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Time for a Margin Call on your Wine?

I wrote last week about the great slurping sound that can be heard from China these days when it comes to wine. The explosion in the wine auction market there has been making news for some time.

One of my readers who lives in Hong Kong had some very interesting perspective on the matter, which I am copying from his comment on that previous post:

Here is the reality in China from someone who lives in Hong Kong and watches all this development. The biggest reality is that hardly anyone is drinking this stuff. It is being gifted.

The problem with that is that Lafite and Penfolds Bin 620 are today's Rolex watches and next year will be Piaget. The Chinese will take years to understand or even want to understand Burgundy. They just want instantly recognized symbols, which mean DRC will be the darling of the next few years.

To infer China is a huge market is true, but 99% of wine sold is in the under RMB40 category at retail. All these wonderful war stories about luxury wines are simply a reflection of the huge desire of people in China with money seeking the next, next thing to show off about. Much of this is corrupt money or money made for the outrageously hyped property and stock markets in China. All this is starting to implode, so what will be next?

Reality will set in, as it quickly did when the Bordeaux trade expected a huge surge in interest from this supposed educated wine drinking audience to the 2010 en-primeur. The so-called Chinese buyer stayed away in droves. After all why buy something you can hardly pronounce and your friends you want to entertain (or pay off) can hardly recognize. If this seems weird ask why Duhart Milon is so successful in China. It ain't the wine, it's the label, which looks like Lafite. It probably will take years before serious wine drinkers in China know their Chateaux from their Clos. One only has to look at auction markets to see that Lafite is off the boil in China/Hong Kong. DRC is now hot - that easy pronunciation and label recognition again!

There are huge volumes of wine sitting in Hong Kong storage, not being drunk, just being traded or gifted. The truth, don't panic, the next big thing will be luxury yachts, chalets in Aspen or some other nebulous branded line. Friends of mine are selling otherwise unsaleable 19th century art to these people. Why? Because you can hang it on the wall and brag about the price you paid, hang the quality!

I thought about these comments this morning when I saw the story that my friend Elin McCoy filed for Bloomberg today referring to the offers she saw recently at the Hong Kong International Wine and Spirit Fair. In short, there were bankers on hand, willing to loan you the money to buy fine wines at auction, provided you purchased wines from a list of (presumably) blue chip producers.

The idea that someone would be willing to loan you up to $641,840 to finance your investment in auction-grade Bordeaux frankly boggles the mind.

The finest wines have long been considered investment assets, and several funds and indices have been established to both allow people to purchase shares in wine, and track their performance just like any other stock.

But now you can also apparently purchase on margin, though it's not clear what kind of collateral you have to offer up to get such a loan. One can only imagine that while these bankers maybe crazy enough to pursue a bubble, they're not stupid. Presumably they will actually want you to guarantee that you can pay back the loan if the market for First Growths tanks in a few years because investors have moved on to Burgundy, or Aspen condos.

McCoy's piece included another jaw-dropper of a fact as well: in 2011 China was the single largest importer of Bordeaux in the world, accounting for 10% of that regions wine exports.

Not that you needed any further evidence of a bubble, but did you hear that Chinese basketball superstar Yao Ming is getting into the wine business?

Crazy days indeed. Now who's going to lend me money so I can short-sell some wine?

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Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson Wine Grapes The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson to cork or not to cork by George Taber reading between the vines by Terry Theise adventures on the wine route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud