In the first half of 2007, the Wine Spectator Auction Index rose 18.82 points, an increase of 6.8 percent--a sure indication that the demand for collectible wines remains on the rise. Even though the increase was somewhat modest compared to the record 13 percent jump in the second half of 2006, sales activity verged on the frenetic. More than 34,000 lots of fine and rare wine worth almost $90 million went on the block during the first six months of the year, and 30 sales achieved an average percent sold rate of 94.
"The wine auction market continues to be more and more global, with participation from significant collectors that are emerging in new areas of the world," said Michael Davis, vice chairman of Hart Davis Hart Wine Company in Chicago. "The demand for great Bordeaux has never been stronger, and with the price of futures skyrocketing, the classic vintages from the past two decades have become tremendous bargains. I frankly don't see this energy subsiding anytime soon."
Several auction houses, including Acker Merrall & Condit, Aulden Cellars-Sotheby's, Hart Davis Hart and Zachys, conducted auctions that were fully 100 percent sold. Evening sales featuring anything from 2000 Bordeaux superlots to six-packs of DRC Romanée-Conti 1990 routinely brought in six-figure bids and averaged a staggering price per lot of approximately $20,000.
Zachys was the frontrunner among the seven American auction firms with $26 million in sales, closely followed by Acker Merrall & Condit at $23 million. Hart Davis Hart recorded $14.6 million in sales and, more notably, posted the highest single-sale total during the first half: $7.1 million realized at the auction of the late Steven Verlin's spectacular cellar.
Record-breakers were legion. They included a jeroboam of Mouton-Rothschild 1945 from the private cellar of Baroness Philippine de Rothschild (Mouton's owner) that sold in February at Aulden Cellars-Sotheby's for $310,700. At NYWinesChristie's in May, an anonymous bidder on the telephone paid $237,000 for a dozen bottles of the highly acclaimed DRC Romanée-Conti 1985. At Zachys in May, a 42-bottle vertical of Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon from 1998-2003 fetched $130,900 against an estimate of $50,000 to $80,000. Deep pockets lined with gold are now a prerequisite to playing the high-end of the price spectrum.
Most categories of wine listed in the auction index (including Bordeaux, California, Piedmont and Vintage Port) averaged an identical increase of 7 percent. Among the Bordeaux listings, the greatest increase was registered by the 1982 vintage, which gained 21 percent. Competition over first-growths and their equivalents--which are now reaching drinking maturity--sent prices soaring above levels regarded as ceilings just a few years ago.
In May, Château Lafite Rothschild 1982 experienced a major price surge at Aulden Cellars-Sotheby's, when four cases sold for $27,485 each. At the same sale, an anonymous private buyer snapped up three cases of Château Pétrus 1982 at $71,700 per dozen. At Hart Davis Hart in June, Château Latour 1982 hit a high of $23,904 and Château Léoville-las-Cases 1982 sold for $7,140 at Zachys' late spring sale.
Bordeaux from the 1995 vintage rose an average of 15 percent. Although the mercurial classified growths from 1961 dropped 3 percent, select châteaus fared extremely well. At an ex-château offering of Château Lynch-Bages at Aulden Cellars-Sotheby's, the 1961 sold for an average of $803 per bottle (up 109 percent). Château Cos-d'Estournel 1961 averaged $438 per bottle (up 71 percent).
The star of Piedmont was Luciano Sandrone. The 1989 Barolo Cannubi Boschis was up 41 percent at $438 per bottle and the 1997 increased by 21 percent to $187 per bottle. Angelo Gaja Langhe Sorì San Lorenzo 1996 was up 23 percent at $237 per bottle. The top Tuscan performer was Altesino Brunello di Montalcino Montosoli 1990, which rose a dramatic 60 percent to average $317 per bottle.
Fine and rare Burgundies, which are tracked separately from the auction index because available volumes of these wines are typically smaller (and sales tend to show extreme price volatility as compared to the overall market), exhibited pronounced strength, rising 12 percent. DRC Echézeaux 1985 was the frontrunner, up 158 percent at $1,336 per bottle, followed by Armand Rousseau Chambertin 1985 at $1,905 per bottle (up 102 percent).
California wines from 1990 surpassed all other domestic vintages, rising an average of 20 percent. The strong performance of Harlan Estate 1990, which climbed 47 percent to average $719 per bottle, shored up the category. Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District Hillside Select 1990 rose 21 percent and fared well in other vintages, too. The 1994 was up 20 percent and the 1985 was up 27 percent.
Araujo and Harlan Estate are represented in the overall auction index, but Wine Spectator also includes these producers in a separate California cult wine index along with Bryant Family, Colgin, Dalla Valle Maya and Screaming Eagle. In the first half of this year, the index is up 9 percent from the second half of 2006 and grew by 50 percent over the last two years. Screaming Eagle continues to outperform the pack, gaining 17 percent in the first half of the year. Harlan increased by 7 percent and Colgin fell 3 percent. You can snare a bottle of Screaming Eagle 1998 for about $1,300 at auction, but the 1992 vintage averages an even steeper $5,540. In contrast, select vintages of Araujo sell for under $200.
Bargains were hard to come by during the first half of 2007, but they did exist. Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia 1988 dropped 29 percent to average $327 per bottle. Château Le Pin 1988 was also down 29 percent at $1,572 per bottle--if you can call that a bargain. For the same amount of money you could buy a full case of Château Ducru-Beaucaillou 1990 (which was down 19 percent for the half, averaging $109 per bottle) with a couple of hundred dollars to spare.
Isolated values aside, the auction market shows no signs of slowing down. "You know the old adage, 'If you have to ask, you can't afford it.' Well that's what's happening in the fine wine world," quipped Charles Klatskin, a veteran wine collector from New Jersey. "There are a lot of people out there who don't have to ask."
--Auction data compiled by assistant tasting coordinator John Suidut. This analysis pertains to the first-half 2007 Wine Spectator Auction Index, but the data currently available in the online Auction Price Database is split into the second quarter of 2007, first quarter of 2007 and the fourth quarter of 2006.
--Auction correspondent Peter D. Meltzer is author of the recently published Keys to the Cellar: Strategies and Secrets of Wine Collecting (John Wiley).
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