Before having some second thoughts, I began this story as one more gee-whiz item from the increasingly crazy world of wine sales. Here’s what I wrote:
I don’t know about you, but I haven’t found many wine bargains in recent years at duty-free shops in France. But then again, I’m not shopping at the level of a certain buyer who recently purchased five bottles of French wine for – take a deep breath now -- $85,000. The sale took place at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport and was announced – trumpeted, really -- by the airport operator, which identified the buyer only as “an Asian,” according to AFP. What did he buy? Click here to find out, and then let me know if you think the shopper got his money’s worth buying these “duty-free” wines.
I was going to leave the story at that, an odd tidbit from the eccentric world of wine. But then I started thinking about it: imagine, spending $85,000 on five bottles of wine. I couldn’t help but wonder how this buyer might have spent the money, or even part of it, on something else, perhaps something that might have made a difference somewhere in the world. I thought of the buyer, sitting in a first-class lounge at Charles de Gaulle, waiting for his plane home to Hong Kong or Shanghai or Singapore. I also thought of people waiting to fly to Lahore, or Kinshasa or Delhi, places where $85,000 could have a real and immediate impact on the lives of ordinary people.
I don’t begrudge anyone the right to spend money as they see fit. But in these still challenging economic times, when so many are having such a hard time, should we be flaunting such excess so shamelessly? That was going to be it for this story until I received a press release this morning from Acker Merrall & Condit, the wine merchant and auction house. It made the story about the wine buyer in Paris seem like small potatoes. The release announced a “Twelve Days of Christmas” gift guide aimed at “the world’s most passionate wine lovers.” Twelve wine packages, all of them featuring rare bottles of Bordeaux and Burgundy, starting at a $29,000 and going up to $2,070,000 for “the one gift to end them all.” The packages add up to a total of $6,458,000.
“We’ve had an amazing year,” John Kapon, Acker Merrall’s CEO, says in the release. “With estimated sales in 2011 in excess of $110 million, we will be the first wine auction house in history to breach the hundred million mark.” The holiday sale, he says, is “to celebrate Christmas and the close of the year.” And with it, he proclaims, “we’re going to deliver astonishing delight to wine lovers worldwide.” Perhaps he forgot that the vast majority of wine lovers worldwide are looking for a good bottle at perhaps $10 to $15.
The issue here is not that wine merchants – Acker Merrall, the Paris duty-free shop or countless others -- are selling wines at these prices or that buyers are willing to scoop them up. So-called fine wine, after all, is increasingly seen as a good investment, one that can compete with real estate or gold or stocks and bonds. It is the gushing manner in which these sales are being announced that gives me pause. Wine is all about elegance and grace and lends itself to a little contemplation. As we count our blessings at this time of year, those qualities are worth remembering.