The Big Squeeze:
Is Today's Wine Market Geared Only for the Rich?
By Jeff Morgan, West Coast editor
Every year the Napa Valley Wine Auction outdoes previous bidding records as wealthy wine aficionados throw unprecedented sums of money at their favorite auction lots. Most recently, total expenditures came to $5.5 million as bidders -- young and old -- energetically raised paddles on lots routinely reaching $50,000 or more. The top three bidders each dropped nearly $500,000 on various purchases in a heady display of buying power.
So what does this mean for the rest of us? Are those who simply make a "good living" being squeezed out of the fine wine market? I can't tell you how many times I've heard wine lovers with six-figure incomes complain that they can't afford to buy California wines they used to love. Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon 1994 jumped from $36 to $65 for the 1995 vintage. Colgin Cabernet Sauvignon 1994 cost $50; the 1995 version listed for $90.
Napa Valley land prices seem to have gone through the roof as well, with some vineyard properties selling for as much as $100,000 per acre -- an unheard of sum only a year or two ago. Does all this indicate that only millionaires can now start a vineyard and winery or drink well?
The answer is both yes and no. If you want to set up shop next to the Robert Mondavi Winery and drink Opus One on a regular basis, you better have some serious cash on hand. But there is still plenty of good to excellent wine available from both Napa Valley and other California wine regions with price tags that range from reasonable to downright cheap.
And you can also buy good vineyard land in parts of Napa Valley -- such as American Canyon, for example -- at price tags as low as $15,000 per acre. Leave Napa and go to underrated parts of Sonoma County, such as Petaluma, and you'll find cheaper land than that. The $100,000 per acre stuff is usually packaged as a small, 20-acre parcel in a well-established Napa appellation like Oakville and includes a luxury home site as well.
Don't get depressed; get resourceful. To begin with, look at our Wine Spectator Buying Guide. In the last two issues we have featured outstanding wines such as Chateau Souverain Chardonnay Sonoma County 1997 (90, $13), Geyser Peak Sauvignon Blanc Sonoma County 1998 (90, $9) and St. Supery Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley 1998 (91, $12). All are great summer sippers that you can afford to buy by the case.
Red wine drinkers might consider breaking out of the Cabernet/Merlot mold and exploring other varietals, particularly Zinfandel. Fife Zinfandel Mendocino 1997 (91, $17) is surely a good bet. D-Cubed Cellars Zinfandel Napa Valley 1997 (90, $18) is also a find.
Quite frankly, however, the best opportunities often lie just under the outstanding range of 90 points and above. Many of the wines in my own cellar, for instance, scored 87, 88 or 89, which truly means VERY GOOD to those of us at Wine Spectator who do the ratings.
And don't become wedded to any one appellation. There is more to life than Napa or Sonoma. Mendocino County, Monterey, the Central Coast and Santa Barbara County are all pumping out interesting to excellent wines at reasonable prices. And why shouldn't they? Good vineyard land in the Central Coast, for example, can still be found for well under $10,000 per acre.
There is still gold out there for wine pioneers who choose to forgo the current cult wines and established stars. Just look around within your budget, because good value doesn't necessarily mean poor quality. The astronomical prices of some wines are clearly based more on supply and demand than aesthetic considerations. Remember, in today's hot wine market, there truly is something for everyone.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from West coast editor Jeff Morgan. (!--in a piece also appearing in the current issue.--) To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. (And for an archive of James Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.)