Wine, Baseball, and Investing

Posted by | Posted in Out of the Glass | Posted on 03-13-2012

In third grade, I was the only girl in the Baseball Card Collectors Lunch Bunch Club. I had a shoebox full of Topps and Donruss, and I would obsessively consult my outdated Beckett book before deciding whether to pony up, say, my mint condition Sandy Alomar Jr. card for a rookie year Cecil Fielder.

Baseball card collecting was fun, mostly because there were a ton of different factors to consider before investing in a trade. Sure, you have to start with the book value. But was Sandy having a good season? (Meduim-good.) How would that affect the card’s future value? (I was only 8.) How many Cecil Fielders did I already have in my shoebox? (One.) Did I think Sandy Alomar Jr. was the greatest thing to happen to Cleveland since the river caught on fire? (Yes.)

As an adult, the closest I’ve come to the experience of assembling my baseball card collection has been in buying wine. It’s not too much of a stretch to liken a case of 1982 Chateau Latour to a Mickey Mantle rookie card — both are coveted by nerdy enthusiasts, cost way more now than they did in 1982, and have a seemingly unlimited resale potential.

In econ-speak, goods with these traits are called “Veblen goods.” Veblen goods are items whose demand grows as prices rise, a situation that is pretty counter-intuitive. The transition of fine wine into a Veblen good began when people stopped buying it as a beverage, and began “investing” in wine as a resalable commodity. The secondary wine market exploded in the in the 70’s and 80’s, and some first growth Bordeaux has actually outperformed more traditional commodities like gold and silver.

I’ve been thinking about wine investment a lot since Robert Parker released his orgy of 100-point ratings for the 2009 vintage. His scores appear to have added even more value to an already expensive vintage, and wine prices have risen sharply as a result. If these 100-point wines are truly Veblen goods, demand will only continue to grow stronger as prices rise, and a single man’s influence will have lead to a vicious cycle of wine price inflation: the much-maligned Parker Effect.

A bottle of 2009 Chateau Latour currently averages $2,000 on The London International Vintners Exchange, or Liv-Ex, which runs a wine trading platform out of London, reported that following Parker’s release, the 2009 vintage accounted for 62% of market turnover, with 26% gains on some newly anointed 100-point bottles.

This is crazy! You can buy shares in a wine index fund, just like you can buy shares in an S&P index fund? And your wine shares might just outperform the S&P? I love wine! I could stand to make a little extra cash! Sign me up!

But wait. Let’s go back to the baseball card analogy. At the time of my hypothetical trade, Cecil Fielder was an All Star AND his card was probably worth eight times as much money as Sandy’s. But I am a Clevelander, and a huge Sandy Alomar Jr. fan. So, no trade.

Wine inspires similarly irrational investment behavior. A guy in New York may be willing to pay 10x the price for a certain bottle of wine as a guy in California. Why? Probably for some of the same illogical reasons that I didn’t trade Sandy for Cecil. Like baseball cards, the value of a bottle of wine is extremely subjective.

Unlike pricing a stock, you can’t run a valuation of a wine’s assets and liabilities. The resale value of luxury wine is volatile because it is based on a set of factors that differ from buyer to buyer: taste, politics, knowledge, vacation memories, and mood all play into what someone is willing to pay. A wine’s provenance, maturity, and storage history might be useful metrics for determining its underlying value, which is much more static than its market value. But you can’t buy many top-tier wines for their underlying value these days. On the secondary market, speculative investors are betting big bucks that wine’s volatile and subjective resale prices will continue to go up.

So should you invest in wine? First, you should carefully weigh the risks involved, as well as your feelings about the ethics of wine investment. The wine market appears to be subject to inflated prices and massive speculation, and therefore it carries a relatively high risk. Yikes! However, the greater the risk, the greater the potential returns. Worst case scenario, you’ll be stuck with a very expensive (but great) bottle of wine to drink with dinner — can you afford that? And also think about whether you want to help perpetuate the Parker Effect by sustaining the demand for fine wines at exorbitant prices.  Finally, in light of the arrest of wine counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan,  remember that there is a lot of bogus investment-grade wine on the market.

Personally, I am a relatively risk-averse investor. And although I’ve never had a bottle of Latour, I think I’d rather spend my $2,000 on a case of Coulee de Serrant (delicious!) and a trip to France.

Comments (3)

  1. Good article! Prices on the high-end stuff are totally out-of-whack. I don’t buy futures or new releases for the same reason I don’t buy new cars, the value drops significantly as soon as you drive it off the lot.
    Thanks to the Rudy K fiasco, I am more confident than ever in the behavior of the auction houses going forward. Kind of like flying on an airplane the day after a highjacking, I know security has been beefed up.
    Agree on the Coulee; I love it too but coincidentally the last half case I bought was baked

  2. I’ve often thought about the wine-as-commodity phenomenon. The Latour, Petrus, etc. are like shares of Berkshire Hathaway. Cult California Cabs are like tech stocks. Reliable wines (Ridge or Dunn, for instance) are blue chips. Might not be an exact fit, but I like it.

    Maybe there is some good for the high-end wines: I think there’s a sufficient disconnect between the high-end wines for which collectors will pay thousands and the lower-end (though still prestigious) wines that we can get for $30-$100. These wines will generally appreciate in value, but are lower risk, more accessible, and inspire less guilt if one decides to open a bottle with dinner!

  3. I find this subject interesting as well. While some wines are acting like veblen goods I think the trend has more to do with what Harvey Libenstein defined as ‘the snob effect,’ or demand driven by the exclusivity of an item.

    First growth Bordeauxs are produced at a reasonable clip but when the minimum trade in some instances is one case, all of a sudden the wine is completely inaccessable to the layman.

    On the other hand, things like gold and silver can be abundant and still act like veblen goods, where the demand is truly generated from the increased price.

    People’s wine knowledge is superior now than any other time in history, which I think helps to compound the snob effect with new sources of demand like China.