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California Cult Wine Prices Are Going Crazy!

For those of you who have had the excellent fortune to get on the mailing lists of the “cult” wineries from California years ago you may be shaking your head in agreement as you read this note about wine prices. Those readers who have just started collecting top California wines may not have the same perspective due to current market prices in recent years.

This time of year some of the best boutique wineries are sending out to their mailing list customers wine allocations notices and pricing for the upcoming vintage. The list of top California wineries has been growing due to improved financial backing, better winemaking technology and sustainable agriculture practices; all of this is fueled by a very hot wine market. From my personal tastings, California’s top “red” winemakers and ones you should get on their waiting list include: Harlan, Abreu, Colgin Cellars, Bryant Family, Dalla Valle, Shafer Hillside, Screaming Eagle, Sine Qua Non, Hundred Acre and Pride Mountain.

Consumers who have been on these winery mailing lists from the beginning have seen a steady rise in wine prices. For some wineries the price increases are staggering. The 2004 Screaming Eagle came out at $500 per bottle. Their first release in 1992 was selling for $50 per bottle. The 2004 Harlan came out at $350 per bottle. Their first release in 1990 came out at $75 per bottle.

The free market system tells us that “goods” sell at prices that the current market will bear. Today many cult wineries are having no problem selling their wines because of the small quantities they produce. But at what point do long time patrons of these wineries have to stop buying because they are either priced out of the market or find more compelling wines at lower prices?

Top California wines are approaching the bottle prices of the First Growth Bordeaux wines. I reckon this will be a critical intersection to watch since the French have established 100 years of bottle aging data whereas the California newcomers have at best at 10-15 year track record.

I wonder if we are approaching some critical mass where the wine buying public starts to seriously look and buy wines from other upcoming areas that reflect pricing of California wines from 10-15 years ago.

It is clear to me that one of the reasons Americans have fell in like with Australian wines in the past 5 years is that the quality to price ratio is often 1/3 that of similar California wines. Will the same hold right for wine from Chile, Argentina and Spain? Only time will tell.

One of the wine world’s best tales in 2006 is the 95 points Robert Parker awarded to a $19.95 wine from Australia. The Mollydooker “Boxer” Shiraz has one of the highest price to points ratio in the history of Mr. Parker’s notes. The wine made by veteran winemakers Sarah and Sparky Marquis defies gravity with a screw cap enclosure and a rip-off wine mark “tab” that allows wine lovers to keep the name of the wine close to their hearts. So much for the snooty tissue paper wrapped bottles from the Napa Valley!

I would say that since this wine sold out in a matter of days post his review, American’s appetites for $150 California Cabernet’s may be waning. In closing, one of the best wines produced in California is the Phelps Insignia which sells for around $130 per bottle. This is widely available at wine retailers and every vintage is a fantastic value. Some of the best vintages can compare to the top cult wines at 1/3 the price. I’m still amazed why this wine does not sell off the retail shelves in the first few weeks of sale! I commend the Joseph Phelps winery for keeping this fantastic wine priced for all to delight in. I wish more wines of this caliber and aging potential were priced this reasonably! I just recently tasted the 1994 Insignia and it was superb!!!! This wine has a well establish aging profile so give it a try.

Brian Pasch
brianpasch.com brianpasch.com

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