Vol. 1 No. 3 …French Laundry update; Wine ‘Investment’ Clubs

According to the Napa Valley Register and other sources, most of the wine stolen from the French Laundry on Christmas Day was recovered in…of all places…Greensboro, North Carolina? Don’t have the details on how, or why it was there, OR how they located it. Those of you who have had property stolen know the frustration of having the property held pending trial – which in this case may or may not occur since they have no suspects in custody, or even identified. So where is the wine now? In the ‘safest’ place the authorities could find: the French Laundry’s OWN wine cellar. Wait…wasn’t that where it was stolen from? Worse, they cannot sell it until the investigation is complete. (Why does the evidence have to be held when there are so many ways of authenticating evidence today…and it is not ‘unknown’ for evidence to disappear even while in police custody (aren’t you shocked?)

Unanswered:

First and foremost: was the wine damaged? How was it cared for after the theft and AFTER the police recovered it? Would you buy the wine if you were dining there? Not TB, no way! Keller most likely would have done better had he been able to collect the insurance and buy more wine like it!

Next item on the agenda: According to the January 23, 2015 issue of Financial Advisor magazine, “more than half a dozen firms peddling wine investments, in the U.K. alone went belly up last year. “Why have there been so many flops?” There are lots of reasons…the article cites one fund, The Wine Trust, in the U.S., where investors put their money for eight years, but here’s the rub (at least to TB): they have $15-20 million in assets. When something goes wrong what can they do? Sell? To whom?

Another fund, Belgium-based, had wine assets worth 102 million Euros ($115 million in today’s market – $125 million according to the article which illustrates yet another risk: currency – at the end of 2012, then someone questioned their valuation methods! Like a fire in a theater, investors headed for that small ‘doorway’, and the fund could not meet ‘net redemptions’ (a not uncommon problem of any mutual fund – stocks, bonds, options, etc.

Besides ‘questionable’ appraisal methods (remember they use last price at auction…and there could be just one fool…or there could be trading among several holders…it happens in small stocks…and especially penny stocks, so why not wine? This is not to imply that the fund managers are dishonest (talking about wine), but they wouldn’t know why the price was being bid up if the ‘group’ consisted of several high-profile members.

Why would they do that? Why would a known billionaire and expert on wine have created counterfeit bottles and attested to their authenticity? Why did Cruse, a famous French wine negociant (not to be confused with a California firm with the same name), would risk, and eventually destroy the firm’s long-established¬† reputation by bottling cheaper wine as Pouilly-Fuisse? They were eventually charged, convicted and heavily fined. There have been several scandals, the worst being when methanol was put in Italian wine, killing six and injuring at least 30. The point is that wine prices are especially susceptible to scandal. To TB it is like people who don’t trust the U.S. Dollar, so they are investing in Bitcoins!

Back to investment clubs and the FA article. They discuss a 2009 bottle of Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte which rose by 143 percent between June 2010 and December of the same year! Meanwhile, French first-growth wines rose by 345 percent between 2005 and 2011 before falling 41 percent through November 2014. Let TB clarify this for you: that 41% decline is off the 345% which would reduce the gain to 203% – which means you had better have gotten in very early! Conversely, to get back to the high would require a 70% increase (something even stock investors fail to understand!).

But the real catalyst for price escalation was the Chinese, who shifted their attention from first growth Bordeaux to premier cru Burgundy, causing a reversal of fortune. Worse yet, the Chinese government cracked down on bribes of public officials (TB is SHOCKED), thus slashing demand. Recall TB’s comments in the first blog, citing Red Obsession, which stated that all of the great wine would be bought by the Chinese? TB’s response was: the same was said in 1988 – the year before the Japanese economy imploded and hasn’t recovered since then. Even diamonds aren’t forever, right Mr. Bond?

So TB will close with the same advice that he began this blog with: drink what you like, and buy what you like…not what some industry-anointed expert says you should…you will be happier and you will have more money in your pocket.

Until next time: don’t ‘stay thirsty my friends’ – drink up! This ain’t no library! (said by the bartender at an enlisted men’s club when TB was in the Navy).

TB

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