Webster’s Dictionary defines provenance as:
- Origin, source
- The history of ownership of a valued object, work of art or literature.
Provenance is also the most important word in the world of wine collecting. For years, there have been exciting bottles to emerge on the auction scene. From rare bottles of pre-Phylloxera Château Lafite and Château Latour to the much fabled (and controversial) ‘Jefferson Bottles’ to the even ‘newer’ 1920s Petrus, there seems to be an intriguing supply of mythic unearthings. There’s one problem that these wine pose, unknown or undocumented provenance.
As many wine enthusiasts are aware, the problem of unknown or questionable provenance has caused an influx of skepticism and lawsuits, most notably by billionaire William Koch. After Koch purchased bottles with questionable origins, he undertook a crusade against those who he felt wronged him. This crusade is two-parts noble, one-part unbridled vengeance (in my opinion); however it has led to collectors being far more careful about the wines they purchase at auction. With the days of the high-flying, reckless spending orgy that was the 1990s now long behind us, collectors are more astute, or at least more protective of the fortunes they’re doling out for wine.
Enter the 2011 Hong Kong auction season. Thus far this year, the Hong Kong market has doled out cash at an alarming rate for fine wines with nearly $35 million being sold at three auctions alone. Although this hyper-inflationary trend is alarming and befuddling, it also revealed a refreshing side effect of the Koch Crusade. At the Sotheby’s January 23rd auction, a consignment from the Bordeaux Winebank triggered record-breaking bids totaling $1.9 million. Why is this significant? Bordeaux Winebank is a consortium whose sole focus is on what they dub Five Star Provenance. Every lot from this firm has to meet the following strict guidelines:
* All wines are sold exclusively in original wooden case (OWC).
* All wines must have documented “ex château” provenance.
* All cases must remain in professional storage in Bordeaux since bottling.
* Professional storage facilities must be temperature and humidity controlled and monitored 24/7.
* Annual certification of procedures by a qualified auditor.
Yup, that’s five stars if you are doing the math and it adds up to no questions as to the authenticity of the wines they bring to the market. This is significant, especially in an era of increased awareness and skepticism towards rare or high-valued wines. Provenance is a concept that should not be lost on smaller collectors either. Demand that you know where and how your wines came from and ended up in your cellar, especially if you plan to resell or bring to auction at some point in the future.
One can only hope that the trend towards demanding impeccable provenance will continue to gain momentum to the point at which we can once-and-for-all bid farewell to the dishonest elements that have infiltrated history’s greatest drink.