After the Hong Kong government abolished import taxes on wine in 2008, this Asian center of new wealth became the focal point of one of the world’s greatest wine booms. Bordeaux’s luxury labels were in huge demand, but Chateau Lafite-Rothschild soon emerged as the most sought-after wine of all. Well-heeled collectors pushed prices into the stratosphere. At one auction in 2010, three bottles of 1869 sold for $234,000 apiece, and cases of the 2009 (still a future at the time) went for $68,000—far in excess of their estimate of $10,000-$15,000.
Why would someone pay $68,000 for a case of wine not yet bottled? Because they can, presumably. In this sort of superheated environment, shelling out more than anyone else is a badge of honor. The Asian collectors succeeded in pushing up prices on a global scale, since it was estimated that 40% of the Bordeaux sold at London auctions actually ended up in Hong Kong.
Prices have cooled considerably within the past year, declining by as much as 25%. It’s difficult to say if this reflects a retreat in the Asian economy, or simply disenchantment on the part of many people with a new toy. Top collectors have apparently become obsessed with Burgundy, but the boom won’t be the same—there’s far less of it to begin with, and older vintages tend to be scarce.
Cash-strapped consumers around the world may profess horror with this type of behavior, but I suspect many of us retain an inner admiration for the fact that some people still have money and are not afraid to waste it. If you doubt this, just look at some of the recent product launches in the world of wine and spirits. Appleton has released their 50 year-Old Jamaica Independence Reserve Rum for $5,000, and Bowmore added the 1964 Fino Single Malt Scotch Whisky to their list of limited-edition spirits, at a price of $13,500 (better hurry, as there are only eight bottles for the U.S. market). Even more amazing, Penfolds unveiled a hand-blown glass ampoule holding one bottle of 2004 Kalimna Block 42 Cabernet Sauvignon and selling for $168,000—for a wine that most of us have never heard of.
All of this reminds me of a splendid afternoon six years ago, when a gentleman of my acquaintance dropped $5,000 for oysters and Grand Cru Chablis for a group of 30 people at a tony wine bar. On the way out, one of his guests asked him if paying the check had hurt. “For an ordinary mortal,” he responded, “it might have.”