(Bloomberg News) A waiter is pouring generous rations of wine in the private dining salon of Chateau Margaux on the left bank of the Gironde estuary in southwestern France. Baccarat crystal schooners are filled to the brim with one of the world's rarest liquid investments. The costly history of downing Chateau Margaux unfolds.
"Richard the Lionheart would drink anything from our vineyard," says Corinne Mentzelopoulos, proprietor of Chateau Margaux and custodian of the 80 hectare Bordeaux vineyard's luxury lore. "Friedrich Engels preferred the 1848 Chateau Margaux. Engels was pretty bloody bourgeois," she adds with a grin, a question and a raised glass. "An endorsement from Engels. I wonder what the Marxists will make of that?"
The answer hinges on whether thirsty disciples of "Das Kapital" can afford Chateau Margaux prices that range from $225 to $2,400 a bottle. Credit Suisse's 2010 Global Wealth Report suggests the workers of the world won't anytime soon be uniting over a $29,000 case of 1990 Chateau Margaux.
According to the bank's calculations, there are 81,000 people globally with net assets in excess of $50 million and 2,800 with more than $500 million on tap. As for billionaires, Credit Suisse figures a mere 1,000 folks have the capital required to saute their shallots with Chateau Margaux.
"You can't fight against the market," Mentzelopoulos laments, holding a decanter of her 1989 vintage against the sunlight. "The price is a sign of trust in Chateau Margaux, though anyone who's speculating and not drinking this is kidding themselves. I'd like to think that there are a good number of winos among Chateau Margaux investors."
The market cautions sobriety. Chateau Margaux "fell from grace" in the 1960s and 1970s, when lack of investment and the oil crisis hit the Bordeaux market, says Peter Lunzer, director of London-based Lunzer Wine Investments. "As a first growth, it fell the most, and had the most recovery to do," he says.
While Chateau Margaux vintages improved from 1978, the year after the Mentzelopoulos family bought the rundown estate, it took a decade for the market to fully reflect the family's dreams. "1990 was the watershed because that was when they achieved global recognition," Lunzer says.
The 1990 vintage now rates among Chateau Margaux's top four of the past quarter century, listed on the London-based Liv-ex wine market at $14,900 a case, or slightly more than $1,200 a bottle. Awarded a perfect 100 points by Wine Advocate founder Robert Parker, it rose as high as 13,800 pounds ($29,012) a case at a Sotheby's (BID) London sale in November 2007.
In the wake of the September 2008 bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. and the ensuing financial crisis, Chateau Margaux 1990 last October still achieved $25,000 a case at a Sotheby's Hong Kong sale, a sign that the market has recouped most of the losses.
"I hope Robert Parker lives for a very long time," Mentzelopoulos says.