Monday, May 26, 2008

The Rising Dragon & Wine

Top U.S. seller gears up for Asia's largest wine auction

HONG KONG (Reuters) - America's top wine seller will host Asia's largest ever auction of fine wines in Hong Kong this week, betting on Chinese consumers developing a finer nose for the beverage as the territory aspires to become a global industry hub.

Acker Merrall & Condit's inaugural auction of fine and rare wines in Hong Kong comes months after the city abolished duties on the drink in a bid to uncork some $500 million of new business, particularly with the city poised to tap the potential of the huge China market as a flood of newly minted consumers there chase Western lifestyle trends.

"We really made an effort to cull some of the best wines from the best sellers that we know," said John Kapon, the President and Auction Director of Acker Merrall & Condit.

"Hopefully China will become a little more wine friendly and follow the lead of the Hong Kong government ... perhaps make it easier for some of the mainlanders to acquire (and) import their wines back to mainland China," Kapon told reporters in Hong Kong.

The estimated $6 million sale will feature top vintages including a case of 1990 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, often considered the world's most expensive wine, which could fetch up to $240,000.

Other top lots include a case of 1945 Chateau Mouton Rothschild which could sell for $160,000 and a single large Jeroboam of 1961 Chateau Latour estimated at up to $50,000.

Most of the over 200 registered buyers at the sale hail from Hong Kong, Macau and mainland China.

Over the years, a small clique of affluent so called "super-collectors" in Hong Kong has established a reputation for seemingly limitless spending on some of the best vintages coming onto the market each year, outbidding other global connoisseurs.

Top American wine critic James Suckling, who writes for the respected Wine Spectator magazine, has described bacchanalian jaunts with such Hong Kong collectors including tycoons and the territory's number two official, Henry Tang.

"The profile of our Asian customers so far and their purchasing habit have been very top end ... the best of the best of the best," said Kapon.

Bonhams hosted a small but symbolic auction in Hong Kong last month worth $1.5 million, the first in the city in over a decade and the first since wine duties were abolished. Global auction houses Christie's and Sotheby's are also reported to be considering getting in on the act.

Industry representatives say the slashing of Hong Kong's 40 percent duty on wine will give it an edge over rivals such as Tokyo and Singapore.

(Reporting by James Pomfret; Editing by David Fox)