Photograph by Greg Groom
Back in November 2007, 12 bottles of 1961 Paul Jaboulet Aîné Hermitage "La Chapelle" sold at Christie's Los Angeles for $252,000. The lot came from the collection of a Norwegian shipping and lumber magnate, philanthropist, and racehorse enthusiast known as Jaguar, and it was the most expensive case of Rhône wine ever sold in the United States. The total for that day's auction was just under $7 million—the greatest haul in the L.A. house's 10-year history. Roughly one year later, at a packed Christie's sale at New York's cushy Le Cirque restaurant, a different scene played out: Paddles were raised and phone bids were submitted, but the prices were . . . actually kind of reasonable. A case of 1982 Château Mouton-Rothschild went for $10,800, which was $1,200 below its already low-end estimate.
For nearly a decade, the fine-wine market had ballooned along with the appetites of thick-walleted guys nicknamed after wildcats and sports cars. But now prices, like those of pretty much every other commodity, are tumbling, and the aspiring collector without a black AmEx has a rare opportunity to piece together a first-rate cellar. "If you've got a little cash lying around and you're looking to buy wine, particularly collectible bottles," says Eric Zillier, the wine director at the New York restaurant Alto and, in headier times, a consultant to private collectors, "there hasn't been a better time in seven or eight years to do it."
If the boom belonged to the high rollers who might serve Château Pétrus on pizza night, the bust has opened the door to a scrappier breed of collector—guys like Keith Levenberg, a 32-year-old New Yorker who keeps roughly a quarter of his 2,000-bottle collection in the corner of his living room in a hulking refrigerated armoire flanked by an aging Oreck upright vacuum cleaner and a basket of dog toys. After years of watching prices for cellar-worthy wine climb from merely high to astronomical, he's thrilled to take advantage of the market's newfound sanity. He recently bought two bottles of Château La Pointe 1995 to replace the ones he scored back in college (and since drank), and he hopes to snag some First Growth Bordeaux in the coming months. "I really do like those wines, but I wasn't willing to buy them at yesterday's prices," he says. "It's tragic, because those were wines I could afford as a student as an occasional splurge—and now I'm a lawyer!"
As evidence of how ripe the moment is, take the fact that even top-tier wines—which are generally considered immune to economic downturns—have been hit. "I don't think it's a particular category that's soft," says Charles Curtis, head of North American wine sales for Christie's. "It's across the board." A bottle of Taylor Fladgate 1945 port that sold for $1,860 three years ago went for a bargain-basement $720 at Christie's in December, and a 1985 Richebourg from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti fell from $1,560 to $960 in just 11 months. If those nosedives sound impressive, consider that the newbie collector can score even greater deals on middle-range finds: A bottle of Château Léoville-Las-Cases 2000—a celebrated vintage from a great Bordeaux producer—could be had for $175 in December, down from $360 in September.
Once the economy recovers, prices like these will become mere memories—so get to it. The four major auction houses—Christie's, Acker Merrall Condit, Zachy's, and Hart Davis Hart—are your best bets for old wines by the case. But first, you'd better make sure you favor the vintage stuff. "If you're somebody who likes young, powerful, fruit-forward wine," Levenberg warns, "then there's really no reason to have a wine cellar." A reliable online auction site such as WineBid, which sells single bottles, can help you pinpoint your preferences, but if you need direction, start with a wine store—someplace small and specialized with a staff who can teach you your tastes and clue you in to their discoveries. "We have things right now that have never been on the shelf," says Erin Sullivan of acme Fine Wines, a Napa Valley retail and marketing firm with close ties to some acclaimed California wineries. And while the financial malaise hasn't yet altered the shopping habits of many of acme's biggest spenders, it's given newcomers a shot at investment-grade wine that would normally go straight to restaurants or established collectors. "Previously we'd have to beg [producers] for it," Sullivan says, "but now they're like, 'Of course you can have it!'"
With deals as good as they are, you might need to do some begging (or elbow-throwing) of your own—but at least you'll be in the ring. "Obviously we'd all like to be richer," Levenberg says, "but if I can afford to buy the same wines I was buying for less money—or better wines for less money—then, at the end of the day, it's kind of a wash." Besides, these lean times will seem to pass more quickly if you're drinking Latour. Rob Willey
Before plunging into the auction market, you need to know what you're shopping for. Getting advice from a specialized wine shop can help you fine-tune your future portfolio—and ensure you'll never bring plonk to a dinner party again.
A gold mine of off-the-beaten-path producers, especially from Burgundy, the Loire Valley, and the Rhône. The Find: Olga Raffault, Les Piscasses, 2002 ($22). 148 Chambers Street, New York, 212-227-1434
The retail arm of one of the best auction houses in the country, with a rotating selection of rare wines from private collections. The Find: Château Pichon-Longueville, Lalande, 2000 ($200). 363 West Erie Street, Chicago, 312-482-9996
A carefully curated Napa Valley wine boutique specializing in local producers. The Find: Cavus, Stags Leap District, 2005 ($80). 1080 Fulton Lane, St. Helena, California, 888-963-0440
A destination for quirky, small-production bottles from familiar locales like California and France as well as obscure spots like Croatia. The Find: Clos Mimi, Shell Creek Vineyard, 2005 ($65). 2395 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, 323-662-9024
HOW TO STORE YOUR WINE
If you're buying investment-grade wine, the days of keeping bottles on top of your refrigerator are over: The most damaging thing you can do with high-end wine is expose it to heat and light—so keep it in a cool, dark place. If you want to get serious about collecting, it's worth getting a wine fridge. EuroCave, which has a 38-bottle model that's smaller than a dishwasher, is the gold standard, but anything that controls temperature and humidity will do. Should you develop a habit that gets you to the 300-bottle mark, look into a professional wine-storage facility that will swaddle your best stuff in locked, climate-controlled comfort, which is crucial if you ever decide to resell.