Collectible wine market currently in full blossom


As tranquil summer evolves into industrious fall, more than a few Americans will sit back, sip a glass of wine and reflect on this annual transition.

But many wine collectors will be sitting back to reflect on how much their wine has appreciated in value during 1995. That's because there has been a jump of more than 20 percent in the value of collectible wines.

"The collectible wine market is hot in 1995 -- absolutely hot -- and this follows a 15 percent gain in 1994, so the movement is definitely upward," observed Ursula Hermacinski, vice president in the wine department of the Christie's auction house in New York.

The introduction of wine auctions into New York City this year has been a factor in this rise, Ms. Hermacinski believes. So has the fact that people are buying quality vintages from the 1980s because the last four years of new red Bordeaux have been "less than stellar" due to uncooperative weather conditions in France, she added.

You don't have to look far to find examples of price appreciation. For example, California Cabernet Chateau Lynch-Bages, vintage 1985, that sold for $32 a bottle in 1991 now goes for $62.

Among blue-chip French Bordeaux wines, Chateau Latour, vintage 1961, was offered at $100 a case when released in 1963 and now sells for $560 a bottle. Other top investment quality wines include Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, Margaux, Haut-Brion and Lafite Rothschild.

But there are still bargains around. Vintage port is considered undervalued right now, with long-term price appreciation likely. Earlier this year, 1985 vintage Taylor Fladgate Port sold for $30 a bottle, and it has since decreased to a bargain-priced $25.

Collectors don't need hundreds of dollars to get started. They can educate themselves by reading wine publications and doing plenty of tasting. Furthermore, many home basements can serve nicely as wine cellars, even if the treasure trove is only a few bottles or a case or two.

So forget the 1787 Lafite, a red Bordeaux that sold at a Christie's auction a decade ago for a record $155,000, since there are more attainable choices for the beginning collector.

"Some names in the Bordeaux region, such as Chateau L'Angelus and Troplong-Monbod, are making wines as good as the most famous wines, and the masses are catching on to this fact," said Robert Parker Jr., wine critic and editor of the Wine Advocate newsletter.

"A hot area for wine is California, where you don't have to pay a premium based on currency valuations as you do with French wines. Other strong areas are Tuscany in Italy and Spain."

"The best way to learn about wines is to purchase a corkscrew and use it," said Richard Watson, operations manager for Robert Kacher Selections, a wine importing firm in Washington, D.C., that represents 50 French families and one Oregon winery.

Find a wine merchant who drinks all kinds of wines on a daily basis and can advise you properly, he said. But don't get carried away, because wine is subject to fluctuations and intangibles.

"While the prices at the initial wine auctions in New York have been high, I don't expect them to hold, since this is still a new toy and the market should find equilibrium in another 12 or 18 months," predicted Stephen Tanzer, editor and publisher of the International Wine Cellar newsletter.

Mr. Tanzer doesn't generally advocate buying wines for investment purposes because there are too many impediments in the way of selling them again.

"Unlike a work of art in which you can see condition at a glance, condition of wine is harder to judge," warned Thomas Matthews, senior editor for the Wine Spectator.

When buying as an investment, you need to know when to sell before the wine's quality decreases after it has reached its intended peak period of most enjoyable taste, Mr. Matthews said. You'll also find wine harder to sell than other collectibles, since there are fewer outlets for it and there is considerable state regulation, he concluded.

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