The number of people with fine wine collections has soared in recent years. The birth of the wine investment market in the early 1990s and the emergence of canny buyers picking up Australian classic such as Penfolds Grange young and (relatively) cheaply to age and drink has seen collecting go from niche to widespread. As the market has grown so has the issue of where to store it. When collecting began back in Georgian England, subterranean cellars were the norm and storage wasn’t an issue. Today, however, cellars are a rarity and collectors need to look modern solutions to solve this modern problem.
One such solution is provided by Wine Ark, one of Australia’s leading wine storage companies. Established in 1999, Wine Ark stores over two million bottles of wine in 16 cellars across Australia, for clients in over 30 countries in state-of-the-art storage facilities. In a relatively short amount of time, Wine Ark have become an important part of the Australian fine wine landscape. So much so that Wine Ark’s list of the 50 most collectable wines in Australia, released every three years, has become a highly respected and sought-after guide to cellaring trends in Australia.
Wine Australia recently caught up with John Cuff, CEO of Wine Ark, to discuss the issue of fine wine storage, provenance and to address the elephant in the cellar, wine fraud.
W.A.: Why should you use a professional storage facility when you can get really good wine fridges?
Wine Ark: Good point – you need both! We recommend our storage clients have a small wine fridge at home to supplement their offsite storage to ensure the provenance is continued when the bottles are at home. It is too easy to bring that bottle of Penfolds Bin 60A home after it has been sleeping in 14°c for 10 years and leave it on the sideboard ‘till you get to it’. Regardless of size, people always run out of room in their wine cabinets and this can force them to ‘make room’ and drink wines too early. If you have off site storage and a cabinet at home, you can keep the long-term agers with Wine Ark and only have the wines that are ready to drink at home. It’s an effective way to prevent early enjoyment.
W.A.: Wine fraud is a big issue, especially following the Rudy Kurniwan and Hardy Rodenstock scandals, can you offer any advice/offer a provenance service for wine buyers?
Wine Ark: Wine fraud is a global issue and there are great steps that both wineries and third parties are putting into place both in the identification and prevention process. Many years ago, Wine Ark implemented our Provenance Program. It revolves around our back-vintage sales platform. When a newly released wine is received for a managed storage client, and the wine has been received directly from a winery or a trusted third-party retailer, it is of known origin and then selected to be part of the provenance program. All this happens back of house and the bottle isn’t physically marked. Each bottle has a unique ID and it is this ID that has the ‘provenance tick’. If this wine is ever listed for sale in our vintage wine room, it is automatically included in the provenance listings. That is, it is of perfect provenance and has been with us from receipt from the winery to the purchaser’s account or dinner table. Restaurants love this service, as it gives them the confidence to actively sell back-vintage wines to their patrons and add some history to their wine lists.
W.A.: Is storing wine professionally costly/is there a minimum number of cases and is it only for serious collectors and the trade?
Wine Ark: No, no minimum, just the one case to hold that one bottle if needed. People are regularly pleasantly surprised at the cost. You can store 12 bottles of wine, in prefect conditions, with online inventory, access to the vintage wine room and full replacement insurance for just the cost of a cup of coffee a month. I believe that everyone has 6 to 12 bottles that should not be at home. That special bottle you got you for your birthday or the bottle of vintage Champagne you received when the baby was born. For the cost of a cup of coffee a month you can prevent long-term disappointment.
W.A.: Professional wine storage has, historically at least, been dominated by the trade - are you seeing more private collectors deposit wine with you?
Wine Ark: It’s actually the opposite. Well over 95% of our clients nationally are private individuals; avid collectors of rare wines, young couples starting out and coming to our masterclasses and events to learn and start a collection or people downsizing from the long-term family home where they had a cellar. If anything, we are seeing a reduction in trade clients - especially restaurants - as they have a hard time justifying the capital expense in holding a large cellar. That’s also where our vintage wine room comes in, they don’t need to have a cellar. They can buy a handful of perfectly stored, aged wines to bolster their wine list 24/7, 365.
W.A.: Are you seeing any trends in the Australian wine that's being deposited with you? Is it still all Grange or are other fine Australian wines coming in?
Wine Ark: We are very fortunate that we have a managed cellar in most regional cities. We see exactly what comes through the doors. This is reflected in Wine Ark’s ‘Australia’s Most Collected Wine’, a list of the 50 most collectable wines, released every three years it has become the go-to guide on the subject and the results are a clear indication of trends when it comes to cellaring. In last year’s list, we saw new entries with Giaconda Chardonnay from Beechworth (up 32 places), Seppelt Chalambar Shiraz from Victoria (up 33 places) and Tyrrell's Vat 47 Chardonnay from the Hunter Valley (up 31 places). The big success story for the year was St Hallett, with their Blackwell Shiraz moving up 44 places from 86 to 41. 12 per cent of the list comprises first time entries. People are starting to move away from the old guard and engage with the new classic wines.
W.A.: Are you seeing a rise in the number of collectors who are looking to fine Australian wine as being of investment quality - perhaps storing it under bond the wine having been bought on release? The market for Australian fine has risen sharply - Grange is up nearly 14% in the last 2 years according to wine-searcher - do you see this as a growing sector?
Wine Ark: To be frank, we never use the words ‘investment’ and ‘wine’ in the same sentence. We don’t believe in it. As with any valuable and tradable commodity, there are people looking to make money from it. If you do wish to trade wine we are of the mindset of a self-perpetuating cellar. That is, for example, buying 12 of the same wine, store it, then when the market is thirsty for it you sell 6 to cover the initial cost of the 12. Then after a number of years, your cellar is working for you. You also don’t want to go buying wine styles you don’t like just to try and make money. Nothing would be worse than being stuck with an over-ripe Shiraz you can’t sell or drink. At least if you love the style, worse case is you drink it and enjoy with friends.
W.A.: China is obviously a massive and expanding market for Australian wine generally. Are you seeing more activity from Chinese collectors?
Wine Ark: We are seeing an increasing number of communications from abroad looking to acquire those classic Australian wines.
W.A.: How have the wine styles that customers are storing at Wine Ark evolved over the years?
Wine Ark: Clients have shifted from the classic big, masculine, heavy over-ripe wines that were the flavour of the month a few years ago thanks to American wine critics. From my experience, the Australian collector is becoming more discerning and trusting of their own palates. Historically, people may have just bought a wine because it received high points from critics, then it wasn’t to their liking when they opened it. Nowadays, people are going to more masterclasses, wine tastings and events where they can explore their palates and buy wines that appeal to their taste buds.
Change in the Cellar air
The Australian fine wine scene is flourishing - the success of firms such as Wine Ark shows says as much – and this is very much in-line with the general trend of premiumisation that has swept the industry over the past few years. The pursuit of excellence in viticulture, winemaking and the business of wine by the Australian wine community is starting to reap commercial benefits.
There’s a lot of guesswork but not a lot of real data around the area of what wine is cellared, for how long and what wine people actually like taking out of their cellars to drink. With the unique extent of its nationwide wine storage facilities, Wine Ark is in a unique position to fill in some of these gaps in our knowledge. When you see small production Australian wines like Lake’s Folly and Clonakilla claiming such a high place in this hierarchy it also makes you feel good – people are really getting the message!
Jeremy Oliver, wine writer and presenter
What’s fascinating is the changing nature of this market. Whilst traditional greats such as Penfolds Grange and Hill of Grace from the Henschke family continue to attract attention from collectors and investors, they are now being joined by Rockford Basket Press, Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier and Giaconda Chardonnay. Such flourishing diversity bodes well for the future of the sector and can only further burnish the reputation of Australian wine as a whole.
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