Michael Wigley shows up for lunch at a tony Wayzata eatery with an untucked shirt, a three-day stubble and a paper bag. Yet the Volnay staff greet him as if he were a Pillsbury heir in an Armani suit.
That seemingly incongruous reception is the first indication that Wigley is a widely respected figure in this posh suburb. The reason for that is exemplified by what he pulls out of the bag: a 1995 cabernet sauvignon from Chateau Montelena.
"Will this be OK?" Wigley asks, a cheshire-cat grin creasing his whiskers.
Wigley can afford to smile, as he has parlayed a longstanding passion for wine into a successful business with partner Brian Jackson. The Bacchus Wine Group's storage space in Wayzata holds a few million dollars' worth of high-end wines, a healthy chunk of which will be sold at auction this weekend in Hong Kong.
Walking through that space is a wine geek's dream: magnums of Domaine Romanée-Conti here, Screaming Eagle cabernet there, a half-dozen bottles of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild in the OWC (original wooden case) over there.
And how does Wigley keep all this amazing wine from leading him to temptation? "Because I have plenty of wine to drink in my cellar," he said.
And not all of it is first-growth Bordeaux, cult cabs and grand-cru Burgundies. Wigley and Jackson get downright exuberant talking about their monthly "under-$25" gatherings, at which a couple dozen wine enthusiasts each bring an inexpensive bottle.
That get-together unfolds at a casual Mexican eatery in Eden Prairie, a far cry from where it was concocted.
"Joe Lichtenberger and I were at an event at La Belle Vie, tasting through all the Shafer Hillside Selects [a high-end cab] back to 1983," Wigley said. "Joe said, 'Do you drink wines like this on a Tuesday night all the time?' I said no, and he said, 'Neither do I,' so we decided to start the Tuesday-night thing.
"We've had some inexpensive wines that just rocked the house."
Luck ... and more
Wigley developed an ardor for fine wine while working toward his MBA at Harvard in the early 1980s. In recounting the journey since, the Robbinsdale High grad is much more likely to talk about Dame Fortune's companionship than his own business acumen.
"A buddy said we could make some money in wine futures," he said. "So we bought one contract of each of the '82 first growths [Bordeaux's top-five-rated houses, in what turned out to be a fabulous vintage]. It was just dumb luck. In the fall of '83 my buddy needed me to buy him out so he could pay tuition. Then for the [subpar] 1984 vintage I happened to be broke, so again, dumb luck, I didn't buy any."
But when he and Jackson decided to start Bacchus Partners, LLC, it looked as though Wigley's luck had run out.
"We set up the week of the Lehman Brothers collapse, on Sept. 17 ," Wigley said. "We thought we'd raise $7 million, and we got $3.3 million."
They made the weakening economy an ally rather than an obstacle, buying wines at favorable prices. "It turned out that we were sitting on cash when nobody else was."
So they augmented the world's oldest business strategy -- buy low, sell high -- with Wigley's 25-part equation that weighs factors such as critics' ratings, age, brand history and, perhaps most important, "the slope of the price curve, which can tell you a lot about what the future price will be."
Another bit of fortuitous timing ensued: the meteoric rise of Hong Kong auctions, where wine is sold to the highest bidder only if the price reaches a set level.
At its first offering there last summer, the Bacchus Wine Fund sold all but one of 131 lots, taking in $683,000 for an annualized return on investment) of 66 percent. A much larger assortment of Bacchus wines will be on the block this weekend: 351 lots and 3,001 bottles, with an expected return between $2 million and $2.8 million.
Jackson will be there to monitor the sales, while Wigley continues to look for opportunities to buy -- even if their acumen has made them marked men of sorts.
"One auction house," Wigley said, "told us, 'We'll pay you to come and just be here, because when you're here, the auction prices get higher.'"
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643