The best wines from Northern California's wine country often sound irresistible in descriptions from wine critics but actually locating and buying these wines can be a challenge. Understanding how the gray market works is the best strategy for finding many great wines today.
Pursuing an interest in wine could be one of those rare areas where ignorance is bliss -- at least, when it comes to your wallet. As experts have noted, the usual evolution in wine appreciation often begins with sweeter, inexpensive wines and grows from there into more complex, dry wines. And those who stick with it typically find that they're paying more and more for the wines they consume as their tastes become more discriminating.
As with any hobby, wine buffs typically educate themselves on wine, also visiting wineries, perhaps attending tastings and seeking out specific wines they might have read about or tried in a restaurant. Of course, those pursuing this hobby better have the disposable income required to make fine wine their beloved beverage of choice!
Buying wine then and now
Buying wine in the Bay Area used to be a simple process in the days when the three-tiered system that grew out of Prohibition defined how wine got to consumers via retailers' shelves. In fact, for many mid-range and lower-priced wines, this system is mostly still in effect, if widely criticized.
But an interesting thing happened a few decades ago as the market for California wine kept growing at the same time that wine critics and their increasingly influential rankings began impacting the wine scene, avidly followed by wine buffs looking for the latest hot wines (which doesn't necessarily refer to alcohol content). Wineries making in-demand wines realized they could bypass distributors and retailers, selling their wines at retail prices directly to consumers through mailing lists, with consumers usually picking up shipping costs to boot.
This profitable -- for the wineries -- move has since come to define how higher-end wine -- and even some mid-range wine from better wine regions -- is sold in wine-producing states, with consumers being the losers in terms of what they can buy and how much they pay for it in the case of the collectable wines. Mailing lists are not the same as wine clubs, which are offered by wineries or retailers and deliver specific wines to members on a regular basis. The mailing list concept is a bit like the wine "futures" popular among some French vintners in that the wine is paid for prior to release. But mailing lists can be insidious when it comes to the most sought-after wines.
What makes for the desirability of high-end California wines is "supply and demand, production and scores," according to Joe Zugelder, a Napa wine appraiser and longtime buyer and seller of old and rare wine. Coveted wines tend to be produced in small quantities with their value established largely through the rankings of critics like Robert Parker, James Laube, Allen Meadows, Antonio Galloni and others, who often use a 100-point scale. These determinates have put high-scoring wines into a category in which the price of the wine is whatever people are willing to pay, says Zugelder.
The mailing list conundrum
Having a mailing list has become de rigueur for many California wineries, in which customers receive a list of upcoming wines and select what they want to purchase, paying in advance of release. If only it were so simple for the super-premium wineries making the cult wines desired by wine freaks. You just sign up and wait for the list to arrive so you can order your few bottles of Screaming Eagle cabernet or Marcassin pinot noir, right? Not quite.
Those tippy-top wineries that are even accepting new members might well have a waiting list for their mailing list, with 10-year waits or longer not unusual. Strategies abound for getting on these lists but the combination of scarcity, desirability and the internet have ushered in a new era in which there's a powerful secondary market for "pre-owned" wine -- sometimes called the gray market -- comprised of online and brick-and-mortar stores as well as auction houses that deal in such wines.
Serious wine collectors as well as those with modest home cellars who have some higher-end wines to sell are the source of the wines on the gray market, notes Mike Sai, director of marketing at Benchmark Wine Group, an online operation in the Bay Area that at any given time has 4,000 to 6,000 individual wines on its site.
He explains that his company typically acquires private collections rather than cherry-picking a few trophy wines from a for-sale batch."Maybe a person has 1,000 bottles and one day the doctor tells him, 'Hey, you can't drink anymore.' So suddenly all that wine becomes a commodity," Sai says. "Or there's a death or divorce or distress -- that sort of thing. Or it's a matter of tastes changing. Somebody got into wines through a big trip to Napa and bought a lot of Napa wines but then they get turned onto Burgundy and that's all they want to drink."
The mark-ups from release price on the secondary market can be quite astounding for the highest-ranked wines. Those releases that get 100 points from critics like Parker instantly command stratospheric prices, like the 2014 Scarecrow Napa cabernet. Current prices on Wine-Searcher range from a low of $600 up to $1,000 per bottle.
Pros like Sai and Zugelder explain that this situation has led wineries to rapidly increase the release prices of trophy wines to head-spinning levels, which goes up even further once they hit the secondary market -- and many bottles inevitably do right after release. "Screaming Eagle is a good example," notes Zugelder. "It's one of the few sure things now. On the mailing list, it's probably $800 or something like that. Then list members can turn around and potentially double their money" on the gray market, he says.
This makes it seem like speculating in collectable wine should become a lucrative hobby but Sai is quick to disagree. The low production levels of the trophy wines and vicissitudes of the wine scene put a cap on potential profits. "You might do really well but you can also lose money," he says. "At the end of the day, I recommend people not look at wine as an investment."
"Some people have unrealistic expectations" of what their wines should fetch on the secondary market, reports Tomas Mieres, managing director of the Wine Bank in Menlo Park, which sells wine at a commission of 17% for the clients who have wine lockers at the facility. "We're seeing more and more cases of people selling their wine for less than they paid for it," he says. "Some of the Napa wines are very hot when they're released if they get high scores from Parker but several years down the road, people might be chasing a different cult wine."
One thing seems assured; wine will continue to arrive on the gray market due to the addictive nature of collecting wine for many well-heeled individuals. Wine storage and sales companies see this all the time. As Mieres describes it, "We have clients who, every six months or a year, will need more space because they keep buying more wine than they can consume."
Secondary market offers more than trophy wines
Our discussion so far of trophy wines and the avid collectors who seek them on the secondary market at any price is a universe apart from everyday wine consumers. Or is it? While cult-wine hunters will continue to look for rarities, the secondary market is a great place to buy all kinds of wines. Perhaps a consumer had a delicious bottle in a restaurant that isn't sold in retail shops, or fell in love with an older vintage at a dinner party or wants more bottles of a beloved older wine that is now just a pleasant memory. Like with a favorite author, some wine consumers discover a specific wine and want to buy additional vintages. Then there's the common occurrence of buying a special wine to be given as a gift, the biggest season for which will soon be upon us.
Since the pros report that many wines can be found on the secondary market for less than release price, having a strategy for using this market is worthwhile for those buying wine. There are many online sellers like Benchmark, Vinfolio, JJ Buckley and others in the Bay Area alone, with many more nationwide. Making it easy for consumers is the price aggregating site, Wine-Searcher, which displays the prices available for a specific wine from a wealth of stores, online and otherwise -- some 90,257 merchants around the world in total. The New Zealand-based site typically lists more than 9,000,000 wines from all over the globe.
While some wine drinkers chase critics scores as a guide to making purchases, the specific taste biases of these influential people might not correlate with every palate. Fortunately, there are many blogs, websites, magazines and other sources putting out wine reviews, with a particularly helpful source being CellarTracker, which provides a vast assortment of wine reviews and tasting notes from wine lovers on millions of wines.
Says Mike Sai: "The savviest guys are using Wine-Searcher in combination with CellarTracker. You'll see people use CellarTracker to get up-to-date consumer reviews of those wines or get any info at all. They'll get an inkling about something, then they'll do some research to suss out what the market price is," he explains. Besides the online shops, gray-market wines are available from some Bay Area brick-and-mortar retailers like The Wine Club and K&L Wine Merchants that resell wine purchased from private cellars. Retail shops, online sellers and auction houses are all listed on Wine-Searcher.
Other strategies for wine lovers
Auction houses are another entity in the secondary market, although for trophy wines, many experts say the prices can be higher than other channels. This might not necessarily be true for other wines but "it depends" remains the mantra of how much any wine will cost on the secondary market.
Auction houses vary from brick-and-mortar locations such as Sotheby's and auctions held by some local retailers to the online auction site, WineBid, as well as many charity auctions, with the best known being Auction Napa Valley. Prospective bidders should be aware that they'll be paying a buyer's premium of up to 23%, shipping and other possible costs for wines purchased at auction, so having a strategy going in is worthwhile.
Buyers of any wines purchased on the secondary market should be assured of the "provenance" of the wine, says Mike Sai. This means guarantees that the wine was properly stored, thus maintaining its value. He suggests looking for other buyer benefits. "Will they take it back when it's cooked or corked?" asks Sai. "Depending on the shop, they might work with customers on that or not."
Any avid wine drinker should sign up on the mailing list for their favorite wineries, say the pros. This includes even the trophy wines with long waiting lists, notes Joe Zugelder. "Don't even think about it; start today. People drop out of these things sometimes."
Zugelder suggests more strategies for finding particularly tasty wines priced well below trophy levels. "A lot of people play 'follow the winemaker,'" he says. Quite a few winemaker stars consult for other wineries, producing terrific wines that can cost less than the heralded bottles from their best-known winery. He mentions Heidi Barrett, Mia Klein, Thomas Rivers Brown and Philippe Melka, for starters. Worth adding to that list are Aaron Pott, Celia Welch, Steve Matthiasson and Justin Smith.
According to Tomas Mieres, prices seem to fall when high-end California wines reach a certain age, which doesn't necessarily mean they aren't still delicious. "That's particularly true for chardonnay," he says. "A chardonnay that's about 10 years of age will dip in price quite a bit. Those who like the taste of older wines can get a good deal." Again, the best rule of thumb is to check prices on Wine-Searcher for older vintages and consult with sites like CellarTracker to see what consumers say about specific older wines.
Joining local tasting groups and reading wine publications are still good actions for those who like wine and want exposure to bottles that personally resonate. Best of all -- particularly given the economic impact of the recent devastating wine country fires -- is to visit Northern California wineries at the source and revel in the gorgeous fall weather with a glass in hand.