"The Andrew Lloyd Webber Wine Collection will live on in the cellars and glasses of those who acquire these extraordinary wines."
--from Sotheby's catalog for the auction
I've always admired Andrew Lloyd Webber. Not so much for his music--though it will certainly outlast Philip Glass' and John Cage's nonsense--as for his extravagance. In a world in which billionaires who fly coach are praised for their virtue and entrepreneurs model Gap jeans to let us know that they are just folks, this Brit knows how to spend, buying paintings, houses, and wines with awe-inspiring wastefulness. Alas, he seems to have sobered up recently. He realized, he says in the auction catalog, that he will not be able to drink all that he has accumulated over the years, that he has been "hogging" too much wine. So he is sharing some of it with the world via auction. Doesn't it strike you as a little late in the day for Andrew Lloyd Webber to worry about being a hog? What next? Will he realize he can actually live in just two houses?
The auction, held May 20 and 21 in London, was a great success, bringing in more than $6 million for about 18,000 bottles of wine, $1.5 million above the highest estimate. More important, it has changed the world of wine, bringing to it what we could call the "celebrity premium." The point of buying wines at auction used to be that you could get them cheaper there than in stores. As with anything else on the block, you paid less because the stuff was secondhand, might have been moved around, might not have been well stored, etc. This was particularly true of the wine world, since it comprised, for the most part, knowledgeable buyers who scoured price sheets from all over the world. On May 20, however, you could have bought a case of magnums of Château Pichon-Lalande 1982 at a wine shop for around $3,200, or paid $8,000 for the same wine because it had been graced by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
With Pamela Harriman's chairs or Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' fake pearls, the buyer is at least purchasing an oddity, some object of decoration that gains the imprimatur of someone famous. You are buying, in effect, a famous, high-priced decorator. But most wines that are auctioned are available, with a little effort, at some wine store or other. As for taste, does anyone who collects wine need to be told that Château Lafite-Rothschild 1982 is well regarded?
Sotheby's catalog for the sale is filled with purple descriptions and photographs of the cellars of Sydmonton Court, the country house of Lord Lloyd Webber (a tongue twister if there ever was one--try saying it after a couple of glasses of wine!). I compared it with another catalog, that of Pop's. Pop's is a wine shop in Island Park, N.Y., that puts out a poorly printed price list on cheap paper. But the store sells Château Mouton-Rothschild 1982 for $4,811 a case. You could have snatched it up at the auction for $9,600. For a more recent year, 1990, you can get Château Latour at $5,340 a case at Pop's--or have paid $6,688 at the auction. Even the elusive Château d'Yquem can be had at Pop's for less money ($2,119 for the 1989 vs. $2,640 from Lord L.W.).
To get perhaps the best example of the celebrity price premium, look at a wine produced in massive quantities, easily available all over the world, like non-vintage champagne--say, Louis Roederer Brut. It sells for less than $300 a case (or about $25 a bottle) in a wine shop in the United States. Ordinarily if you bought a wine like that at auction you would get a significant discount, since you can walk into any store and get the very same thing brand new. It sold for $350 a case at the auction.
One buyer knew what he was doing. Barrie Larvin, master sommelier of the Rio Group of Hotels in Las Vegas, flew to London and bought the "Millennium Super Lot"--a collection of 265 bottles, 77 magnums, and some even larger bottles of truly rare wine--for $396,920. But he will make all that back and more. "We'll market this wine using Andrew Lloyd Webber's name," explained Larvin. "We have already written a wine list based on [the] sale." You can see it all. You go to the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas, sit down in the restaurant, open the wine list, and there it is, boxed in bold: "The Andrew Lloyd Webber Wine Collection. You've seen his shows, now drink his wine!" Larvin, who in a previous life must have sold pieces of the True Cross, went even further. "We'll sell the boxes. We'll even sell the empty bottles."
Perhaps next year we will see a new catalog from Sotheby's. "Over the years, Andrew Lloyd Webber has bought much more mustard than he could possibly eat. He has been hogging his Grey Poupon ..."