Have we reached the point when collecting wine is like collecting stamps – it’s not for drinking, but to look at?
Consider this: People don’t buy wine to drink, but to collect, like postage stamps. Two new studies suggest that’s the case.
A paper in the Journal of Wine Economics and an analysis by Liv-Ex, a stock exchange for rare and expensive wine, have found that prices for high-end wine are mimicking other collectibles, be they stamps or antique dolls. This should not happen for wine, which should become worthless if it spoils. And every wine, no matter how well made, will spoil if you don’t drink it before it goes off.
But wine collectors apparently don’t care. It may be enough, says wine economist Mike Veseth, for these collectors to physically possess the wine, and that the wine’s value comes from having it in the cellar, as if it was a Jenny stamp or a Brasher doubloon. In this, he says, “they’ve changed the point of reference for wine, so that it’s irrelevant whether they ever drink it.”
If you own a rare stamp or coin, says Veseth, you’ll invite people over to see it. Today, wine geeks who have a 1945 Cheval Blanc or a 1961 Bordeaux apparently would rather show the wines to friends instead of pouring everyone a glass. In other words, it’s too valuable to drink.
This is a revolutionary development for wine, which has always been about drinking. But Veseth says several changes in the wine business, including the now astronomical cost of the most expensive wines and the bifurcation of the wine market, have brought us to this point.
The best wines were always expensive, he says, but were affordable. Now, since they are so expensive – a bottle of 1945 Cheval may be worth more than many rare coins – only the wealthiest are able to buy them. His comparison: Wine as opera, in which opera was once mass entertainment (“Amadeus,” for example), but is now for a very wealthy elite and doesn’t matter to the rest of us.
Is this a good thing for wine? Probably not, if Veseth’s opera analogy is accurate. But there is little we can do about it unless we can convince those collectors to drink their wine.
A tip o’ the Curmudgeon’s fedora to Neil Pithadia, a student in one of my El Centro classes who brought this contradiction to my attention. We couldn’t figure out what was going on; hopefully, this will help.