Cover Adam Bilbey, Christie's new Global Head of Wine & Spirits (Photo: Christie’s Images Ltd. 2022)

Adam Bilbey, the new Global Head of Wine and Spirits at Christie’s, shares what makes Hong Kong—and Asia—such an exciting wine market, and why it’s a great time to be a wine lover in Hong Kong

When wine duty was slashed to zero percent in Hong Kong in 2008, thanks in part to then chief secretary and avid wine collector Henry Tang, the city blossomed into one of the world’s leading wine markets. Its status has only grown and was further confirmed this year when Christie’s announced that for the first time its Global Head of Wine & Spirits would be based in Hong Kong.

“It is, for sure, a statement,” says Adam Bilbey, who moved to Hong Kong in 2010 and worked for Berry Brothers & Rudd and Sotheby’s before taking on the prestigious role at Christie’s in January this year. “We understand that Asia is a real driver in the fine wine industry. In global auctions, Asian clients, particularly Hong Kong clients, make up a large portion of the buyers. Hong Kong collectors are happy to bid all around the world. I think that shows that I am where a lot of the action is,” he adds, nevertheless also stressing the continued importance of robust markets such as Europe and the US. “

Hong Kong has long been a trading hub, though Bilbey credits the foresight of Tang as the catalyst for its development into a wine centre. “Hong Kong always had a lot of people coming in—from Taiwan, mainland China, Singapore; it became this hub to come to, buy wine, drink wine, share wine and take wines back from. But, the key was that zero percent tax, which was the vehicle that drove Hong Kong to be the hub it is now.”

The restrictions around travel into Hong Kong over the last two years have done little to quell the wine market. Instead, buyers have moved further online, which has both advantages and challenges. “Wine is a physical, tangible asset,” says Bilbey. “You drink and share it with people, so there is a slightly unromantic edge to online auctions.”

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But Asia’s bidders seem happy to do so remotely—and have bid and bought enthusiastically. “There’s always going to be a place for the live auction, but it’s the ease of the online auction,” says Bilbey. “It’s a Friday night and you’ve got your pizza and a nice bottle of Brunello and you can go into the Christie’s app and bid.” The digitalisation of wine auctions has made the asset more accessible, while also increasing its appeal to a younger audience, particularly in Asia, according to Bilbey.

At Christie’s, there are plenty of alluring wine auctions for collectors to bid on, wherever they find themselves in the world—and, if recent sales are anything to go buy, the global pandemic seems to have had little effect on wine buyers’ willingness to bid. Christie’s Finest and Rarest Wines & Spirits auction in London in December 2021 realised a total of £7,629,753 (USD$10,139,942), the highest ever for the category at Christie’s with 16 auction records set and bidders from 27 countries.

The latest update to Christie's wine sales calendar is the addition of Los Angeles as a sale site. In January this year, the auction house held its first wine sale there.

“New York is a very competitive market with many clients, but we took a position to start selling in LA because there are some great West Coast collectors,” says Bilbey. The LA debut included wines from two esteemed private collections, and featured lots such as Madeira wines dating from 1795 and 1863, rarities from Burgundy’s greatest Domaines, and every vintage of Screaming Eagle from 1993 to present. The sale total exceeded USD$2 million.

A follow-up online auction in Los Angeles will take place from 15 to 29 March with lots from two outstanding private collections including impressive First Growth Bordeaux and rare Burgundy from classic producers. There will also be a charitable collaboration with Grapes for Humanity with lots donated by world-renowned producers such as Louis Roederer, Chateau Haut-Brion, Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Maison Joseph Drouhin, Marchesi Antinori, Opus One and Taylor’s Port, among others, to raise funds to mitigate the impact of climate change.

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Closer to home, Christie's Hong Kong’s spring sales bring further excitement to those looking to raise their auction paddles and expand their cellars. The auction house has been entrusted with exceptional wines from property tycoon and seasoned wine collector Joseph Lau whose collection of Bordeaux and Burgundy will go under the hammer at a live auction on 13 April. This fine offering from one of the world’s leading collectors is just one of the reasons that makes Hong Kong such a great place for oenophiles.

“It’s a great time to be a wine lover in Hong Kong,” says Bilbey. “There may be other hurdles we are navigating at the moment, but there are some incredible wine merchants, incredible restaurant sommeliers where the variety of wine you get to try nowadays is fantastic, and also the quality of auctions being offered—you are getting great collections coming to market in Hong Kong with great wines, fully matured that have been stored incredibly well, ready to go.”

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