Allegrini 2018

Massimo Sagna explains Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, the legendary Burgundy wine market

Massimo Sagna: “DRC asks for a moral commitment: restaurants buy and serve it, wine shops sell it to those who know how to appreciate it”

The big Italian and international auctions and wine that is now accepted as an “asset investment” (however, only rare “blue chips”) have brought to the forefront a very few wines from all over the world (no more than 100 high level wines). These include some of the big Italian names, about a dozen brands, but primarily, the French Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, the super brand from Burgundy (whose wines are precious as soon as they come out of the winery), led by Aubert de Villaine (who Winenews had the pleasure of interviewing in March 2019, ed.), and reach stellar prices at auctions around the world.
The winery and the “appellation2 are at the top of the wish lists of collectors and enthusiasts from all over the world. The 8 crus (Corton, Echezeaux, Grands-Echezeaux, La Tache, Montrachet, Richebourg, Romanee-Conti, Romanee-Saint- Vivant), and in particular with the Romanee-Conti of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti), are continuously at the center of stories, gossip and “secrets”, on its market, which, in addition to the undisputed quality of the wines and their rarity, feed the legend. To better understand and explain how the market of this legendary winery works, we went straight to the source, to Sagna, the exclusive distributor for Italy of Domaine Romanèe Conti wines since 1990 (Gaja Distribuzione was the previous distributor, ed.), and talked to Massimo Sagna. He explained how the sale of DRC wines functions, from the very beginning. “It is simple. We have a list from the producer, which provides for a certain number of bottles of the various wines of its crus. We then sell them at the price the producer has indicated, upon which, naturally, our customer applies the markup he considers appropriate. The wine company”, Sagna pointed out, “have asked us to give priority to catering. The fact is that Romaneè Conti wines are the easiest, and at the same time, the most difficult to sell. Specifically, we have 100 bottles a year for Italy of Romaneè Conti of the Domaine de la Romaneè Conti, while we have requests for 1000 bottles. This means that 90% of those who would like DRC are left empty-handed, simply because there is no more. Therefore, we have to partially rotate our clients and partially supply our loyal clientele. Obviously, there is always precedence for some restaurants, starred or not. There is also a share of private customers, but they are under 10%”.
Many people claim that purchasing Romaneè Conti wines is also linked to purchasing other wines from other companies. In other words, you can buy DRC, if you buy something else as well. “No, explained Sagna, “it’s actually a very different story. First of all, we can make no impositions on individuals. I certainly can’t tell a customer, ‘if you want a bottle of Echezeaux, then you also have to buy 10 bottles of this or that wine’. The truth is that it took us more than 3 generations to put together a list of products that all cover the same customer range. Therefore, a restaurant that has a clientele for Domaine de la Romanée-Conti also has a clientele for many of our other products; for instance, Champagne Roederer, Cristal, some Bordeaux wines, Petrus, great Porto vintages, and many more. Consequently, it is logical that the customer who asks us for a bottle of Romanée-Conti is interested in having something else as well. There is no obligation, and especially not for large restaurants. A restaurateur knows very well that these wines are available to satisfy just 10% of the requests. The customer is interested in collaborating with us, but we do not impose anything upon them. It is clear that when a fine restaurant collaborates with us, for instance, Cracco in Milan comes to mind, we do not ask him for anything, but he spontaneously works with us, and not only for Domaine de the Romanée-Conti wines”.
More and more frequently, some very rare bottles are being found at the large wine auctions, where, especially for old vintages and large formats staggering prices are popping up. On the contrary, the paths that brought the wines there are not very clear, so their authenticity is quite often questioned. Sometimes expedients have been used to prevent tracing the complete path, such as scratching off some of the serial numbers shown on each bottle of each format and each vintage. The reason for this behavior is simple, Sagna explained. “Obviously, once we deliver a bottle to the customer, we lose track of it, and we do not know what will happen to it. In other words, I have no way of knowing whether, absurdly, the customer kept it in the window for a year in the sun, and the wine has deteriorated, or whether he drank it and filled it with some other wine. Those are things I cannot possibly know. What we do, instead, is to keep a file of all the customers who buy DRC, including all the bottles and all the serial numbers of all the crus they buy, so we can try to trace them. And, another thing is that we ask customers for a moral commitment as well. We ask the restaurateurs to uncork the bottle in their restaurants, and we ask the wine shops, which are fewer and fewer, to resell the bottles to connoisseurs who will appreciate them and will uncork them. This is what we ask”.
There is, therefore, no “contractual” obligation of how to use these bottles, as some claim. It is more like a gentlemen’s agreement. “Logically, when one buys and pays for the bottle, he can do what he wants with it. However, we ask for this moral commitment because Domaine de la Romanée-Conti asks for it, and asks all the European countries for it. And, just like Romanée-Conti, I speak for the products we distribute, as does Petrus”. There are consequences for those who do not respect the pact, but obviously, they are neither economic nor legal. “In other words, it’s a gentlemen’s agreement, and certainly not binding. One cannot make a contract of this type that has any legal value. As we said, it is a moral commitment. Moreover, the Domaine is perfectly aware of who all our customers are, and what bottle number was given to that customer. So, if bottle number 7 is found in channels that Domaine da La Romanée-Conti does not consider suitable, we are obliged to discontinue service to that customer, because he has “betrayed” this agreement”. It would be a sort of “moral suasion”.
“The concept is that all the Domaine wines have a very high price; however, let’s not forget that it is wine”, emphasized Sagna, “and wine’s destiny is to be drunk. Woe if it becomes a form of investment. If it becomes the object of speculation, it is bound, inevitably, in a year, or 10 or 50 years, to degrade itself. Because in this logic there is no rule that fixes the price. Let’s say I know that a bottle from 1964 is not good, consequently, it is not worth the price that was paid. Wine must be drunk, it must not become the object of speculation, it goes against the value of the wine itself ”.
The fact is that bottles of DRC are almost always the highest paid at auctions, and sometimes the figures are almost surreal. In 2018, for example, two bottles of Romanée Conti Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 1945 sold for over 1 million US dollars (one for 558.000 US dollars, and one for 496.000 US dollars) at Sotheby's auction in New York. Further, in March of 2020, a six-liter Romanée-Conti from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti from 1979 reached 203.000 euros at the Baghera Wines auction, while just recently, the 12 Jeroboam and 12 Mathusalem of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti of Giorgio Pinchiorri’s collection (all number 1 of the legendary “Millesime 1985” by Romanée-Conti, La Tache, Richerbourg, Echezaux, Grands Echezeaux and Romaneé St Vivant) registered a sale price of 1.6 million euros. A double magnum Romanée Conti Grand Cru 1990, that Bolaffi sold for 100.000 euros a few days ago, has been widely talked about because it is a record figure in Italy, and because the storage conditions of the bottle (as clearly written in the catalog) were not perfect, starting from the scratched serial number.
“All I actually know is that we imported a similar bottle was imported”, Sagna concluded, “sold it to the customer who in turn sold it to Bolaffi, after which I don’t know what happened to it. I can only guarantee that in the year “x” we imported the bottle “y” with the number “z” and sold it to the customer”.

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