After three years of very rapid growth — placing it among the top 15 fastest growing private companies in the SF Bay area from 2006 to 2008, Vinfolio experienced a much more difficult sales environment during 2009. A few weeks ago, we found ourselves in need of additional capital on a very near-term basis. The company investigated several options but new capital could not be obtained on a necessarily compressed timetable. Because of the situation, and to safeguard the interests of our customers and creditors (including for wine purchases, wine sales, and wine stored with Vinfolio), the board of directors and the shareholders of Vinfolio approved and undertook a form of restructuring known as an Assignment for the Benefit of Creditors (the “Assignment”) on Friday evening, January 15, to provide the business with the flexibility to develop the appropriate course of action going forward.
The San Francisco-based company had just raised $4.5 million in September, they said to fund an expansion in Asia. According to the same article, the company, founded in 2003, had raised $6.1 million in previous rounds of financing (both debt and equity).
The company sources fine wine from collectors, wineries and has an importer’s license. Their other offerings include VinCellar, a system for wine inventory management, both on computers and as an iPhone app. The company also has 17,000 square feet of temperature-controlled storage for customers. Last July, the company launched VinFolio Marketplace, an online marketplace where not only wineries and importers could list wines for sale, but individual collectors could sell wines from their collection to one another. When launched, the company proclaimed that it enabled “access to the $500+ million in wine” making it the “world’s largest fine wine marketplace.” At the time of launch, in any given Marketplace transaction, the seller incurred a fee but the buyer did not.
In his post, Bachmann said that operations will continue during Assignment, a state-level insolvency measure. But in the eBob forum, several commenters on eBob debated whether collectors with wine in storage should arrange for immediate pick-up of their wines.
SIPPED: user feedback
[Yellow Tail], the ubiquitous Australian wine, wants your help! The producer has decided to open the naming of their new, unoaked Chardonnay up to readers. The contest may have risks as this article points out, the crowd sourcing initiative for naming the new blend of Vegemite and cream cheese (really, why ruin good cream cheese?) drew 48,000 entries, but the winner drew “near universal” condemnation. The [Yellow Tail] contest comes with a prize–[Yellow Tail]! Make your name suggestions in the comments here (sorry no, prize).
SIPPED: place names
Chateau Montelena and other wineries in Calistoga will soon be able to put Calistoga on the label. After a protracted struggle over whether wineries with Calistoga in the name would have to use exclusively Calistoga fruit, federal authorities granted AVA status to the area in the north of Napa. Wineries with Calistoga in the name have three years to begin using grapes from Calistoga. [SF Chronicle]
SIPPED: lightening up
When you have a collection of 450,000 bottles, is it time to lighten up? If you’re the owners of the Tour d’Argent restaurant in Paris, the answer is yes to the tune of 18,000 bottles, including some 18th century cognac and Corton from 1895. The auction today and tomorrow is estimated fetch about $2 million, which will aid the restaurant’s bottom line as it feels the tourist slowdown. Apparently, during the occupation, the owners built a fake wall in the cellar to prevent the Nazis from finding some 20,000 bottles. NYT, Telegraph]
SIPPED: Craggy Range
I participated in a kiwi Pinot showdown over at Forbes.com Tower. Eric Arnold has the story.
SIPPED: Green certification
A national certification program on various environmental factors have been launched for Australian wine. Quotage from Stephen Strachan from the Winemakers Federation: “The retailers more and more are requiring the companies that are selling to them to be able to come to them with certain proof in terms of their environmental credentials.” [ABC, WFA]
William I. Koch, the billionaire wine collector at the heart of the story The Billionaire’s Vinegar (buy on amazon), has taken yet more legal action in the world of fine wine. In an extensive complaint lodged in Los Angeles court last week, Koch makes some significant allegations. The complaint is available here as pdf and it makes for great reading. In the name of fairness and balance, these are simply allegations and it will be interesting to see how it all plays out. Whether or not you are into the fine and collectible wine market, these are fascinating developments as the cast of characters expands beyond those in The Billionaire’s Vinegar.
Koch alleges that five bottles he purchased through Acker Merrall & Condit were fake. The bottles were: 1947 Château Pétrus, a bottle of 1945 Comte Georges de Vogüé Musigny Cuvée Vielles Vignes, 1949 Lafleur, and two bottles of 1934 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Koch paid Acker $77,925 for the five bottles, purchased through private sales and auctions. He now claims they all came from Kurianwan but that source was not stated at the time of purchase.
Koch maintains that Kurniawan was the source of two Acker auctions in 2006 hailed only as from “THE cellar.” The two auctions grossed over $35 million. The complaint points to this LA Times profile of Kurniawan, which describes his preferred wardrobe is jeans and gray tshrits but that he has a Bentely and a Ferrari. The article also says that he got into wine only in the year 2000 but had already amassed a cellar of 50,000 bottles and that, “Since he started buying, prices for rare wine have skyrocketed.”
In reference to the two 2006 auctions, the filing says, “Buying and selling the same wine at the same time could also be an effort to manipulate wine prices, a scheme to pump up the price and then dump wine into the inflated market.”
Koch’s filing also states that Kurniawan owed Acker and Acker clients $10.4 million as of a November 2008 court proceeding. Acker accepted fine art and wine as collateral. Emigrant Bank also lent Kurniawan $3 million, according to the filing, and sued Kurniawan to get it back.
The filing also elaborates on sales of magnums of 1982 Le Pin and 122 bottles of red Burgundy from Domaine Ponsot. However, both sets of wines were withdrawn after winery principals raised doubts about the authenticity of the wines. Jancis Robinson has since called Laurent Ponsot “Burgundy’s Sherlock Holmes.” But where Kruniawan got those bottles remains unknown.
And to think that the movie rights for The Bilionaire’s Vinegar have already been sold! Looks like they’d better get working on the sequel already…
One thing we’ve learned the past few weeks is that markets love a good bottom. As the stock market has bounced off a low on March 9, the financial news is full of bottom talk–”the bottom is in,” cried euphoric trader! “Baby’s got back,” shouted another! (Oh, wait, that wasn’t from the trading pits.)
The wine auction market followed other asset prices in a sharp descent over the past six months. The theory that wine was a different type of asset class, immune from corrections, has suffered.
But in three auctions last weekend, the market showed signs of stabilizing. In Chicago, Hart Davis Hart sold 100% of lots for $2.2 million, toward the high end of estimates. In New York, Christie’s sold 95% of lots for an aggregate of $1.27 million. In Hong Kong, Acker Merrall boasted over 95% of lots sold for $4.36 million gross. Press releases for all three talked about how “it seems the wine market has sprung to life” (Christie’s), how it “sizzled” (Acker), and “it’s been a long
time since I’ve seen such spirited competition as we saw today” (Hart Davis Hart).
In my casual observation of a catalog, it seemed to me that the estimates were priced according to the recent sell-off, that is to say, lower. I even submitted a couple of low-ball bids, below the low estimates, and was not successful.
So has the wine auction market touched bottom? While it was the first place to pick up deals in the fall as the economy took a nose dive, it seems to be perking up now. But is this a false dawn? My guess is that it pretty much follows the equities markets and the macroeconomy.
“I guarantee you all these prices will be significantly higher this time next year,” John Kapon, president and auctioneer at Acker, Merrall is reported to have said between bids at an auction last December. The buyers who paid $8,000 for six bottles of the ’61 Dom Perignon and $22,000 of for eight bottles of the ’66 Cristal might be wondering if that was a money-back guarantee.
Prices of all kinds of assets have declined precipitously since last December. Wine appeared somewhat immune as recently as September but evidence is now emerging that prices for collectible wines are entering a correction after many years of strong growth. The Liv-ex 100 Fine Wine Index fell 12.4 percent in October.
A close observer of auctions told me yesterday that two recent sales only sold 35 and 43 percent of lots. And some lots are going for well below the low price estimate. At another auction, someone else told me that a case of 1998 Grand Cru Chablis sold for $60. Even though there’s a risk of premature oxidation with that wine, $5 a bottle certainly seems like it’s worth a flier. Such a low selling price indicates that there was no reserve.
While many shops may have locked in higher costs, making them unwilling or unable to discount, some specialty shops do broker private collections too and can have faster turnarounds than auction houses. Provenance is always an issue with mature wine, so feel free to ask where the wines came from.
But some sellers at auction may be eager to liquidate making the secondary market may be the best place for wine deals this fall. Of course, if the global economic malaise continues into next year or beyond, declines in fine wine prices could continue. So you may not want to step in and catch too many falling magnums.
Some upcoming auctions: Zachys, Nov 6-8; Acker, Merrall Nov 7; Christie’s Nov 17 and 21; Sotheby’s Nov 22; Hart Davis Hart Dec 5.
Master of Wine Charles Curtis joined Christie’s auction house this summer as head of the Wine Department in North America. Trained as a chef, he entered the wine trade in 1994 and most recently was with LVMH. I caught up with him via email.
Christie’s Wine Department had $71 million in sales worldwide last year, the bulk coming in Europe. On November 29, they will resume live auctions in Hong Kong. For the complete calendar, see the Christie’s Wine Department web site.
1. How is the financial turmoil affecting the fine wine market?
Like all industry leaders, Christie’s is watchful of the unfolding situation in the financial markets, Read more…
The wine of the moment, everyone agrees, is 1982 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild. Jamie Ritchie, Sotheby’s North American wine department head, observes that “it now regularly brings $25,000 to $30,000 a case. The rise shows the strength of Asian buyers.” Last year you could have purchased a case for only $11,000. [Bloomberg]
Will 2008 be kind to the wine auction market? Have your say in the latest poll! (Check prices for a bottle of Lafite 1982 at retailers)
poll now closed
The pace of events in the best wine story of the year has just quickened. Earlier in the year, the Wall Street Journal had a page one story revealing the billionaire Bill Koch had assembled evidence of fraud in the auction market and was preparing to turn it over to the FBI. The New Yorker followed with a fascinating story of “The Jefferson Bottles,” which laid out even more details about the story, which included such characters as Koch, described as a billionaire sheriff trying to right wrongs, an elder statesman in the world of auctions who was either culpable or gullible, and a fraudster named Hardy Rodenstock who was known fro throwing elaborate parties and perhaps being a superb blender of old wines into fraudulent bottles.
Now, the WSJ goes back to the well and reported on p. A16 on yesterday that Bill Koch has sued Zachys and collector Eric Greenberg in federal court in New York. Koch bought $3.7 million from a Zachys auction on October 28, 2005 that was sourced to Greenberg’s cellar and now alleges that 11 of those bottles were fakes. Zachys declined to comment and Greenberg’s attorney called the allegations “absolutely false.”
But now Howard “wine under $20″ Goldberg rides in with the revelation on Decanter.com that it was Eric Greenberg’s cellar that was auctioned this past weekend by Acker, Merrall. Acker had previously not named the collector who was selling, instead referring to it as “the man with the golden cellar.” It fetched $15.6 million including commissions.