No matter what the state of the economy at any given time, someone somewhere is drinking wine. It's a collectible that remains popular no matter how large or small the budget of the collector.
During the recession, overall consumption of wine declined a bit. Perhaps to make up for that, those who purchased for either pleasure or investment have tended to buy more expensive examples than in the past.
The value of fine wine held by collectors has remained steady the past several years; though, as with any collectible, some specific wines have shot upward or slowed down. Value tends to go up over time in part because there's a limited amount of any vintage.
Three bottles of a high-quality 1961 Latour from the Bordeaux region of France, a leader in price appreciation during the 1980s, recently sold for $1,650 at a Christie's auction. A hot recent selection, a 1981 Dunn Cabernet from California's Napa Valley, which sold for $15 a bottle initially, now commands $150.
As with any collectible, the trick is to discern the likelihood of appreciation before everybody else latches on to it.
"The value of the best wines has held up right through recession, with all the top Bordeaux, Burgundy, California and Australian wines retaining their worth," said Peter Morrell, chairman of Morrell & Co. Wine & Spirits in New York, wine dealers since 1948.
Unlike the prior onward-and-upward decade, wine is a cautious market in the 1990s.
"A lot of people got into collecting in the 1980s, but their cellars are filled and they're being more selective in not buying as many bottles these days," noted Harvey Steiman, executive editor of The Wine Spectator, a consumer publication for wine buffs. "If you buy the blue-chip bottles of wine, you could probably make money in the long run, but don't expect it to be a spectacular gain."
Buy a wine you're likely to enjoy, since it's estimated that seven out of 10 wines won't show any dramatic price appreciation.
"There is still risk in terms of investment in wine and this is an era in which people are very conservative," said Michael Davis, vice president with Christie's, which has worldwide wine auction sales of $20 million annually.
Do your homework first. There's a lot to learn about wine. While less expensive wines are less likely to show dramatic price appreciation, wine collecting can fit any budget. Increase your knowledge to enhance your enjoyment and perhaps gain from appreciation, not to be a snob.
"The ideal approach for an individual is to invest in a just-released vintage wine from a retailer, storing away 15 to 20 cases to let it appreciate in value," Mr. Davis counseled. "Then sell off a few select cases, make a nice profit and use that to reinvest in young wines again."
Collectors generally love wine and want to drink it. Any rise in value is secondary.
"I never want to get into the position of some wine collectors, whose wine is so expensive that they're afraid to drink it," said Robert English, a general partner in a New York investment firm who has collected wine as a hobby since 1974. Understand the differences in wine. For example, in red wine, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Gamay from the Beaujolais area are some of the most important grape varieties. White wine may be dry, medium or sweet, with the character coming from the type of grape, such as Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewurtzraminer and Trebiano.
"Whenever you consider wine as an investment, remember that you will likely have to pay hefty costs to store it in a cool space," Mr. Steiman said. "In addition, you may have to sell it at auction, in which case there will be a 15 to 20 percent premium to the seller."
An annual subscription for 22 issues of The Wine Spectator is $40. The address is 387 Park Ave. South, New York, N.Y. 10016.