Are California wines back in fashion? Recent auction activity would suggest so. As a category, California cults and blue chips fared best in the first quarter, with a Wine Spectator Auction Index increase of 11 percent. After years of Bordeaux dominating the headlines, California wines may be making a stealth comeback.
As a whole, the Wine Spectator Auction Index, which tracks sales at fine wine auctions in the United States, fell a modest 0.44 percent from 333.5 points to 332.05 points in the first quarter of 2012. By comparison, the S&P 500 and the Dow Jones, respectively, posted 12 percent and 8 percent gains. Domestically, nine auctions comprising 8,897 lots went on the block for an aggregate value of $27 million. That equates to an average price per lot of $3,029, down from $3,819 during the same period last year. Average percent-sold rates stood at a healthy 96 percent, off a fraction from 2011.
Once again, Hong Kong wine auctions eclipsed their U.S. counterparts by a significant margin in the first quarter of 2012. Seven sales consisting of 6,449 lots brought in a total of $42 million. The average price per lot in Hong Kong amounted to $6,477—more than double the U.S. average—yet down 24 percent from 2011. One explanation for the decline is that Hong Kong collectors have become acutely more price sensitive than they were a year ago. In consequence, aberrant prices for first-growth Bordeaux have receded.
Classified Bordeaux sales in the U.S. fell 1 percent in value. The 2000 vintage was down 5 percent and 1990 was down 6 percent. The 1995 vintage rose 6 percent, spearheaded by Château Pétrus, which gained 21 percent to average $2,098 per bottle. Château Cos-d’Estournel 1989 advanced 51 percent to average $230 per bottle.
Elsewhere, Rhône wines fell 5 percent. Vintage Port was soft, falling 14 percent, largely because of a precipitous 38 percent decline in Taylor Fladgate 1970, which dropped to $108 per bottle. Piedmontese listings were down 8 percent, whereas Tuscan bottlings were up 7 percent.
Burgundy’s recent surge was evident at Christie’s Hong Kong auction of the private cellar of famed winemaker Henry Jayer. The $8.5 million sale total surpassed the high estimate by more than $5 million. The average price per lot was a staggering $83,443. Top lot was a case of Vosne- Romanée Cros Parantoux 1985 that sold for $265,147 (362 percent above the index average). Other highlights included two magnums of Richebourg 1985 that brought $218,357 (up 435 percent) and three bottles of Richebourg 1978 that fetched $202,760 (up 27 percent).
Another world record was set at Acker Merrall & Condit’s New York auction in March, where a jeroboam of DRC Romanée-Conti 1999 sold for a hefty $73,200. The most expensive lot in the quarter was a case of the celebrated 1945 Château Mouton-Rothschild, sold privately to a Hong Kong buyer before Acker Merrall & Condit’s March 30 and 31 Hong Kong auction for $217,949.
Zachys led domestic auction houses with $9,221,542 in first-quarter sales, followed by Hart Davis Hart at $7,471,092 and Acker at $5,612,610. In Hong Kong, Acker led the pack with $16,047,344, followed by Christie’s at $8,511,288.00 and Sotheby’s at $8,248,506.Jamie Ritchie, CEO and president of Sotheby’s Wine Americas & Asia, feels prices will firm up in the next quarter. “The domestic market is resurgent, bolstered by U.S. and South American buyers. I also think collectors are going to be more aware of provenance and condition than ever, which is a good thing.”