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

©Copyright 2015 TBOW, all rights reserved.

 

 

Vol. 1, No. 1…a new beginning…

“Wine is the answer. What was the Question?” – Anon

Trader Bill is a news junkie…before it was all about financial and political matters…this blog, however, will be entirely wine and travel related to wine.

The blog will be published every other Monday (hopefully).

Here is a nice kickoff story… well, interesting anyway:

On Christmas Day, some creep(s) crept into the cellar at the three-star Michelin, French Laundry, owned by the famous Thomas Keller (also Per Se in NYC). The restaurant was closed for remodeling and these guys knew what they were looking for: la creme de la creme. They only took the highest valued wines: Screaming Eagle, Domaine Romanee Conti (DRC), and other prized wines. The Napa County Sheriff’s Office put a value of $15,000 on it…low ball! Keller estimated it at $300,000. One bottle was reportedly worth $16,000 (let’s make this clear: to TB, no wine is worth that price…TB’s just sayin’). TB counts 77 bottles (that’s an average of $3,900 from the list provided on his blog by Keller…wonder why they didn’t fill up the last case? (Correcting as originally I thought there were 57 bottles but then found more on the list and forgot to remove the comment on 3 more bottles, mea culpa). Think this is rare? Try googling ‘wine theft’ and you will be amazed at the number…but should you be? It’s big and easy money!

Most, if not all, of these bottles have serial numbers so Keller and wine experts say they will be hard to sell. Hard to sell? Pullease…how many art thefts have we read of that are never seen again? Imagine owning some Picasso and not being able to show it to any for fear it would be reported to the authorities. Now with a bottle of wine from some well-heeled collector…or perhaps a wealthy Chinese…there are a lot of them out there and they are craving these names as they have been ‘speculated’ out of view.

According to the wine documentary, Red Obsession, Bordeaux futures of the top crus are purchased in the futures market (see TB can’t get away from his other blog), and when delivered stored in warehouses where they may be ‘flipped’ several times and it is not uncommon for the ‘owners’ (brief as that may be) to never even see them, let alone drink them!

Let’s say the wine is released in the futures market by the estate at $500. The buyer can then sell that for say $700, then to another for $900…in what could be a daisy chain, which succeeds in elevating the price worldwide. What a scam!…and you wondered why TB said that ‘no wine is worth that’. TB can’t even imagine what Trader Vic Bergeron would have said, after he picked himself up off the floor!

So to TB, those serial numbers aren’t worth the ‘label’ they are printed on. Besides, if they do recover them, who could attest to how they were stored? As for poor Keller, he posted the story first – on his Facebook page. Sadly, some of the responses mocked him which is really a cheap shot at one of the finest restaurants in the world…TB can attest to that having lunched there…although we did go to Burger King afterwards to sate our appetites due to the size of the portions. (For the record, TB favors Bistro Jeanty, just down the street in Yountville from the ‘Laundry’ and Keller’s bistro Bouchon…Philippe, no need to thank me for the plug…you have the bistro that people search for when they travel in France…but can never find!)

This brings us to another issue: celebrity wine auctions. While they serve worthy causes, they are merely places for the wealthy to ‘see and be seen’, and as for the bottles, TB has seen some with more than one sticker on it from the Napa Valley Wine Auction. By the way, at the auction, it is not uncommon for one winery owner to bid up another’s and then for that owner to return the favor…hey, it’s good advertising…not cheap, but good, just like the wine.

TB started buying Bordeaux in 1973 in Los Angeles. He had been buying California wines (note one of his 1969 Mondavi cabs, still had a price tag on it of $4.95!). The impetus was seeing Bordeaux priced at $20-30. This down from significantly higher prices just a year earlier. Why? Because there were a couple of scandals…one where some Italian winemakers were putting in ‘additives’, some of which turned out to be poisonous and resulted in a few deaths. As for French wines, a highly-respected wine negociant, Cruse, created a frenzy with the hot, Pouilly Fuisse, by selling bottles with ‘vin ordinaire’ inside and thus causing them to sell for as much as five times more than they really were worth. What is remarkable about this is Cruse was a well-respected broker. Furthermore, the family was in the process of trying to sell the brand, so they ended up ‘killing the goose that laid the golden egg’ – and they didn’t even get the foie gras!

Moving right along, counterfeiting of labels has occurred…hey if they are willing to do twenties, why wouldn’t they do it with wine that can cost several times more? One of the counterfeiters was a very respected wine collector who used his reputation to peddle the wine at auction to unsuspecting buyers. He even counterfeited some of the famous Jefferson wines…guess he figured that even if they tasted it they wouldn’t know if it was the real thing since the taste would have changed so much, right? For this reason, the restaurants…some at least…have taken to breaking the bottles so they cannot be reused, but how would you know if your prized bottle wasn’t ‘refilled’ and sold at auction?

Well, since I am approaching 1,000 words, it is about time to go but TB wishes to make one point: he abhors wine snobbery. Wine is food, wine is agriculture, and made to be enjoyed with food…of course it is also great on the side…especially with good friends. This point was made to TB decades ago by legendary Napa Valley vintner, Joe Heitz, at a delightful brunch on the deck his home and winery with some of his family…but that’s another story…after all, there are a ‘million stories in the Naked City and this is just one of them.’

a sante!

Trader Bill

©Copyright 2015 TBOW, all rights reserved.