A Vintage Year for Hype?


By Thane Peterson Would you pay $1,000 for a bottle of wine?

O.K., then would you pay $1,000 for a bottle of wine you can't have until 2003? What about $1,000 for a bottle of wine you should store carefully until 2010 before you drink it?

If you answered yes to all three questions, you're a good candidate to start shopping for the latest from the top chateaux in the Bordeaux region of southwestern France. A buying frenzy has developed among wine lovers over the 2000 Bordeaux vintage, which, since April, has been available only for the first, early barrel tastings after the grapes were picked last fall.

GOLDEN GRAPES. Many experts are ecstatic about the quality of the wine. "I was so excited that halfway through the tasting I started dancing," says Jeff Zacharia, the chief Bordeaux buyer at Zachy's (www.zachys.com), the big Scarsdale (N.Y.) wine retailer. "The other people at the tasting thought I had gone crazy."

With some writers calling the 2000 Bordeaux "the vintage of the century," a sort of belated millennium fever has gripped Bordeaux prices since early June. Even though the 2000s won't be available in bottles until 2003, prices have shot up in futures markets beyond anything anyone has ever seen before.

For instance, Sherry-Lehmann (www.sherry-lehmann.com), the Manhattan wine store, is already sold out of Cheval Blanc, the top pick of the hugely influential wine critic Robert Parker. However, you can buy a case (12 bottles) of Chateau Petrus for a mere $16,200, or $1,350 per bottle (payment now, delivery in 2003).

ARE THEY NUTS? If that's too rich for your blood, how about a case of Chateau Le Pin, at $9,600, Chateau Ausone, at $5,500, or Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, at $4,000? Despite such soaring prices, "demand is absolutely incredible," says Sherry-Lehmann Chairman Michael Aaron. He says huge Bordeaux sales have caused the store's sales to more than double in June and July vs. the same months last year.

By the way, if you just absolutely have to have a case of Cheval Blanc, Zachy's still has some left -- at $8,510 per case. Among Zachy's other offerings are the 2000 Chateau Margaux at $4,500 per case and Chateau Haut Brion at $4,150.

All of which raises a question: Are these people nuts? What's going on here has far less to do with the quality of the wine than with hype. I think wine lovers should consider reserving some 2000 Bordeaux, but you absolutely don't have to pay these outlandish prices to get some really excellent wine. In fact, I'd say that reserving a case of 2000 Bordeaux would be a very good way to spend the tax rebate President Bush is sending each of us (up to $300, or up to $600 for married couples).

PERFECT WEATHER. If you have a significant anniversary coming up sometime during the next decade, why not set aside a case now? Here are some thoughts on why prices have skyrocketed beyond all reason and how to buy some 2000 Bordeaux without paying an arm and a leg.

The main reason for the soaring prices is Year 2000 hype. "People know we won't have another wine label with three zeros on it for another thousand years," notes one of France's most respected wine writers, Michel Bettane, senior editor at La Revue du Vin de France. On top of that, weather conditions were nearly perfect in Bordeaux last year, so these wines are almost bound to be very good, if not great.

Since top Bordeaux cabernets generally improve with age almost indefinitely, wine lovers know they likely can set aside a case or two and have a distinctive "millenium" wine to celebrate major occasions for decades to come.

BULL MARKET. Other than that, the reasons for the soaring prices are economic, not gustatory. Bordeaux reds are still regarded by most critics as the best in the world. So as soon as it was known that the year 2000 coincided with ideal weather conditions in Bordeaux, a heated competition was foreordained among the experts to be the first to taste and hype the wines.

Parker, Wine Spectator magazine in the U.S., and Decanter magazine in London all quickly rushed out raves. Parker also touted the vintage on TV shows -- including Charley Rose and 60 Minutes II -- and rated the 2000 Cheval Blanc, among others, at close to 100 on a scale of 100. He and other experts have repeatedly noted that the price of great Bordeaux vintages has always steadily gone up -- never down. The implication: Buy now and you can't lose!

However, it's far from certain that this vintage is really all that special. Some French wine experts, for instance, think the hype has gotten out of control. "You have to be crazy or very rich -- or both -- to be buying these wines at these prices," says Jean-Michel Deluc, the former sommelier at the Ritz Hotel in Paris and now chief sommelier at ChateauOnline (www.chateauonline.com), the Paris-based online wine merchant.

CHATEAU OBSCURE. He rates the 2000 Bordeaux as "excellent," but contends that, "on a quality basis, the wines are not better than Bordeaux from 1995, 1996, and 1998." None of the experts I talked to thought the 2000 Bordeaux would equal the truly legendary vintages of the last century, such as 1961 and 1945.

And no matter how good the 2000 wines seem now, there's no guarantee they'll improve with age as much as Parker and other experts are expecting. "These wines are not finished yet," notes Kevin Zraly, author of the Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, the best-selling U.S. wine guide. "They're only a few months old. This horse race is just starting."

The other thing to remember is that the prices have soared only for wines from the two dozen or so very top chateaux. There are, however, 9,000 chateaux in Bordeaux. And, given the sunny weather last year, most will probably produce an excellent 2000 vintage.

Peruse the Bordeaux 2000 Futures sections of wine Web sites and you'll find all sorts of interesting choices in the $200- to $500-per-case range. Many have Robert Parker and Wine Spectator ratings in the high 80s or low 90s, which means to all us average Joes and Janes they'll taste great. One good bet: The Clos Rene at Zachy's.com for $259 per case.

A CAVEAT. One caveat is to be wary of little-known wine retailers with prices that seem too good to be true. In the past, fly-by-night retailers and wholesalers have sometimes taken payments on wine futures, only to abscond with the money and never deliver the wine. The best bet is to stick with well known names like Zachy's and Sherry-Lehmann on the East Coast, and Sam's Wine & Spirits (www.samswine.com) in Chicago, or the best big wine retailer in your area. These stores have a long track record of delivering on wine futures.

You'll also need to have access to a wine cellar, because these wines need to age for a few years. Otherwise, you may be able to pay your wine retailer to store the wine for you.

If you have friends in Europe, you might consider taking a flier at ChateauOnline, which delivers all over Europe but not to the U.S. The site has a number of very nice 2000 Bordeaux at budget prices. Check out the Chateau Arnaud or l'Ermitage de Chasse Spleen (the second label of the famous Chateau Chasse Spleen) at $10 per bottle, for instance.

You won't be getting the cachet of one of the very top chateaux. But you almost certainly will be getting very good wine at a reasonable price -- and it will still have those classy three zeros on the label. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column every Tuesday, only on BW Online


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