Reflections on 20 Years

July 1, 2009 by Mannie Berk

Yesterday, we celebrated our 20th anniversary as a company. Two decades ago to the day, on June 30, 1989, we adopted our articles of incorporation (to “purchase, import and sell fine old wine”) and started the process of obtaining a Federal import permit, which was approved that fall.

We began with a very large stock of old Madeira I'd found the year before in London, along with far smaller lots of old Burgundies, Champagne, Bordeaux, Rhones, Port, Barolo and Barbaresco, Riojas, and Tokaji.

To look back at our early offers can be either entertaining or depressing, depending on your point of view: 1982 Cheval Blanc $105; 1947 Cheval Blanc (Belgian bottled) $295; 1971 Krug $92.50; 1973 Salon $75; 1959 Krug halves $40; 1969 Bollinger $59; 1978 Leflaive Bâtard Montrachet $135; 1983 Coche-Dury Meursault-Perrières $89; 1985 Sassicaia $59.95; 1978 Ch. Rayas $110; 1990 Chave Hermitage $47.50; 1845 Cossart-Gordon Centenary Bual Solera $65; and 1827 Quinta do Serrado Bual $159.

Frankly, I had no idea what we would become, or, for that matter, what the wine business would become. The fine wine business in this country was still in its infancy, having been transformed over the previous six years by Robert Parker's backing of the 1982 Bordeaux, in defiance of the critical establishment. Parker encouraged his readers to invest heavily, earning fortunes for the bravest and, for himself, laying the foundation for an empire. But more importantly, he planted the seed for an important idea: that a wine purchase could be collateralized by a rating. And so began a bull market in wine that lasted, virtually without interruption, for 25 years.

But in 1989, none of us really knew that something big was happening. There wasn't the kind of wealth in this country that there is now, and the 1987 stock market crash was a fresh reminder of our economic vulnerability. Wine was hardly mainstream in America; most of us thought of it as something that Europeans drank. The Internet, email and Screaming Eagle didn't exist. Commercial wine auctions in New York were illegal. In Asia, only the Japanese bought wineand much of this was for business gifts. Only the British were really serious about aging Champagne. The Wine Spectator was getting used to its new glossy magazine look, having just dumped its original tabloid newspaper format. And the wine business, in both structure and size, was nothing like what we know today.

Like any other wine business that has thrived throughout this period, The Rare Wine Co. has changed quite a bit over the years. For one thing, we soon realized that old wine was too limitingthere just wasn't enough of it around to sustain our growing enterpriseand so we began to add young wines to our offerings. We never wavered, however, in our belief that the true greatness in wine is revealed only with time. In 1995, we began to import Tuscan olive oil and traditional balsamic vinegar. And at about the same time, some of the world's finest small wine producers began to entrust their representation to us. Today, we are honored to be associated, as duly appointed agent, with such illustrious producers as Alvaro Palacios, Pingus, Rene Rostaing, Jacques Selosse, Giacomo Conterno, and Giuseppe Mascarello. That these important winemakers would put such trust in us has, of course, been enormously gratifying. Equally rewarding has been the recognition of the press and our peers who, through their votes and nominations, have acknowledged our ongoing contributions to the wine trade. But what matters to us most is the appreciation of our customers, who we can only hope value not only our philosophy of wine, but our standards of doing business.

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