California's so called 'cult' wines – made in tiny quantities and offered at prices well above Bordeaux first growths – have plummeted in value at auction.

Wines like Screaming Eagle, Bryant Family and Harlan Estate typically sell for US$1,000 (€1,147) a bottle or more at auction, but now they’re fetching considerably less, sometimes half their expected price tag. Richard Brierley, head of Christie’s North American sales, told decanter.com, ‘Prices have come down to about half the very high levels we were seeing about 18 months to two years ago.’

According to Nikos Antonakeas, managing director at Morrells auction house in Manhattan, the popularity of the cults is waning. ‘Their trophy value is not holding – the small number who wanted wines at that price have now filled their cellars and there’s no one left to buy,’ he said.

Slumping prices have been blamed partly on a poorly-reviewed Napa Cabernet vintage in 1998, and partly on the economic slowdown. Don Weaver, the director of Harlan at Oakville in the Napa Valley, believes his estate’s fall has been modest, but can’t comment on the auction market. ‘I think the price in general has slipped. The secondary market has such a life of its own – we see it as being out of our reach,’ he said.

The cult wines – almost all Napa Valley Cabernets – have benefited from the enthusiastic support of critics such as Robert Parker and Michael Broadbent. But some commentators regard them as grossly overpriced. Last October the New York Times’ columnist Frank Prial called for a ‘reality check’.

Whether this is a general levelling of prices due to the economic slowdown or whether buyers are simply wary of overpriced Napa wines is a moot point. Brierley notes that Bordeaux has not suffered from the woes of the US economy at auction. ‘We’re still selling Pétrus for $1,000 a bottle,’ he said.

For his part, Antonakeas believes the prices that cults are now fetching are more realistic – and that they have not bottomed out yet. ‘I would speculate that they should go further down in price – I don’t see why a Californian wine should be any more expensive than a first release of Pétrus.’

Written by Patrick Matthews18 February 2002