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The Curious Case of Pinot at Auction

The world's rarest wines are overshadowed by Cabernet, and it might just be because Pinot lovers would rather drink than sell
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Mar 9, 2012 2:40pm ET

All things being equal, one would expect great Burgundies to fetch higher auction prices than Bordeauxs based on availability alone. And they did at a recent auction in New York, where the top-selling lots were Domaine de la Romanée-Conti bottlings that sold above estimate while a slew of Bordeaux first-growths realized less than their Wine Spectator Auction Index averages.

But that’s not usually the case, which is a surprise since there is far more great Bordeaux produced than Burgundy. The top growths in Bordeaux can produce 20,000 cases of great wine a year, which means buyers can secure cases. With Burgundy, or Pinot, you’re usually trying to hunt down a bottle or two.

And yet, with the exception of DRC and a few other top names in Burgundy Pinot Noir, the Bordeaux blends of Latour, Lafite, Pétrus, Cheval-Blanc—the list goes on and on, extending to the "super seconds" and beyond—consistently outperform their French Pinot counterparts in the secondary market. The discrepancy is even starker in California, where Cabernet outsells Pinot Noir upon release and at auction.

Why are these low-production Pinot Noirs even harder to find at auction? One reason is that the people buying them are drinking them. Pinot lovers are far more interested in the wine experience than in selling their treasured wines for profit.

Based on production numbers, the price discrepancy doesn't make much sense—why pay more for a 1,000-case Cabernet than a 200-case Pinot Noir? While it’s true that Pinot is catching on in a big way, it does not have the history or cachet that Cabernet does. But if my hunch is right, California Pinot collectors, like Burg hounds, aren’t flippers. They would be far less likely to overpay for a wine they plan to drink, unlike Bordeaux and Napa Cabernet collectors who may over-invest in a wine with the expectation that someone else will do the same a few years down the line.

I suspect that could change. Sonoma Pinot Noir is still a relatively new success sensation, and only really arrived on the American radar in the past decade or so. The rest of the world is beginning to take notice.

I wonder what California Pinot drinkers think. There are many thousands on the waiting list for Kosta Browne, and yet we don't see KB fetching Screaming Eagle money at auction. We don't really see much KB at auction at all … so is it true? Do all you Pinot Noir collectors out there drink everything you buy?

I'm curious to hear from Pinot collectors—and winemakers—about their mindset when collecting Pinot Noir. Do you think the world will eventually catch on, and we'll see the likes of KB, or Kistler, or Dehlinger next to DRC on the auction block? Or will California Pinot Noir fans save the best juice for themselves?

Adam Wallstein
Spokane, WA —  March 9, 2012 3:59pm ET
Wines with monster scores, from either this publication and/or Parker's, are the ones which will most likely make for 'wise' monetary investments.
Cabernet, being more full throttle and head-turning than Pinot is usually the recipient of the majority of these high scores. Grace and nuance might be treasured by critics as accompanying features; but rarely as a wine's leading attributes, as is (more often) the case with Pinot.
Did Parker's recent 19 100 point scores for '09 Bdx cause folks to say, "gee I sure would like to drink some of these, let me go out and pay three times the price compared to yesterday"?
I doubt it.
Of course, there is also longevity. Bdx has proven its ability to age for monster time-spans, and increasingly, so has Cali Cab...
Richard Robert Hofer
Monrovia, CA, USA —  March 9, 2012 5:20pm ET
Pinot lags Cabernet for reasons I think that are related to the liquidity of the various wine markets. Our instincts tell us that, quality being equal, a 200 case Pinot should be more valuable than a 20,000 case Cabernet. This would be correct, for example, with other commodities such as automobiles that have "staying power." Wine is a different sort because it can be consumed. In markets with only 200 case productions, perhaps with many buyers that really want to drink the product as JL postulates, how much can we expect to actually become available on the open market (auction houses)? For the most part, very little, leading to significant price uncertainty in the value of the products. This is a an example of limited sampling, leading to significant uncertainty in the value of a product. Cabernets with 20,000 case runs are traded frequently and their value is more well established. Predictably, this leads to price inflation, since the market has good information allowing it to openly compete against other buyers. Pinot prices are likely to continue to suffer at auction, except for the rarefied few, because of this uncertainty. For lovers of Pinot, this is not a bad thing. This particular consumer hopes this pricing gap continues for the foreseeable future.
Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  March 9, 2012 6:17pm ET
I think you are correct about Pinot lovers preferring to drink their treasures rather than sell them. Mr. Hofer's comment above seems sound as well. It also seems to me that Pinot lovers, like German wine buffs and those who follow Piedmontese wines are minutiae lovers. The more discrete fine points one must know, the better. The Bordeaux scene seems by comparison ridiculously straight forward, simple and therefore, not as interesting.

If one wishes to impress people who don't know very much, give them the obvious, like a famous name. If you wish to impress knowledge junkies, you need to show them something they've never seen or tasted before.

I'm probably over-thinking this, but so it seems to me.

David Clark
for The Wine Connection
Jeff Skoll
Palo Alto —  March 9, 2012 7:36pm ET
I'm both a Pinot fanatic and a Cabernet fan. For some really great Pinots, like Kosta Browne's single vineyard designates or Kistler, the best way I've found to buy them is on auction sites like Winebid or Wine Commune. Even there, I'm surprised that prices extend only to a little over $100/btl. I think some of this is attributable to supply and demand. Everyone has heard about top name Bordeaux and cult cabs, but not everyone knows about top Pinots. In addition, there are many excellent Pinots that are available for $40-60, such as Loring, Chasseur, Freeman and Sojourn, whereas really good cabs and Bordeaux have a starting price well beyond this range. And of course pinots only cellar well for a max of 7 - 10 years. So we are unlikely to see Pinots command high prices - especially at auction - anytime soon.
Eric Hall
Healdsburg, CA —  March 9, 2012 8:25pm ET
For sure, we drink almost 100% of our Pinot collection within 5 years. The California ones, which we love, just don't gain much by over storing them.

I advise others to drink all their Cali Pinots within 5 years too, and if they insist on holding them longer to keep them in rock solid 55 degree storage.

That being said we still are enjoying 90's era Napa Cabs...

Eric Hall
Roadhouse Winery
Hoyt Hill
Nashville, TN USA —  March 10, 2012 1:53pm ET
Then there is Marcassin
Mark Lyon
Sonoma, CA; USA —  March 10, 2012 2:26pm ET
There hasn't been an established market for aged new world pinots. I believe it will take some time until wine writers have presented enough retrospective tastings of past California vintages. I would encourage that instead of generalizing that Burgindies outlive New World counterparts. Time will tell.
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  March 11, 2012 2:49pm ET
One difference for me, as a drinker of many but a collector of none, is that I very rarely taste a New World Pinot Noir that is truly in such a dumb stage that it isn't pleasant to drink. To a lesser extent that applies to Burgundy as well. But with Cabernet or Bordeaux I will sometimes pop a bottle and find it not as enjoyable simply because of its particularly evolutionary stage. That leads me to pop Pinot Noir much more often.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
Craig Ernst
Naperville, Il —  March 12, 2012 1:05pm ET
I have a couple of bottles of Kosta Browne 2011 wine of the year.Any one want to make a opening bid?
Joseph S Barrera
Cazadero, CA —  March 14, 2012 6:07pm ET
I've finally gotten to be able to buy a case of KB and it won't get a chance to age for more than 4 or 5 years. The same with Londer, Ft. Ross, Hartford Court and Flowers.

To KBs credit they have not yet gone to stratospheric pricing. Nor has Lewis in cab land.

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