US merchants: we'll buy, but not at any price

  • Friday 23 April 2010

The attitude of the US Bordeaux merchants is an odd mixture of defensiveness and truculence, with little consensus on what consumers’ buying patterns will look like.

On the one hand there is a definite feeling that they want to buy this vintage – and will snap up the first tranche of First Growths at almost any price.

But at the same time they are keen to send out warnings that Bordeaux has to work hard to woo back US buyers after several disastrously-priced vintages.

Premier Cru in Emeryville, California, receives calls every day for First Growth reservations.

Its owner John Fox expects high prices because ‘the vintage has been hyped up so much that, historically, the chateaux take advantage of that. I feel bad that the chateaux are going to do what they are going to do, but that is the reality of the market.’

Fox expects to sell a certain amount of first tranche wines ‘at almost any price - we have a certain group of customers who would buy at the opening tranche price whatever it may be.’

After that, he added, with price rises with each subsequent tranche, ’it would require a lot more thinking’.

Simon Lambert of the Chicago Wine Company has the same attitude, refusing to name a ‘threshold price’.

'We are not ready to spend an unlimited amount. I am not going to announce [my threshhold price]. I do not want to give them [the Bordeaux negociants] an opportunity to think that they can get away with more than they can.’

Others are resigned to stratospheric prices. ‘When it comes to big vintages anything is possible,’ said Shaun Bishop of JJ Buckley in California.

‘You can never say never. What you actually thought could not happen, might happen,’ he said, but added that the economic climate in 2010 is very different to that of 2006 when the 2005 prices came out – ‘the last time Bordeaux futures generated such excitement in the United States’.

In the current climate, ‘Restaurants are not buying like they used to and the general health of the wine buying segment is not the same,’ Bishop said.

There is by no means consensus on what consumers are interested in this year. If merchants think the First Growths will be snapped up, others are less sanguine.

Mark Wessels of MacArthur Liqueurs in Washington DC, said his clients would be ‘very sensitive’ to pricing and he sees less demand for First Growths and other top wines.

‘Customers will not choose wines like Angélus, Léoville Las Cases and Palmer' which were among the most expensive non-First Growths from the 2005 campaign.

‘They will buy the best wines at the best prices. Money no longer grows on trees.’

And then there is the inevitable warning note, struck by Simon Lambert.

‘Bordeaux proprietors have to consider that they lost a lot of following with US consumers over the last couple of vintages. Whether that has a bearing on prices, I don’t know, but it would be great if they won a few friends again.’

A fuller version of this article can be found in the June issue of Decanter magazine, with 20 pages of Bordeaux 2009 coverage. Subscribe now for up to 30% savings

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