Who’s up, who’s down in Oakville
Off to Napa Valley later this morning for the annual Taste of Oakville, where dozens of that AVA’s top wineries pour for the trade. Groth, Harlan, Dalla Valle, Atalon, Opus One, Screaming Eagle, Vine Cliff, Rudd, PlumpJack, you name it, they’ll all be there in Mondavi’s Tokalon building, with their proprietors and winemakers (i.e., not tasting room staff) doing the meeting and greeting. I know of no tasting in California that manages to roster up so many stellar luminaries under one roof.
TOO has been going for years now, through good times and bad, and right now is as bad as Napa’s seen in decades. It’s going to be interesting to connect with folks and see how they’re faring. We know anecdotally that the high end has been hurt, and Oakville is as high end as California wine gets, so we have to assume that there’s pain in the little appellation.
It used to be that owners of cult wineries could more or less sit back and rest on their laurels. These wines were so coveted, there were far more people who wanted them than there were bottles available, and so the stuff practically sold itself. There were mailing lists, and waiting lists to get on the mailing lists, and even if you were lucky enough to score a bottle or two, chances are you either (a) were too scared to open anything so expensive, or (b) re-sold it on the aftermarket, at a healthy profit. But the Great Recession has changed everything. Many people who used to be able to afford $400 or $500 for a bottle of wine no longer can. As for the aftermarket, well, check out this article from Yahoo! Finance. Called “How to make a million,” it advised ambitious investors that wine was “ripe for picking.” But look at that pub date: Oct. 10, 2008. That was exactly three weeks after Lehman Brothers collapsed. Now, the article’s title looks like a bad joke. Today, it would be called “How to lose a million.”
So even millionaire owners of cult wineries have to get out there and sell. Even the 2009 Bordeaux are likely to face an uphill battle if they get too costly, with merchants and restaurateurs expressing doubt that the top wines will be scooped up despite the hyped vintage, according to this article in today’s Wine Business Online, reprinted from Decanter. If Leoville Las Cases and Angelus are hard to move, it’s difficult to see Kelham and Futo sailing out the door. Although the retail value of California wine sold in 2009 was down only three percent, according to the Wine Institute, that number is misleading, because it’s skewed toward high-volume producers. The higher the retail price on a bottle, the further the price fell. I did a little Internet search comparing the suggested retail prices on Napa Cabs sent to me versus what they’re selling for online. Here’s a partial list:
Trefethen 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon: SRP $100. $70 online
Continuum 2007, $140 vs. $100
Hestan 2006, $100 vs. $46
Flora Springs 2007 Hillside Reserve, $100 vs. $85
Parallel 2006, $125 vs. $53
David Arthur 2007, $95 vs. $79
On the other hand, a few wines are actually exceeding their SRP. Pride Mountain’s 2006 Reserve Claret was released at $125; I couldn’t fine it anywhere for less than $145, and in some places it topped $200. Ditto for Colgin’s 2006 IX Estate Red Blend. Released at $290 SRP, it’s now available online for $400 and up. What this tells me is that consumers are being very fussy about their “cults.” Pride Mountain and Bob Foley may be bulletproof. Colgin, too, given its history and pedigree. But many others aren’t. For one reason or another, the brand loses luster. Consumers, when they’re spending lots of money on discretionary things, need to be excited. Rightly or wrongly, many expensive Napa wines no longer thrill. I think I’m going to see some of them today at Taste of Oakville.