Why you should care

Because there’s more to duty-free than Malibu Rum

The last time I passed through a duty-free shop, I bought an $8 bottle of malbec and a bar of chocolate. In Dubai’s airport, individual wine purchases can routinely exceed $30,000. That’s thanks to Le Clos, a wine store with five outposts in the dizzying futurama mallscape of the international terminals.

Blinded by jet lag and facing an eight-hour layover, I answered the siren call of the store’s soft lighting, passing beneath a 20-foot-high decommissioned copper still from Scotland to be greeted by a wall of some of the world’s most exclusive vintages. A handsome Brit in an impeccably cut suit spoke passionately of 2003 Barolos. Did I fancy a tasting? “It’s 6 a.m.,” I said. “It’s five o’clock somewhere.” Cheers.

Color photo gay male couple drinking wine in the kitchen

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The snooty factor here is shockingly low considering the shockingly high prices. And that’s thanks to Emirates Group President Gary Chapman. Though he spends his days managing corporate support of the global behemoth, overseeing jet-fuel risk management and leading a number of subsidiary businesses, his real passion is wine.

Chapman founded Le Clos in 2008 to slake the thirst of Dubai’s deep-pocketed oenophiles, who were at the mercy of the United Arab Emirates’ strict liquor laws. There are just 12 alcohol stores in the entire UAE, and expats must apply for a license to buy and consume booze. Those licenses limit residents to purchases of between $100 and $400 total per month, depending on their monthly salary.

For a serious wine drinker, that kind of cash doesn’t go very far, especially considering that alcohol is taxed at 30 percent. A single good bottle of Bordeaux could easily eat up that monthly allowance. The monthly limits were, well, limiting the growth of Dubai’s wine scene.

Did I fancy a tasting? “It’s 6 a.m.,” I said. “It’s five o’clock somewhere.” Cheers.

Enter Le Clos. The wine shop courts the airport’s deep-pocketed fliers with an old boy’s club aesthetic of buttery leather chairs and custom French cabinetry. It stocks the kind of status wines that would exceed a lifetime’s worth of liquor limits — 19th- century Armagnacs, a vertical collection of Château Mouton Rothschild — alongside accessible French, Italian and New World wines. But the service is far from snobbish. Customers order online or over the phone, share their flight info, and someone will be waiting upon arrival just before immigration with the bottles, all ready to be whisked through customs.

“Le Clos opened up Dubai to wine,” Oliver Dixon, head of fine wines, says. “The only way you would have had access to these wines prior to 2008 was to bring them in from another country or drink them at a restaurant.”

Andit isn’t just Dubai residents who are getting in on the game. The store has developed a loyal following of international high-rollers. They count international sports stars, Formula One drivers and an Oscar winner among their clientele. Its Twitter feed is sprinkled with photos ranging from F elipe Massa and Rubens Barrichello to chief winemakers from Penfolds and Chapoutier.

But the largest market has been Chinese travelers. With their own hefty wine taxes and rampant bottle counterfeiting, Chinese buyers have turned to Le Clos as a reliable purveyor of cult vintages.

“One Chinese customer walked in and bought a 1947 Petrus for about $12,500 with his credit card just like he was grabbing a bottle of cough syrup. We thought ‘Wow — hope to see him again.’ A year later we’re in his cellar in Guangzhou delivering $108,000 worth of wine,” Dixon says.

The wine world has taken notice, opening up their cellars and collaborating on creative offerings exclusively for the store. The latest? An offering that Le Clos touts as the world’s most expensive wine, a Balthazar (the equivalent of 16 standard bottles of wine) of Château Margaux 2009 engraved in gold and housed in a custom oak-and-steel case for $195,000.

Because it’s illegal to advertise alcohol, Le Clos relies on word of mouth and personal networking to grow the business. They fly to top clients’ home cities to host lavish wine dinners, rewarding their loyalty with, perhaps, some first-growth 1982 Bordeaux. At the end of one such dinner, a client dumped $35,000 in cash on the table.

“What do you want to buy?” the Le Clos staff asked. “I’ll decide next time I fly through,” he said.

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