Some wineries, including the renowned Burgundy estate Domaine de la Romanée-Conti—source of the world’s most expensive Pinot Noir–based wines—now number each bottle they produce to make it harder for counterfeiters to produce false bottles. But estate owner Aubert de Villaine also suggests that people’s fears may be getting the better of them. “We have had a number of people come to the estate lately convinced that they had been the victim of fraud with our wine. And the bottles were not actually fake,” says the courtly de Villaine.
The robust high-end wine-buying climate has had at least one salutary side effect: a trickle-down of funds to some lucky nonprofit organizations. Charity wine auctions generate millions of dollars in support of worthy causes. Formerly the events—as well as the nonprofits benefiting from bidders’ largesse—were concentrated in wine-producing regions, and the Auction Napa Valley was king. Now a lot of the auction energy is moving toward the places where deep-pocketed collectors live. Napa is still going great guns, but the reigning champion today is the Naples Winter Wine Festival, held in the affluent city on Florida’s west coast. This year, the event raked in $12.2 million, bringing to nearly $107 million the total raised for local children’s charities since the auction debuted in 2001.
“Naples has taken it to the ultimate degree,” says Ann Colgin, one of the founders of the event and a regular auctioneer there. (She’s also the maker of one of California’s “cult Cabernets,” the highly sought-after Colgin Cellars.) “The people there egg each other on. I’ve never been to a social charity event where people really bid against their friends, and they don’t stop. There’s real competition under the tent.”
Colgin is a collector, too. She and her husband have some nice 1970 Bordeaux in their cellar that they are looking forward to drinking. Clearly, part of the pleasure comes from the timing of its acquisition, 15 years ago, given the astounding changes in the wine market and the scarcity of the best bottles. “I’m so happy we collected these wines when we did,” Colgin notes.
And while no one has a crystal ball, Christie’s Torrence, at least, is bullish on the market’s future. In part that’s because he works for an auction house founded in 1766 and can afford to think long-term. In late 2008, for example, company executives gathered staff to talk about the financial challenges ahead, and presented a chart of Christie’s fortunes over the years. “After every big dip, the surge afterward was even higher,” says Torrence, comparing it to the way Hong Kong jump-started wine sales in the middle of a recession. “It was very reassuring.” There will always be a demand for celebrated wineswhether or not the ferocious bidding wars are here to stay.
Ted Loos, author of the Tasting Notes column on Epicurious.com, also contributes to Vogue, The New York Times, and other publications. He last wrote for Gourmet Live about California’s Pinot-rich Anderson Valley. Follow him @LoosLips on Twitter, where he tweets the #WinoTheDay.