10 November 2021

Michael chats with… Mister Alberto Lee

Mr. Alberto Lee in the vines. "The Provenance", room auction December 5th 2021, Beau-Rivage Hotel Geneva

By Julie Carpentier

Julie Carpentier’s past is deeply rooted to the Loire valley. She has shown a remarkable understanding of native varietals together with an overall taste for exceptional and unique products…

Geneva, August 23rd 2021

Michael — Here we are in Geneva where you have been a member since day one. We are chatting over a good bottle of wine and tonight you have chosen a bottle of Richebourg 1991 from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Can you tell us why this specific bottle?

Alberto — I was looking through my cellar yesterday and this 1991 Richebourg stood out as a bottle that I would love to share with you tonight. As we all know, the weather from April to September 1991 was not conducive to the grapes’ growth. In such a complicated vintage, most people would just presumc every bottle to be of inferior quality. But Michael, we know for a fact that when it comes to wine, nothing is ever absolute. Many bottles and complicated vintages often reserve a surprise for the future. This Richebourg 1991 is a classic example of a difficult vintage revealing its potential, in this case after 30 years’ rest in the cellar of a member of the family of a renowned wine maker in France. What we are tasting tonight, 2 or 5 or 10 years would have a significant effect, also with whom we drink it and where it has been kept. I would emphasise the importance of the provenance of a bottle, especially for highly priced wines and complicated vintages such as the one we are drinking. So, this bottle of 1991 Richebourg I chose for its provenance and the element of surprise it is revealing tonight.

Michael — Why Domaine de la Romanée-Conti ? And in what way does this bottle reflect your passion for wine collecting?

Alberto — My wife and I have been following the saga of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti for a long time. We visited the domaine in 2015. It has an amazing history and tradition, almost 800 years ! I’m not trying to take away the significance and history of other domaines in Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhone or in other parts of the world, but the hundreds of years of effort put into the plots of vineyard in Domaine de la Romanée-Conti to produce one of the most sought-after liquids in the world is absolutely amazing from the perspective of an enthusiast and collector. I have collected a lot of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and I think one of its most treasured values is the very limited number of bottles it is able to produce each year, especially the larger formats. There will never be enough Domaine de la Romanée-Conti wine. Every single bottle that we drink means that one less bottle of that vintage exists. The sad fact of life today is that many people are drinking the wine before it has even matured. I was in a few resorts in Austria this summer and the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti wines were younger than 10 years old. We know that it takes 2030 years for a good wine to mature. For example, it took about 30 years for us to appreciate this Richebourg 1991 that we are drinking now but there is probably only 1020% of it left in the whole world. So, the history, philosophy, tradition and scarcity of each of the bottles produced by Domaine de la Romanée-Conti made me fall in love with this domaine. I dare say that there is no other like Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in this world.

“I was looking through my cellar yesterday and this 1991 Richebourg stood out…”

Michael — Do you remember when your love for wine really started?

Alberto — I can’t remember the exact year when I started to collect wine but it was in the early 2000s. I remember that I started buying wine because it was being proclaimed as the next ‘golden’ asset class in Asia. I used to live in Hong Kong and Macau and people were saying: “Buy wine. It will appreciate in value a lot in the next 10 to 20 years as globalisation sets in,” and as I am really proactive about everything, I started to invest money in wine. That’s how it all started and the rest, as the saying goes, is history. All wine lovers and collectors know that the more you buy, the more you drink because you want to understand what you are buying and collecting. And the more you drink, the more you feel that you’re less knowledgeable, and you need to buy more because you need to try other wines and vintages. What you like personally, you tend to buy more of, or maybe you get influenced by friends and buy more cases. Some days my wife would say, “I love this,” and the next day I would buy 1020 cases because in the early 2000s the price of wine was quite cheap compared with today.

Michael — You said before that you’ve been travelling to different wine estates and domaines. So, what have you learned from these various experiences, visiting the domaines and meeting the wine makers and producers?

Alberto — I think it brings us to the basics of life. It’s like you go to the market to buy vegetables or a chicken, and you don’t know where it’s produced, and sometimes you just don’t care. Most of the time, we take life for granted, we just drink the wine without thinking about its production. Sometimes you just say, “Oh, it’s expensive,” or “It’s nice,” but you don’t know what goes on behind the scenes until you’ve visited the domaines and châteaux that produce it, until you see with your own eyes the plots of land and the vines that produce these amazing wines, until you meet the winemaker who makes these incredible wines. After that experience, every time you drink a Château Margaux, for example, you can really and truly appreciate it. The next most important aspect of these visits is the realisation that wine drunk at the domaine tastes much better than elsewhere, most of the time at least. I always use Hong Kong and Macau as examples because I used to live there and the wines there, you don’t know where they have travelled or been stored previously. They may have been in Australia for 5 years and then stored in Japan for 10 years before finally arriving in Hong Kong and Macau. They may have been traded and flown all over the place and we all know that wines are very sensitive, that they don’t like to be moved around as they are sensitive to temperature, humidity, air pressure, aggressive motion etc.. I dare say that wines sold and stored in Asia, America or Europe taste different. The best wines are those kept quietly in the domaines or cellars in Europe because it is their natural environment. Visiting various domaines and understanding how the wines are stored has opened my eyes to the history, uniqueness and provenance of each wine.

“Many bottles and complicated vintages often reserve a surprise for the future…”

Michael — The difference you felt between those wines and the ones that you drank in France, in Burgundy or in Bordeaux, how would you describe it? How would you describe the difference between a wine that has travelled and one that has stayed in a perfect cellar environment and never travelled?

Alberto — Simple words. I would say that a well kept wine is very refreshing and revealing. It’s as if the good wine from that particular domaine speaks to you and when you drink it, it reveals itself in your mouth and on your palate, and you can’t help wanting to take the next sip. When a bottle of wine is of great provenance, classification Grand Cru or Village, price becomes secondary. When the provenance of a case or bottle is great, you want to continue drinking it like you never want it to end. In retrospect, even a great bottle, if of poor provenance… for example I had a regrettable experience with a few bottles of Romanée-Conti 1990; I would rather drink a Chambolle Musigny 1990 of good provenance. That is how extremely I would describe it.

Michael — So, we understand that provenance is a key. How would you describe, or buy good provenance wine?

Alberto — In an ideal world, we would like every single bottle of wine to be labelled ex-domaine with ProofTag or Selinko, and kept in a blockchain system, but this isn’t likely to happen so soon or so easily. Even if we could start this tomorrow, we can’t turn back the clock and track all the wines produced in 1983 or 1991 or 2005 for example. So, let me go back to my vegetable and meat analogies. Whenever we want to buy the freshest vegetable, meat or seafood we always go back to the place that gave us the best experience, even if the price is higher. In my case, when many years ago, I started buying wines from Baghera, I understood that almost every single bottle of wine that I buy from Baghera is not just of good provenance, but of excellent provenance! So, I decided to make life a bit simpler when it comes to wine purchasing, I just keep coming back to Baghera for the auctions and I have already built up a large collection. Like everyone else, I like to stick to a winning formula!

Michael — The selection of your wines that compose this sale catalogue again makes it very clear that provenance is paramount to you. The collection is comprised of ex-domaine wines from Henri Jayer and René Engel, among others. Would you say that this is the best provenance ever? Does it fulfill your expectations concerning provenance?

Alberto — I would say these Jayers, Engels and Domaine de la Romanée-Contis are of the most perfect provenance ever and I am only willing to sell them because you persuaded me to do so! Psychologically speaking, I am not ready to let go of these amazing bottles but as you explained to me, Baghera has many new wine followers, lovers and collectors. Many of them want to experience this great provenance that they missed in previous auctions. To keep it all to myself would be selfish because great wine is to be shared with people who can appreciate and afford it. Unless I can drink it all myself, which I can’t because I have too much wine. The story of every bottle of wine is like a human’s. There is a period of growth, maturing, peak performance and growing old. The best way to appreciate a wine is to buy a case and drink it over a period of a few years. The wines that I have agreed to sell in this coming auction are of the best possible provenance and I hope the new owner will be able to enjoy them or perhaps we can share a few bottles together in Baghera’s Club

“ All wine lovers and collectors know that the more you buy, the more you drink 
because you want to understand what you are buying and collecting.”

Michael — You moved to Switzerland before this long COVID period started. How does this change your perspective on wine collecting now you live in the heart of Europe, in Switzerland?

Alberto — I think when you’re in the heart of the land that produces what’s best, you definitely have a different perception of things. What I’ve learned since moving to Europe is that most European people talk about quality – quality of the environment, quality of life, quality of wine and quality of food. In Asia, it is more about robust growth in everything, and everybody is looking for more money. So, quality takes a step back. It’s always about money and pricing, including precious commodities like wine, whisky, jewellery etc. I was no exception when I lived in Asia, many years ago. In Europe, price is still important but quality is number one. So, if we come back to wine, in Europe people focus on provenance. Where the wine has been kept since the beginning is of ultimate primary consideration. So, my approach to buying and drinking wine has changed, from price to provenance. Nowadays, I tend to investigate the provenance and quality because I realise that even if I buy a cheap bottle of wine but which turns out to be below the quality that I expect, it will spoil my day. If I am assured of good provenance but I have to pay a premium price, I would rather go for it. Like the saying goes, if you pay peanuts, you only get monkeys.

Michael — We are currently in this Coronavirus crisis, how do you think it will reflect on the wine economy over the next couple of years? 

Alberto — Covid is indeed a very sad pandemic as many lives have been lost prematurely. We all have to cope and learn to live with this virus as I believe it will become endemic like Influenza. Interestingly, the price of wine from all ranks has increased from pre-pandemic levels. I think people drink more alcohol during a pandemic period because, not having much to do, you check on your cellar more often and you open a few more bottles. One bottle leads to another, that’s always the case. In some places which are are emerging from the pandemic, people are now able to socialise and they drink even more. So, everywhere in the world, regardless of whether people are coping with or emerging from the stressful crisis, everyone is drinking more. This is reflected in the price of premium wines in the last year. Scarcity is the key factor as each bottle drunk means one less bottle on the market. Demand exceeds supply and prices rise, inevitably.

Michael —So, you feel confident in the wine market over the next couple of years?

Alberto — Absolutely bullish. This coming “The Provenance” auction was initiated by you for Baghera’s wine lovers and collectors. Left up to me, I’m not ready to sell. In fact, like almost every wine lover, I am never ready to sell my wine collections. In this globalised world, people don’t drink wine in just Europe and America, but all over the world. The emergence of Chinese wine lovers creates a very big opportunity in the market. But top premium wine supply has not increased. The number of La Tâche and Romanée-Conti bottles produced has remained constant for hundreds of years but demand has grown several thousandfold. I don’t even want to speak about Jayer and Engel as they have not been produced for the last 20 years. So, if you collect limited production wines, prices can only go up because people want to drink something that they can no longer find. There is no more Jayer, Engel or very large format Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

Michael — What would you consider to be the correct price for a bottle of wine? At what price would you set a limit?

Alberto — Michael, you have been in the auction business for almost 2 decades! You should know better than me! When I started buying wine in the early 2000s, nobody believed that a bottle of Romanée-Conti would be worth 5,000 euros and then 10,000 euros and then 15,000 and 20,000 but this is how the world goes around. When people want something rare and if money is not an issue, they are willing to pay any price for it. Personally, in the last 10 years, I always came out of every auction regretting, for a few weeks, the price I paid for my wine, but for months and years after that, I regretted not buying more. With inflation, demand and globalisation, wine and whisky prices have been breaking records every few months and this trend is set to continue. When scarcity and demand set in… I believe we are still some distance from the limit. I am still a net buyer today.

“… it’s a bit cruel to drink wine that is too young.”

Michael — You have tasted a lot of both mature and young wines. Where do you locate the perfect ageing time for your own palate? For instance, we had a Romanée-Conti 1990 together a couple of months ago, a wine that you had already tasted a few times before that.

Alberto — There are two answers to that question. The first concerns my personal preference. I choose my wine on a daily basis depending on the moment and the mood and according to the occasion and the company. On days that I am not in a very good mood, I want to drink something powerful. I will pick something younger, spicier, something unrevealing that forces me to define its character. On stressful days I look forward to a pleasant evening with some nice wine. In this case I’ll choose something more mature, revealing and ready to drink. I already know the wines. Perhaps even something I’ve drunk before, and I am sure of how it will taste. Therefore the perfect age for my wine changes on a daily basis. Secondly, it’s true that different types of wine, should be drunk at different ages. At least an age-range, because it’s a bit cruel to drink wine that is too young. In general, I like wine that is between 20 to 45 years old, like this Richebourg 1991 we are drinking tonight. I have had this wine a few times before and it wasn’t as nice! Today is close to perfect for this vintage. I would like to drink it again every year from now on to follow its journey. I want to see how this vintage develops. Will it continue to reveal more? Will it become even better? Or has it reached its peak? We all know that, wine is inexplicable — you may think it’s declining when suddenly it flourishes. Maybe it’s provenance, maybe it’s who you drink it with, but wines are mystics, just like us humans. So, it’s very difficult to justify the perfect age for a wine because once you fall in love with it, you will never have enough of it. Some like it young, some like it matured and some like it old. It’s up to individual preference.

Michael — When we have wine luncheons or dinners, I have noticed that you always start with the best bottle. Can you explain this to me? Because in Europe, we would tend to keep the best bottles for last.

Alberto — I don’t always start with the best wine and then work down the list. But yes, I have this tendency because I enjoy drinking the best wine with a fresh palate and an exhilarated mind. I very much treasure the memory of drinking the best fine wine and I dislike intensely to drink a Jayer or a Romanée-Conti 5 or 8 bottles into the night and to wake up the next day trying to recall how it tasted. My preference is to drink wine based on its structure and body. I enjoy drinking finely structured “feminine” wine first, followed by less-structured “masculine” wine later. For example, I would drink a Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Grands-Echézeaux 1990 before a Rousseau Chambertin 1985 and this has nothing to do with price but the nature of the wine.

Michael — Do you buy wines for your 3 daughters?

Alberto — Yes, I bought quite a lot of wines the years that my daughters were born. I wouldn’t want to say that I bought it for them, it’s more about drinking for pleasure with my wife and family. We all have many memorable years in our lives, and it is nice to reconnect with those memories by drinking some nice wine once in a while or on a special occasion. A lot of wine lovers and collectors do that, and I am one of them, a romantic and a nostalgic.

Michael — You have been a passionate wine lover for many years, and you moved from Asia to Europe (now in Switzerland). Do you have any thoughts of having your own vines?

Alberto — No, because I understand wine production well enough. I’ve visited many vineyards, and I don’t think it’s an easy process or an easy life. I would leave it to the expert wine makers and the families that have been there for generations to do their great work. I’ll just enjoy buying and drinking wine as well as treating wine as an investment class. I admire what they do, but I don’t think I’m good enough for that.

Michael — At Baghera/wines we enjoy being close to the people who make the wines. Do you have anything to say to the vignerons, Domaines, Châteaux who read this interview?

Alberto — I think some of the best domaines and châteaux in the world are not opening their doors to wine lovers. I also understand that their job is to make good wine and if they open the door to visitors too often, they will not be able to focus their efforts on making the best wine for us to drink. Therefore, I think we need to strike a balance here. I feel sad when people drink wine based on price and do not appreciate the process, the vignerons, the domaines and châteaux. I think if wine lovers are able to visit the land that produces this magic liquid, it will stay with them for the rest of their wine journey. I may have forgotten the weather on the day I married my wife but I remember every detail of my visits to Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Rousseau and Roumier. I remember the sun on those days and the smell in the cellars where the wine matured. Such memories reawaken in me every time I open a bottle of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Rousseau or Roumier. I think the domaines would want all true wine lovers to share that experience.

"The Provenance"

— Sunday December 5th, 2021 at 2pm (CET)
— Room auction

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