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The Cult of Consumption


Jeff Morgan
Posted: February 3, 2000


The Cult of Consumption
By Jeff Morgan, West Coast editor

What do the names Colgin, Maya and Screaming Eagle mean to you? If your answer is great California Cabernet Sauvignon, you're right. They are among an ever expanding group of high quality wines that are so popular -- but difficult to obtain because of limited production -- that they have attracted what can only be described as a cult following.

Yes, some folks seem to worship these wines, judging from the lengths they'll go just to buy them. Last week, someone paid $14,000 for a case of Colgin Cabernet Sauvignon 1994 at Christie's Los Angeles wine auction. That's $1,167 per bottle, not including Christie's 15 percent commission. It's amazing when you realize the wine was released a year ago at a retail price of $50.

Ann Colgin, who owns the Colgin label, was astonished at the bidding results. She says demand for her wine is forcing her to raise prices. The 1995 vintage will nearly double to $90 when it's released this fall. But even that price beats $1,167!

"There is a brand new buying base interested mainly in new, hot wines," said Christie's auctioneer Ursula Hermacinski. "They want only the latest and the greatest." The auctioneer also expressed surprise at the level of bidding for relatively young vintages of wines that have only a short track record in the marketplace.

Dalla Valle Maya 1991 and Screaming Eagle 1993 and 1994 fell into this "gotta-have-it-at-any-price" category, hovering in the thousand dollar per bottle range at Christie's.

Now don't get me wrong. These are great wines. And I suppose if you've got so much money that price doesn't matter....well, who cares what you pay for a bottle of wine? Right?

Not exactly, at least in my opinion. No matter how good they are, these wines are not worth that kind of money. The downside for serious buyers with finite financial resources is that inflated auction prices artificially inflate wine values across the board. Yet these astronomical price figures are really nothing more than curiosities -- created by the obsessive compulsive needs of a few overly flush collectors.

And these recent auction prices have even less real-life relevance to wine production costs. At most, these wonderful "cult" wines cost from about $10 to $20 per bottle to make. That includes the glass, cork and the label too.

Some of you might find an analogy between a great painting and a great bottle of wine. But even Picasso and his contemporaries came out of the starting blocks reasonably priced. They earned greatness with time. If someone wants to pay $1,000 for a bottle of Inglenook 1941 -- a rare and classic wine with a fine historical pedigree from an outstanding year -- so be it. That kind of a purchase strikes a logical chord.

But deifying current releases is a bit silly -- especially for unproved wines like Colgin, which have only been produced for a few years. No one can say for sure how these wines will age. Supply and cult-like demand for top Bordeaux has created a similarly outrageous scenario today, as people unflinchingly shell out hundreds of dollars for a bottle of Chateau "I Must Have It." At least these wines have proved their aging potential, however.

Many consumers whose fortunes haven't kept up with current cult wine prices tend to mope along complaining about how they can't afford to buy great wine anymore. It's not true, of course. They just need to become more adventurous and reconsider their options.

Sure, you can drop $14,000 on a case of Colgin 1994 at auction. Or you can take a fraction of that money -- say $500, for example -- and pick up a mixed case of wines that we (at Wine Spectator) or your local wine merchant recommend as really top notch. (You can also spend a lot less and find excellent quality.) Not every fabulous wine is on allocation. And a good wine merchant will be sure to have a supply of certain cult wines anyway.

Chances are you'll find a few wines that are the equal of Colgin and company. Then you can return to the store and pick up a case of your favorites. You'll end up with lots of terrific wine for a reasonable price. In addition, you'll have fun discovering your own top picks.

Auction prices often do make sense, as they reflect a real consumer demand. But when a few hyper-thirsty collectors start throwing thousand dollar bills at wines which are interchangeable with many other excellent wines available today, it skews the whole market.

After I'm over my shock, I plan to ignore these crazy bids. I really believe that most people buy wine using common sense. Those who'll pay anything for a wine because they've "gotta have it" are really trapped in their own limiting cult of consumption.


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. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.

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