Wine Is a Terrible Investment Because It’s Never Really Liquid

Felix Salmon Wine Is a Terrible Investment Because It’s Never Really Liquid

4 minute Read

There’s nothing quite as bittersweet as drinking a wine, loving it, and then, over the subsequent years, seeing that wine get more and more expensive, to the point at which you simply can’t afford it anymore.

On the one hand, you’re happy to have had the opportunity to drink the wine when it was still within your price range. You’re also happy for the winemaker, who is presumably finally being rewarded for her skill and hard work. On the other hand, you’re sad that you’re never again going to be able to drink that spectacular wine without having to pay through the nose for the privilege.

When normal people have this kind of experience, they tend to take it as a challenge. After all, if you found a wonderful, underpriced wine once, then surely you can do it again. There are thousands of amazing winemakers out there, from dozens of countries. Seeking them out can be lots of fun. Once you’ve found them, you can enjoy their wine for years, and if they eventually start becoming too expensive, then, well, you just repeat the process. It’s no great hardship.

Some folks, however, react with regret. They think that they should have bought even more of the wine that they loved, not drunk it, and then made lots of money when it went up in value. Just think of what they could do with the profits!

Meanwhile, other people just have a bit of excess cash to put to use, and want to invest in things other than the stock market. They look at the Liv-Ex indices, which show how the value of wine has been going up, and they decide that wine is surely the greatest of investments: either it rises in value, in which case you make money, or else it falls in value, in which case you can drink it. Win-win!

Those folks — all the people who think that wine can be an investment —- are crazy. Don’t listen to them. It isn’t, and it shouldn’t be.

To see why it isn’t, take a second look at that fabulous wine that is now out of financial reach. Ask yourself: How many other wines did you drink that year that were equally fabulous? How many of them ended up going up in value? Not (m)any.

The point is, everybody is a genius with hindsight. With wine, just as with any other asset class, it’s impossible to know in advance what’s going to go up and what isn’t.

The Liv-Ex indices solve that problem by saying, O.K., let’s buy a basket of the best “investment-grade” wines, and then hold on to that. But by definition, those wines are the most expensive in the world, often costing thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars per bottle. If you can afford to buy that kind of wine as an investment, then you’re in the price-is-no-object economic stratosphere already, and you have no need to make money on wine.

Not that you ever will make money on wine. For starters, wine is what’s known as a “SWAG” asset — an acronym that stands for “silver, wine, art, gold.” SWAG assets pay no dividends and have no intrinsic value. (You can probably add bitcoin to the list, too.)

Holding onto wine costs money. You need to store it, and probably insure it, too. Because they don’t provide any cash flow, SWAG assets are always bad long-term investments. If you hold a stock for a year, you end up with the stock you started with plus a dividend; whereas if you hold a painting or a bottle of wine for a year, you’re just out insurance and storage costs.

This is also why you should ignore the kind of people who take art or wine indices, or even silver or gold  prices, and compare them to the S&P 500 or some other stock-market index. The stock-market index just shows you the price of the stock; it doesn’t show you the value of all those dividends. And if you reinvest dividends, you can end up doubling your money compared to just looking at the stock price.

On top of that, the era of wine getting better with age is pretty much over. Decades ago, it was commonplace to buy a few cases of a young wine and “lay it down” to age for many years while you drank the wine you laid down many years ago. The wine was designed to be aged, which is to say, it was designed to be sold to people with substantial wine cellars.

Gloriously, those days are over. Wine is much more democratic now, which means it’s made to be drunk when sold. Agricultural science has improved to the point at which winemakers no longer need to send product out into the world that is tight and flavorless, so they don’t.

While wine certainly still evolves over time, and aged wine can be interestingly different from young wine, it’s no longer the case that wine undeniably improves over time. Some people like old wines; most people are happy to drink wine the way it’s made to be drunk, which is shortly after it’s bottled.

The result is that old wines have become a niche taste. Few people drink them, which means they’re hard to buy, and even harder to sell. If you look very far and very wide, you can find prices. But those, at least for wines outside the top 0.01 percent, are mostly indicative, and don’t tend to reflect much in the way of actual commerce.

Which is, ultimately, the main reason that wine is not an investment: You can’t sell it. Has the wine been sitting in your own personal cellar, rather than in a professionally run operation with detailed records and expensive climate control? You can’t sell it. Do you want to sell less than $50,000 of wine at once? You can’t sell it. Are you trying to sell wine that isn’t in that top 0.01 percent of Grand Cru Bordeaux or the occasional bottle of Screaming Eagle? You can’t sell it. Do you honestly think you can just walk up to Christie’s and persuade them to sell your precious bottle of Clos Rougeard? Take it from me: You can’t sell it.

So next time you see an expensive bottle of wine and think to yourself that maybe wine might be a good investment after all, just approach the seller and ask them how much they would pay, were you to offer them a bottle from the same producer and of the same vintage. That should suffice to put you off the idea once and for all.

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