they have retained experts to authenticate the wines for them.

Andrew Lloyd Webber, the famed English composer, is putting a large chunk of his wine collection up for sale next month. The wines are expected to fetch over $4 million. The last time he did this, in 1997, the auction was held in London. You don’t have to guess where it will take place this time.

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