A very liquid asset

Caitlan Reeg Jul 11, 2008

A very liquid asset

Caitlan Reeg Jul 11, 2008


Tess Vigeland: Buying and selling on the commodities market usually involves, say, bushels of wheat or pork bellies or corn futures.

Well, there’s another commodity traders are lapping up these days and the potential for profits is intoxicating.

With the caveat that we do not necessarily advocate speculation in this kind of market, Caitlan Carroll has a story on wine futures.

Caitlan Carroll: Hi!

Chris Insley: Hello, you’re Caitlan?

Carroll: Yes.

Insley: Hi, I’m Chris.

Carroll: Chris Insley opens the door to his sunny home just a few miles from the beach in Southern California. He walks me back to the garage where he stores some of his “investments.”

Insley: This is the cabinet. You can hear the chiller is running on it…

In a cabinet stocked floor to ceiling are bottles upon bottles of wine.

Insley: This cabinet holds about 500 bottles and it’s a big mixture of wine here and it represents about 10 years or 12 years of purchases.

Insley has another 1,000 bottles stored at a nearby wine locker. He gingerly pulls out one of the most recent arrivals.

Insley: That is Chateau Malescot Saint Exupery, which that particular wine turned out to be a great investment grade wine. I got very lucky on that.

Lucky because that bottle sells today for about $180, but Insley locked in a price of $60 two years ago. How did he do it? He bought what’s called a wine future.

Tristen Beamon: It’s kind of like buying a bottle but you’re buying a ghost wine until it shows up.

That’s Tristen Beamon. He’s the General Manager of the Wine Exchange in Orange, California. Chateaus allow Beamon and other distributors to pre-order wine for customers before the wine has been bottled. The customers buy the wine from shops like the Wine Exchange and then wait for the arrival of the bottles — sometimes years later.

With futures, customers like Insley get in on the ground floor. The highly rated wines typically go up in price once they’re released to the public.

Beamon: We work with banks in Asia. I work with hedge funds here in the United States that buy wine as investments.

But you don’t need to be a hedge fund manager to get in on wine futures, says James Sokolin. Sokolin runs one of the largest rare wine shops in the U.S. He says to invest wisely, you need to know two things: how a wine is rated by the top critics and its potential to mature in the bottle.

James Sokolin: If you subscribe to robertparker.com, the winespectator.com, you basically have the trading tools, the wine investment tools, that all the pros like myself use. It’s the wine equivalent of a Bloomberg terminal.

Paul Hart oversees wine auctions for Hart Davis Hart. He’s says Bordeaux lots are selling fast and high at auctions this year, but he still advises caution.

Paul Hart: Just because it’s offered at future does not mean it’s going to increase wildly in value. It’s a careful buying game.

Insley: This is a wine I just recently obtained.

Investor Chris Insley uses his skills as an IT manager to meticulously log when and where he buys his wines on an Excel spreadsheet. He also pays $1.25 per bottle to store them in a climate-controlled facility.

Insley: It’s a lot of work and a lot of logistics. It’s not simple — like a lot of things right? Stocks are the same.

Except most stock portfolio managers would kill for Insley’s track record. He invested $35,000 in his wine collection. And now?

Insley: It’s probably more than doubled if I was to just liquidate it all right now, I’d probably cash out about… I’d probably double my money.

But not every bottle is a blue chip. Insley pops open one of his Bordeaux. It’s a 2000 vintage. He says it’s aged well, but has not appreciated much in price.

Insley: It needs to breath a tiny bit…

Insley sticks his nose deep into the glass.

Insley: That’s pretty wine. Very pretty wine.

Carroll: You can’t do this to a stock.

Insley: That’s correct.

Liquidating a share of Berkshire Hathaway will never taste this good.

In Los Angeles, I’m Caitlan Carroll for Marketplace Money.

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