Shorts are what I used to have to wear to school. Long trousers were a sign of maturity, not quite adulthood, but a sign that you could at least aspire to be a grown up one day. Until the day you could ditch the cap and the shorts (and this is state C of E in Sydenham, not some grand-a-week prep in Berkshire: times have changed) you were well and truly a child. It was a big day: up there with driving tests, first taste of heavy petting, etc, etc.
The world of finance has so dominated the media over the past couple of years that when one hears the word “short” one doesn’t think of one’s schooldays anymore, or at least not me. I think of guys younger than me, with some sort of synthetic alchemy trick. Some guys making money out of nowhere, making gold from lead. It sounds like a nice deal but, if there isn’t something slightly dirty about it, there’s certainly something that doesn’t ring true. There’s something not quite right: the profits are a bit like a stolen Porsche: looks nice, fast, but at the back of your mind it feels like it could be a cut and shut.
This week a case of 2009 Ch. Lafite-Rothschild traded on Liv-ex for £10,000. The price is unremarkable, indeed I think it’s about right, but what is a little odd is that the chateau have not as yet released this wine for sale. Whoever sold this wine shorted it: they sold something that they didn’t have. This is real speculation, this is as pure as the wine itself.
Old boy merchants, some negociants, some journos, in short: the usual suspects, will be condemning this from the off, and perhaps rightly so. A case of Lafite, even though most cases of Lafite these days are owned by speculators, is a case of wine. Its intrinsic quality is pleasure, not money. We can live with the investors (indeed a few merchants couldn’t live without them) and we can live with consumers in the Far East pushing the prices of the wines we could once afford, but this is a Rubicon moment. This one case of Lafite (and I would love to know just where this EXACT case ends up, I’d love just to touch it one day) has broken the barrier, or at least a barrier. The wealthy have been investing in claret for years; now we’re doing it properly.
I’ve been selling “investment grade” wine for more than a decade. On the whole it’s done well and I have some happy customers, many of whom I’ve converted to the genuine pleasure of what they’ve bought, as well as the pleasure of a chunky cheque. And, until a few years ago, it was all a bit of a laugh. Owning ten grand’s worth of Mouton-Rothschild is much more fun than owning the same in M&S shares, and learning about your Mouton is much more interesting. But now, now we’re serious, now we’re real.
Is this the Brave New World? Or is this tulip mania? The Emperor’s new clothes? I’m not sure. So here’s this: 2009 Lafite reminded me of the 1996. A nose so powerful it felt like something physical, maybe a pencil, being inserted into my nose. Impossibly complex, impossibly fresh. A real legend. It didn’t have me considering my place in the universe in the same way that Latour did but I was moved, which is what these wines should do. I can simplify this with a number, like Robert Parker, and say this has 98-100 Fowler points. Or, I can simplify it like Liv-ex, and say: £10,000. But simplification isn’t what this is about – beauty is what it’s about.
The more a product is traded the more honest the price becomes. I understand that. What upsets is that a product of such beauty can be summarised by a price before it’s even been sold.
A final point: this is naked short selling. You could get some of the wine trade into that very quickly just on account of how it sounds.