BEAULIEU VINEYARD, Inglenook, Chateau Montelena, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Heitz Wine Cellars: The online auction catalog reads like a who's who of Napa Valley pioneers, vintners who made the first world-class wines in California. The list includes bottles from the region's legendary vintages of 1974, 1978 and 1985. The surprise? Most of these storied Cabernet Sauvignon wines are priced to sell for a relative pittance.
In a world where a case of old Bordeaux can fetch $100,000 at auction, wines with the benefit of a couple of decades in the bottle appear to be beyond the reach of most wine lovers. The average price of a bottle of 1982 Château Pétrus at auction has doubled to $4,375 since 2005 on top of stratospheric increases in gavel prices earlier in the decade, according to statistics compiled by Wine Market Journal, a website that tracks wine auctions.
In this overheated atmosphere with collectors from all over the world vying for the big names in old wine, one corner of the wine market -- California Cabernet Sauvignon vintage 1985 and older -- remains stocked with affordable treasures, according to experts on rare wine.
A handful of savvy connoisseurs collects these wines -- not to fill their cellars with bragging rights, but to drink. Bidding on these older California wines in online auctions offers novice enthusiasts an avenue for exploring the pleasures of mature fine wine.
"It's the last undiscovered top-quality wine in the market," says David Parker, president of online wine auction house Brentwood Wine Co.
No bells, no whistles
THESE Cabs have proved to be among the longest-lived California wines made. Yet, they were produced with little fanfare, originally selling for $5 to $20 a bottle at a time when few Americans understood how to properly store wine. So the risk of damage from poor storage is higher than with more celebrated wines. And they are unlikely to increase in value, so they're not for investors.
Major auction houses, including Sotheby's and Christie's, rarely feature these wines. When it comes to California, their clients prefer Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Colgin and the other cult Cabs from Napa Valley. But smaller houses such as Acker Merrall & Condit have developed online auctions that feature less expensive wines, including what Acker owner John Kapon calls "classic" California wines. Hart Davis Hart Wine Co. and Zachys Wine Auctions have established online retail outlets for the same purpose.
"Among the established old-wine buyers, the folks setting the high prices for wines at auction, the prevailing attitude is that California wines last 10 years and then fade," says Scott Torrance, wine specialist at Christie's in Los Angeles. "They are misinformed. Most of these buyers have never experienced the older vintage California wines. These wines are wonderful when they have been stored well."
But because the wines don't command high prices, "no one puts them up for auction," he says. "People who own them drink them." The only time Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de Latour shows up in a Christie's sale, he says, "is when we are selling an entire cellar and it happens to include some of these wines." Who buys them? Retailers who know they can resell them for three times the auction price -- and the 30- to 40-year-olds who are just getting started collecting wine.
"[Wine critics] Robert Parker and Wine Spectator favor the cult Cabs and ignore the classics," says Kapon. "You can buy a Dunn, Ridge or Chateau Montelena for $100 a bottle versus a California cult Cab such as Colgin for $600 or more. Classic California wines are the best values on the market today."
One enthusiast, Hollywood talent manager Matt Lichtenberg, discovered classic California Cabs 10 years ago after tasting a 1974 Heitz Martha's Vineyard, a wine that is among the most sought after of the older California wines. "It was unbelievable," he says. "I became obsessed. You can buy these wines for so little. Only the '74 Heitz Martha is well-known. Most of the rest of the wines are not on anyone's radar."
Vince DiPierro, a longtime wine collector and former "Saturday Night Live" writer living in Los Angeles, doesn't pause as he ticks off his favorite vintages of Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve, naming 10 years between (and including) 1946 and 1985.
Many of the vintages he cites -- which also include 1949, 1951, 1958, 1965, 1968, 1970, 1974 and 1985 -- were exemplary years for other Napa wineries such as Freemark Abbey Winery, Louis M. Martini Winery, Heitz Wine Cellars, Caymus Vineyards, Grace Family Vineyards, Roddis and Chappellet Vineyard.
The price is right
THESE choice selections from the formative years in California's wine culture "are a steal" at online wine auctions, DiPierro says.
"I was brought up on these wines," he says. "My dad bought '49 Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve as our house wine when it cost $1.99. In the 1960s when it went up to $2.49, my dad started collecting it because it was my birth year." DiPierro picked up the collecting habit, spending his college years getting to know California's trend-setting winemakers, including André Tchelistcheff.
Five years ago, DiPierro held a tasting of 1958 wines from a variety of California producers. "They held up perfectly," he says. "Everyone thought they were French."
After the 1985 vintage was released in the late 1980s, DiPierro stopped collecting California wines. "When I had to pay $100 for a bottle and compared it to what I could get for $100 from France," it wasn't worth it, he says. At that point, winemakers began delaying harvests and reducing vineyard yields for California Cabs to produce the more extracted, higher-alcohol style now popular.
Steve Matthesen, a business advisor with Boston Consulting Group, started collecting older California wines after he tasted a Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon Special Selection from a now-forgotten early vintage. He buys a broad range of collectible wines but says he's found treasures hidden in the odd lots of old California wine. Three years ago he bought a mixed case of unfamiliar wines that cost an average of $17 a bottle. "A few weren't great but the bottle of '74 Charles Krug was worth the price of the whole lot," he says.
The auction market "has gone nuts for the marquee names from Bordeaux and Burgundy and some of the California cult wines," Matthesen says. "But for drinkable older wines, it's not insane. There are lots of bargains."
WineBid.com is the country's largest online auction house with 43,000 registered users after 11 years in the business. Each week 8,000 to 12,000 wines are on offer; bidding closes Sundays at 6 p.m. PST.
The site's weekly sales, Matthesen says, "are particularly good for onesies and twosies [one and two bottle auction lots]. The best deals are the wines with ratty, tattered labels but the fill [the level of the wine in the bottle] reaches the neck. The wines likely were cellared in a damp, cold place, and yet you get a discount because the label isn't perfect."
In general, he expects to find more heat-damaged wines when he buys single bottles. "Less serious collectors means a greater chance of poor storage," he says. "But I haven't had a lot of bad bottles."
Matthesen likes the 1978 vintage of California Cabs and loves the 1974s. Out-of-fashion wineries such as Clos du Val can be wonderful, he says, and he thinks that Ridge Vineyards wines (the Napa wines and wines from the Monte Bello Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains) hold up well too. "Approach these wines with an academic mind. It's history in the bottle." His favorite old California Cabernet: 1978 Diamond Creek, Volcanic Hill. "Ridiculously good."
The mystery factor
AT THE WineBid.com warehouse offices by the Napa County Airport, wines arrive daily to be inspected, bar-coded and organized for sale in wooden racks designed to store 150,000 individual bottles. But it's "Buyer, beware" at auction. There is no way to guarantee that a wine hasn't been damaged by being improperly stored at sometime during its life. All sales are final.
The older California wines are a small part of Winebid.com's sales, says Chief Executive Jerome Zech. "These wines are a secret. You get a loser sometimes. But there are some great wines."
Acker's Kapon has developed a list of "best bets" when it comes to buying "classic" California wines. Beaulieu Vineyard, Heitz, Dunn, Ridge, Chateau Montelena, Robert Mondavi, Foreman and Spottswood are the names to watch, he says.
"But in a good vintage -- '66, '68, '70, '74, '78, '84 ,'85, '87 -- any producer, even someone you've never heard of, is a good bet. I've had great random wines from this period in California that have shown better than the big name Bordeaux wines."
In California, these are familiar names. But, they are not well-known to the new wine buyers in Asia, Eastern Europe and Russia who are driving the international wine market, says Paul Hart, with Chicago wine auction house Hart Davis Hart. "The international market isn't interested in these wines. There isn't a lot of press on them." When they come through his shop, Hart sells them through the company's online retail store. "They're great bargains."
When he's scouring the market, collector Lichtenberg says he expects a certain amount of disappointment. If he spends an average of $50 a bottle, three out of 10 wines will be worthy and, perhaps, one will be extraordinary. At $150 a bottle, the odds are they'll all be fine.
The 1974 Heitz Martha's Vineyard Cabernet that first inspired him is the rare classic California Cab that appreciates in value. It now sells for $1,000. Still, he continues to buy them whenever he finds them. Not that he'd ever sell a single bottle, he says. Lichtenberg just wants to have plenty of his favorite wines to drink.