Wine Collecting Beyond the Bloodsport

Wine collecting has become a rarefied sport, fraught with testosterone-fueled auctions and scandalizing fraud. But there is still longevity and value to be found in affordable wines—if you know where to look.

In 2008, the accomplished art critic Robert Hughes released his documentary “The Mona Lisa Curse.” Hughes was never one to shy away from controversy, in that he often bristled at the modern art world’s tendency to fawn over what he considered to be crap. But in “Mona Lisa,” he aimed for something more poignant: the argument that the art world, in his view, was being ruined by a flood of new money, by collectors drawn as much by the thrill of acquisition as by the art itself.

Among other things, he pinpointed a moment when “art as commodity would begin to take over from art as art”: October 18, 1973, an evening when Sotheby’s auctioned off a collection of contemporary works from collector Robert Scull for $2.2 million. Four decades later, if you tally up New York’s record $2.3 billion week of art auctions last month, it’s fair to say Hughes was prophetic—even if some art observers saw that figure as evidence of the market cooling off.

I’ve turned to Hughes’ “Mona Lisa” several times in the past because it offers excellent lessons for the wine world. Today, the wine auction market is once again striving to return to its record highs, and a fire sale is under way for the (allegedly authentic) remnants of the cellar of Rudy Kurniawan, one of the biggest wine fraudsters of all time. The ghost of Hughes, who died in 2012, is stirring yet again. And for once, I just might have some good news for him.

“Mona Lisa” caused a stir in part because Hughes was taking aim at people with some of the deepest wallets in his world. It was their “orgy of consumption,” as he put it, that had begun to deprive art of its cultural value. He told the story of Herb and Dorothy Vogel, the librarian and postal clerk who amassed a collection of everyone from Picasso to Roy Lichtenstein, and were subsequently priced out of a market they helped create.

With that in mind, consider that not even 20 years ago, collecting wine was still a pastime accessible to the middle class. For much of the postwar era, Bordeaux was largely bought to age and then drink. Even though Bordeaux’s prices began creeping up after the 1982 vintage, Burgundy and many other regions remained relatively affordable.

Fast forward to today: Wine collecting has since been firmly established as a one-percent bloodsport, just the sort that would’ve made Hughes bristle. After Bordeaux, Burgundy landed in the crosshairs; then, the great syrahs of the northern Rhône, vintage Champagne and, increasingly, Barolo. Today, the wine lovers of the 99 percent spend our time drinking young and often esoteric wines not just because they’re a departure from the old benchmarks, but also because the opportunity to drink the old canon of great wines has largely slipped away—unless, of course, we end up at the right table and are lucky enough to steal a sip or two of La Tâche. (We also, it should be noted, have a tendency to ruin our own fun, by spiking the demand for those esoteric wines, too. Looking at you, Ganevat fans.)

This price inflation has had a heartbreaking sort of trickle-down effect. In Burgundy’s case, it might once have been limited to the grand crus. No longer. In 1996, Hubert Lamy’s Clos de la Chatenière, from the lesser-known Burgundian commune of Saint-Aubin, cost $22; a decade later it was $65, and now it’s closer to $80. Occasionally that has helped vintners from more obscure regions, but it has also spurred the secondary gray market—wherein young wines are procured from private collections or overseas brokers—even though that resale market comes with its own constant flow of cautionary tales.

Rodenstock and Kurniawan’s respective downfalls yielded a flurry of lawsuits between rich men, and a dose of schadenfreude for the rest of us. But it was too late. To paraphrase Robert Hughes, wine collecting had stopped being about wine as wine, and become a matter of wine as commodity.

Of course, the parallels between wine and Hughes’ view of art aren’t perfect. For one thing, wine is supposed to involve consumption, literally. But it’s also hard to nail down an equivalent inflection point—a moment when wine collecting became an end unto itself. You could variously point to the resale of the so-called Jefferson bottles in 1988, sold by a secretive figure named Hardy Rodenstock, or perhaps the testosterone-fueled auctions of the mid-2000s, spearheaded by auctioneer John Kapon. Kapon had no love for the old way of collecting—he wanted his firm, Acker Merrall & Condit, to upend the auction world with big talk and even bigger dollars. It’s not a coincidence that two of the biggest fraudsters in wine history—Kurniawan and Rodenstock—emerged directly from these auctions.

The two men’s respective downfalls yielded a flurry of lawsuits between rich men, and a dose of schadenfreude for the rest of us. But it was too late. To paraphrase Hughes, wine collecting had stopped being about wine as wine, and become a matter of wine as commodity.

Other culprits were involved. The first—no surprise here—is Bordeaux, which after 1982 decided to arbitrage its prestige. Top Bordeaux had always been luxurious in an affordable way, but soon it began chasing scores that allowed it to jack prices severely, in hopes of refashioning itself as a luxury good. This helps to explain why, during the 1990s, Château Latour was bought by Artemis Group’s François Pinault and LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault engineered the purchase of Château Cheval Blanc and Château d’Yquem. Bordeaux had become, to borrow a phrase from the markets, “investment grade.”

Another big culprit? California, which didn’t have Bordeaux’s prestige. So it set out in the early 1990s to cash in, in a different way.

California’s new vintners studied the old economics, and they made an important realization. In the 1970s and 1980s, the state’s important wines were made in large quantities, often 10,000 cases or more, as in Bordeaux. The new cult wines would instead be produced more like Burgundy, topping out around 1,000 cases. A deviously brilliant model of demand was manufactured around direct mailing-list sales and slim allocations, rather than the retail shelf. Wines that hadn’t existed a decade earlier became as expensive as any in the world.

Hughes would have recognized this system; artists like Jeff Koons had done something similar to quickly spur the value of their work. And just as the contemporary art market began to value new works more than old ones by established artists, California managed to reject the old rules, in which collectible wines required time in the cellar to appreciate in value. Flashy young wines began to command top prices, and even some of their biggest defenders acknowledged that there was, as one put it, “not a huge upside to cellaring them longer” than a decade. In other words, great wine had adopted the expected lifespan of pop art.

Amid this endless striving for higher prices, what’s left for the remainder of us who want to collect, in the old-fashioned sense? We’re left to dabble around the edges, looking for wines that remain affordable. But there is that bit of good news: Those fringe wines now offer quality as never before. And for the moment, they’re not shiny enough to attract the magpies. Thus, for a decade, I’ve been buying good Beaujolais for a rainy day—a choice that turned out to be prescient, as today it has become the middle-class replacement for Burgundy. Top Bordeaux has long been overpriced, but for the moment, at least, I can buy red Loire wines from Saumur-Champigny and Chinon, which at their best age nearly as long.

And there’s another option, actually, from perhaps the most unlikely place: California.

One side benefit of the new California is that the state, increasingly, is growing wines that can endure, in a way the riper specimens of a decade ago likely won’t. Consider it a dividend of today’s stylistic choices: pick a bit earlier, tinker less in the cellar, embrace freshness along with ripeness. It’s increasingly evident, despite the occasional counterargument, that all those things help wines age well.

These new wines are also, if not exactly a steal, at least affordable in the long view. It might be a struggle to find value in cabernet, although it’s certainly possible—think Larkmead or Mayacamas or Corison. But California pinot noir hasn’t, yet, fallen prey to a price race with Burgundy.

In fact, once you part the sea of mediocre and expensive wine, you can find a state of California pinot radically different than existed 20 years ago. You could say the same of California syrah, too, or a growing number of zinfandels, or even of chardonnay.

When I taste pinot noir from Littorai or Calera, or a new arrival like Domaine de la Côte, I’m attuned to their makers’ deep, Burgundian understanding of longevity. The party line is that figures like Rajat Parr, who co-created Domaine de la Côte, are the poster children for “balance,” however you might define that notion. But it might be more appropriate to say they’ve become champions for endurance.

These current California wines share one crucial factor that is, for the moment, keeping them from falling down the commodity hole: They’re being made in the same small quantities as the cult wines of 20 years ago, often 500 cases or less, but for the most part, the economics aren’t the same. (Yet.) They’re often under $50, almost inevitably less than $100. And that secondary gray market hasn’t quite appeared. (Again, yet.)

In other words, we still have a chance to preserve these wines for posterity. And I’d like to believe that the people who appreciate them have more altruistic motives than the collectors of the previous era. If we can’t reverse the market for, say, Burgundy, we can try and keep Beaujolais or California syrah from going down the same path. Hughes would quite likely offer an enigmatic smile at that.