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Antoine's 1940 Wine List, 70 Years and 40,000% Inflation Later

Antoines By Robert Haas

While researching another subject on the web recently I came across this article by Jean-Luc Le Dû in the May 8th 2008 New York Times in which he writes about discovering Antoine’s (New Orleans) Restaurant’s remarkable hundredth anniversary 1940 wine list.  You can also access the list (in PDF format) directly.
I was in New Orleans at the beginning of the April.  I had the opportunity to host a delicious Tablas Creek wine dinner at Le Meritage in the Maison Dupuy Hotel and enjoyed two other excellent restaurant meals: lunch at Commander’s Palace and dinner at August.  The city has always had a fine reputation for good dining.  Since Katrina it has been rebuilding and rekindling that reputation.  Both the traditional Creole cuisine of Commander’s Palace and the contemporary French dishes at August – as well as the good, attentive service – testify to its successful comeback.   Good wine lists go with good food and it was no surprise that all three restaurants that I had the chance to visit had excellent ones.

But, of course, wine lists like this Antoine’s anniversary list are a treasure in any era.  In it can be found fanciful maps, a vintage chart and educational commentary on each wine region.  The list comprises 23 pages.  A list like this one is a great historical reference that documents the changes in wine popularity and tastes (and availability) in the United States since the Second World War, and above all, the prices.

Bordeaux vintages go back to an 1893 Château La Mission Haut-Brion and Burgundy to an 1884 Musigny.  The Rhônes include a 1929 Hermitage La Chapelle and a 1937 Château Fortia Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  The Loire and Alsace are nominally covered.  There are three pages of German wines going back to a 1920 Bernkasteler Doctor.  It appears that the war in Europe had not yet affected availability.  The list’s preponderance of estate-bottled offerings – rare in the day – is due largely to Frank Schoonmaker and his French and German brokers, Raymond Baudouin (France), Otto Dunweg (Mosel) and Hans-Joseph Becker (Rhine).   

In the first half of the twentieth century, wines from France and Germany dominated the fine wine market.  As evidence, the list has only token representation of wines from Spain (two Riojas), Italy (three Chiantis and one Barolo), and America (three red and four white listings, all supplied by Schoonmaker).  I was only thirteen at the time of this list, but as I was reading it last week and seeing its makeup it felt strangely connected and contemporary.  I knew most of the proprietors and dealt with many of them.  Baudouin, whom I met ten years later, was also buying for Lehmann when I arrived.  He died in 1953 and I became the French buyer.  I met both Dunweg and Becker in subsequent trips to Germany with Schoonmaker in 1955.

The most expensive wine on the list is the 1929 Domaine de la Romanée Conti at $20.00.  The 1929 Château Margaux, a first growth Bordeaux from a great vintage, was $4.75.  The top German wines were relatively expensive, comparable to the most expensive French wines.  And Rhône grands crûs like the 1937 Château Fortia  Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Hermitage la Chapelle were $3.25 and $3.00 respectively, much closer in price to their Bordeaux and Burgundy equivalents than today.  The California cabernet, Inglenook, sold for $1.50.

S. Morgan Friedman’s inflation calculator reports that there has been a fifteen fold general inflation increase in the United States since 1940.  Multiplying the listed prices by fifteen reveals by how much the increase in wine prices – at least for collectible wines – has outpaced inflation.  Fifteen times the $4.75 price of 1929 Château Margaux equals $71.25.  A current vintage of Margaux from a good year like 2000 on Restaurant Daniel’s New York wine list (PDF) is $2000, or 42,105% increase.  If you want a 1961, perhaps the equivalent quality vintage, it would be $4350, a 90,526% increase.  1929 Romanée Conti was $20.00.  Daniel has the 1999 vintage at $8000, an increase of only 40,000% – a bargain!

When I arrived at the scene at M. Lehmann, Inc. in New York in1950 prices were still very depressed.  A page from the Lehmann March sale in 1950 shows first growth Bordeaux available around $4.00 per bottle.  And the next two decades saw only moderate inflation at the upper end of the wine market.  But since the mid-1970’s, prices have risen dramatically.   Will collectible wine price increases moderate to be closer to inflation or will demand for fine wines continue to drive prices up?  Recent evidence of the relative quality of wine investments even in the recent period of recession suggests so.  Keep tuned.