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Napa tipped for fine wine market growth

Weaker price momentum for some top wines in 2020 has not dulled optimism among analysts and merchants that collector interest in Napa - and California in general - will continue to grow on the international fine wine market.

It may be 44 years since the Judgement of Paris announced California’s arrival on the world wine stage, but Napa Valley is still considered in some quarters to be an emerging force on the global fine wine market.

While many cult wines are sold exclusively via member-only lists, more producers are interested attracting new collectors internationally, said Giles Cooper, buyer at the BI Fine Wine & Spirits merchant.

‘They’re looking at how they can expand their distribution,’ he said in a new introductory guide to collecting Napa wines available to Decanter Premium subscribers exclusively via the Decanter app.

Cooper said that BI has backed Napa as a rising star of the fine wine market, citing the scale and diversity of quality wines being produced.

There have been mixed signals from the market in 2020.

BI said in a third-quarter trading update that US wines in general ‘saw a relatively quiet quarter, with September releases such as Opus One [via the Place de Bordeaux] seeing lower interest than usual’.

It also suggested that some private collectors of wines sold via member-only lists might be holding on to more stock than normal.

Average retail prices for many of the top wines have risen in past few years, shows Wine-Searcher data, but there have been signs of slower momentum more recently.

Shaun Bishop, CEO of US merchant JJ Buckley, said retail demand for California wines was strong but that prices were ‘a little soft’ alongside other fine wines due to Covid-19’s economic impact, such as the closure of restaurants, wineries and hotels.

‘However, I see that due only to the current situation and I think based on retail demand for these wines, we will see prices firm up again as soon as these businesses can open.’ Top sellers included Eisele, Dominus, Vérité [Sonoma] and Kapcsàndy among JJ Buckley’s, he added.

Both Bishop and Ryan Woodhouse, buyer at US merchant K&L, also said the closure of restaurants and winery cellar doors meant some top California wines were more readily available at retail this year.

On the secondary market, Liv-ex said in a market report this week that its California 50 index rose by 86% between January 2014 and January 2019, but noted it has struggled for momentum at times in the past two years.

It tracks the 10 most recently released, ‘physical’ (non-en primeur) vintages of Napa wines Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate, Opus One and Dominus, plus Ridge Monte Bello  (Santa Cruz Mountains).

US wines were increasingly finding an international audience among trade buyers, said Liv-ex, which describes itself as a global marketplace for the wine trade.

‘American wine has accounted for a record share of trade [by value, on Liv-ex] so far this year, up from 2.3% in 2019 to 6.8% in 2020,’ it said.

‘Year-to-date, the number of unique American wines traded is more than double that of 2019.’ Napa Valley constituted around 80% of US wine trades by value, although other parts of California have chipped away at Napa’s dominance this year.

Speaking to Decanter in September, Liv-ex cofounder Justin Gibbs said 2016 – highly rated for California Cabernet – was the most traded US vintage by value in the past 12 months.

However, trading was markedly lower on several preceding vintages. Gibbs said this reflected limited supplies on the secondary market, which might prove a ‘lid’ on California’s future potential market share.

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