Buy Low, Drink High: How To Invest In Wine
By Jean Sherman Chatzky

(MONEY Magazine) – I was recently shopping at Zachy's in Scarsdale, N.Y., the largest wine retailer on the East Coast, when there was a fuss behind the counter. The customer ahead of me, a salesperson quickly explained, had just "scored the Turley"--a bottle of Turley Old Vines Zinfandel, 1996.

I'm no expert, but the name rang a bell. According to Robert M. Parker Jr.--the only wine critic who seems to matter--Turley Cellars, a small Napa Valley winery, has produced "the most concentrated, powerful Zinfandels ever made."

So I asked the obvious question: "Got any more?"

The salesman looked up at me. Even Zachy's, he explained, gets only two cases a year. The store usually puts them away for its best customers, the 100-plus people who spend six figures each year, as well as--lucky me--anyone who asks for it by name.

Of course, I bought a bottle. Much to my surprise, it was only $27.99, just a bit over the list price of $20. "We take a pretty standard markup on these things, 33% to 50%," says Zachy's v.p. Jeff Zacharia. "Our prices only go way up when our costs go way up because we've repurchased a wine from someone's cellar." Still, that didn't stop two other salesmen from whispering in my ear, making sure I understood what a deal this was.

In fact, I didn't. Had I purchased a suitable Father's Day gift? Or might it pay someday for a chunk of my son's education? And is wine really something that individuals should be investing in at all?

Over the next two weeks, I canvassed winemakers, economists, stock analysts, writers, a wine professor at Cornell. At first, they all discouraged me from thinking of wine as an investment. But then, each one backed off and told a very consistent tale about which wines could be investment material.

There are surprisingly few. Blue-chip wines include topnotch Bordeaux (like Haut Brion), a few select Burgundies, vintage ports and a handful of California Chardonnays and Cabernets (like Opus One). Making money on these is a matter of buying early, holding as the supply is depleted (read: drunk) and then selling, often at auction. The market for these wines has been moving very much in sync with the Dow--rising steadily for the past few years, then falling. It has even fallen off a bit since the crisis in Asia.

And, yes, individuals can play in this market, but the experts stress that you have to do your homework: Read the Wine Spectator and Parker's newsletter, the Wine Advocate. Pore over auction results from houses like Sotheby's. And don't get adventurous. "There's no point to investing in wines that aren't highly rated," says Michael Davis, president of the Chicago auction house Davis & Co.

The bottle I purchased comes from one of California's newer cult wineries. Producers like Colgin and Screaming Eagle often make only several hundred cases per vintage, so their wines are hard to get. Most sell directly to mailing lists of hundreds of customers (with thousands on waiting lists).

Some of these wines will turn a tidy profit at auction right away. A 1996 Turley Hayne Zinfandel that sold originally for $40 now has an auction range of $125 to $150. Of course, there are no guarantees. Some big houses will accept only lots valued at more than $10,000 (though, an Internet upstart, will go as low as $200). To be accepted for auction, wine must have been properly stored, which can be costly. There's a hefty commission--13% to 27%--on each side of the sale. And there's the possibility the bubble may burst. Even Larry Turley says he thinks prices will "settle down when we have a correction in the stock market."

That's why many investors take a "buy low, drink high" approach. They buy carefully and early, sometimes through wine futures, sold before wines are released. They drink most of what they buy but figure if they sell a few bottles along the way, it's a bonus.

And there are other ways to play this market: wine stocks, for one. Analyst Jeanne Kraus of Van Kasper & Co. follows such wineries as Beringer and Robert Mondavi. She is bullish, long term, but holds a more cautious short-term outlook after a longer-than-usual rainy season. "These are agricultural stocks," she says. "People forget that."

As for me, I think I'll listen to the Wine Spectator's Jim Gordon, "With one bottle," he says, "you have to drink it."