How solid is collector demand for top California wines?

This question has increasingly concentrated minds following a boom period for California on the fine wine market.

Liv-ex’s California 50 index has risen by 76% in five years, aided by a run of good vintages and scarcity of older wines, the global wine marketplace said in its September Cellar Watch report.

Its index covers the last 10 physical vintages of Screaming Eagle, Opus One, Dominus, Harlan and Ridge Monte Bello.

Of the California 50 index estates, Ridge has been the slowest riser, up 38% on the index in five years.

Meanwhile, Harlan’s Promontory 2013 has been one of the most traded California wines by value on the Liv-ex platform in 2019.

Broader demand

Wider distribution outside the US has helped to propel demand for a broader range of California wines, said Giles Cooper, of UK merchant BI Fine Wine & Spirits.

‘More drinkers and collectors around the world are discovering exactly how spectacular some of these wines are,’ he told Decanter.

‘Established names like Harlan and Shafer certainly sell but newer names like Hundred Acre and Kapcsandy are also gaining traction,’ he said.

‘Mayacamas is another great example that finds real favour with the UK and European market.’

Warning signs

Liv-ex said, ‘Some commentators have begun to voice concerns that prices might be climbing to unsustainable levels, but the “shock of the new” suggests demand (in Europe at least) will remain robust.’

Cooper warned that rarity was key and some larger estates with big release volumes ‘are in danger of looking to gain too much ground too quickly on price’.

Some US merchants were cautious about domestic demand in the short-term.

‘I think we have seen a plateau, and even a small drop-off, in demand for the top California wines,’ said Shaun Bishop, CEO of JJ Buckley. ‘There so much great wine now and so the client has more choices.

‘That said, I am optimistic that, in the long-term, prices will continue to appreciate.’

Auction success for the highest profile estates

Auction demand has tended to focus on the more established names, with higher prices for older – and so rare – vintages in 2019 so far.

Acker reported strong buyer interest in nearly 160 lots of Rhône blend pioneer Sine Qua Non (SQN) in a New York charity auction in May 2019.

Top SQN lot was six bottles of Syrah Queen of Spades 1994 in its original box, which fetched $22,320.

Earlier this month, Sotheby’s sold two bottles of Screaming Eagle’s debut 1992 vintage for HK$117,800 (US$15,000) at a Hong Kong auction, although this was slightly below the pre-sale high estimate.

Younger Cabernet vintages from the top estates have also found buyers at auction.

Three bottles of Screaming Eagle 2010 in their original wooden case fetched a total $10,625 against a pre-sale high estimate of $8,000 at a Christie’s auction in New York on 11 October.

The same auction also saw three bottles of the newly released 2016 vintage fetch $7,500, matching the pre-sale high estimate. Prices for Screaming Eagle’s 2016 vintage soared after it emerged the estate was considering whether or not to release a 2017 version of its flagship wine due to smoke taint issues.

Sotheby’s is planning to auction ‘nearly 20 years’ of Screaming Eagle in New York in December, which will be interesting to track.

A shorter version of this article appeared in the Market Watch section of Decanter magazine’s November issue, out now.


See also: Collectible California – Top wines for your cellar