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What Collectable California Pinot Noir Wines are Being Bought to Sell?

California Pinot Noir collectibles are sold through allocated mailing lists, are difficult to acquire, absurdly priced on the secondary market, and more often sold on the secondary or auction market than consumed. That said, many of these wines remain the standard against which other California Pinot Noirs are measured.

The concept of domestic “cult” wines emerged in the 1980s with a number of collectible Napa Valley Cabernets, and were jokingly defined as a wine you can’t buy. Wine industry analyst Eileen Fredrikson said there was one quality cult wines usually had in common: “Exclusivity, either real or imagined.” The criteria for inclusion in the cult club were allocation, limited production, unobtainable if not on the mailing list except on the secondary market or auction sites at inflated prices, high scores, perception of high quality, reputable winemaker.

As wines become collectible they are often bought as an investment and rarely drank. Many buyers keep a few bottles and sell the rest to cover their purchase and remain on the mailing list. The problem is that it is often deep-pocketed collectors and restaurateurs who bid on the wines on the secondary market, further driving up prices until they soar beyond rationality.

The original California cult Pinot Noir was Williams Selyem. Ed Selyem originated the idea of a mailing list and consumers had to be on the mailing list to obtain Williams Selyem wines. Virtually none was available outside of a few select restaurants. If you showed up at the winery garage, you might be lucky to be offered a logo tee shirt, but never any wine. I was one of those on the mailing list early on, but I drank the wines and never sold any.

Williams Selyem Pinot Noir became so popular that a waiting list was developed for those begging to get on the mailing list. Eventually, 85% of the Williams Selyem wine was sold directly to individuals on the carefully guarded mailing list. Over the years there were hoards of wine enthusiasts trying to get on the mailing list and managing it became a daunting task. Two of the winery’s seven full-time employees in the mid-1990s were designated as “keepers of the list,” and devoted some of their workdays to managing it.

The fact is that although wineries who achieve cult status are flattered by all of the notoriety, they would prefer to see the wine drunk by those who cherish it rather than sold by those who invest in it. Sophie Kevany said appropriately, “The problem with escalating wine prices for desirables is that when it comes time to sell, the price will exceed the value perceived by those who would actually drink the wine.”

K & L Wine Merchants in Northern California is a large retailer in business for over 30 years offering significant amounts of wine including domestic Pinot Noir through sales and auctions. They notify their customers when wines in the category that they are interested in are available. For two months at the end of last year, I tabulated all the collectable California Pinot Noir wines being offered by K & L either through direct sale or auction. Presumably, these wines were acquired by K & L from consumers who were urged to sell the wines by K & L promotion on their website. I was curious to know which California Pinot Noirs were being sold (and not drunk) most often on the secondary market. Kosta Browne Pinot Noir was by far the most commonly offered wine for sale with 134 bottles for sale or auction over the 2-month span. The Pinot Noir wines are listed in descending frequency.

Kosta Browne (134)
Rhys Vineyards (67)
Williams Selyem (56)
Rivers-Marie (39)
Sea Smoke (34)
Aubert (28)
Peter Michael (24)
Rochioli (24)
Sojourn (16)
Kistler (15)
Hanzell (12)
Anthill Farms (11)
Paul Lato (11)
Littorai (10)
Marcassin (10)
DuMOL (8)
ROAR (8)
Less than 5: Calera, Kutch, Brewer-Clifton, Occidental

Vinfolio is another company that buys and sells wine on the secondary market. Of the California Pinot Noirs they recently offered, most of the wines were from Kosta Browne and Rhys Vineyards, with a few from Aubert, Kistler, Occidental, Peter Michael and Williams Selyem.

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