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Wine Watch: Upheaval in the Über-Premium

Posted on  | September 5, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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In today’s economy, trophy wines are losing some luster.

hen having lunch with several sommeliers at a recent industry event, the subject of Screaming Eagle came up. Four of my fellow diners had just been offered an “exclusive” opportunity to increase their allocation of this notoriously sought-after label. Wow, I thought, how times have changed. It wasn’t long ago that even top restaurants could not score an extra bottle of Screaming Eagle for luck or money. Sensing that the market for wines priced at $750 per bottle wholesale just isn’t what it used to be, I set out to get a better feel for how the market for ultra-premium wines has morphed over the past few years.

One theme that emerged is that wines such as Continuum and Joseph Phelps Insignia—that have kept retail prices below $200 per bottle—have had a better time of it. In contrast, names at the very top of the price scale, such as Hill of Grace ($750), Harlan ($800) and Bryant Family ($550) have had the most dramatic drop in demand. Francis Schott, co-owner of Stage Left restaurant in New Jersey and co-host of The Restaurant Guys radio show, reports, “Bryant, Colgin and Harlan are names I’ve always had on my list. I used to sell them to big shots a few times a week. That’s stopped. I have some great back vintages of Bryant because I didn’t sell a bottle for two years. I don’t think it’s the wine, it’s the category.” What is still going strong for Schott? “Brunello never saw a slowdown; everyone is in love with Brunello.”

Cynthia Sexton, the GM and wine buyer at Vestry Wines in Manhattan, believes most collectors are increasingly tapping their own cellars. However, an interesting list of upscale names at her shop has escaped the general downturn, including Sine Qua Non, Quintarelli and Grange des Pères. When she does see über-expensive bottles going out the door, she finds it is mostly to continue a vertical that a collector has spent many years putting together. So, what is she buying less of? “There are a lot of new, expensive wines from Napa in the $100-$150 category,” she notes. “They’re almost impossible to sell. I’ve stopped buying them.”

Las Vegas, the market that once defined extravagance, has also seen a severe swing in demand at the the top end. Adam Curling, GM and wine manager of Charlie Palmer Steak, says he rarely sells bottles over $400 other than to patrons dining on the tab of a casino. He notices an emerging norm for collectors: taking a bottle to a favorite restaurant that allows BYOB. Many buyers report that gray market bottles sold over the internet are fueling this trend, and have increasingly undercut both retail and restaurant bottle sales. In order to continue to be able to offer something special, Curling has recently been passing on current releases of high-end Napa Cabs such as Colgin and Bryant in favor of library releases, which have the advantage of being more food-friendly and ready-to-drink.

Kris Margerum, wine director of Auberge du Soleil in Napa Valley, notes that top-end Chardonnay has fared better than Cabernet: “Sommeliers have tried to kill Chardonnay for years and it still won’t go away. For 30 years it’s been this way.” Chardonnay is one of the few categories of icon wines that he still has to chase down replacement bottles for. Given the more difficult climate for Cabernet and the aggressive nature of Napa Valley vintners, it won’t be a shock to see some of Napa’s high-end efforts shift toward the proverbial Queen of wines, rather than the erstwhile King.


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