California’s Top 10 Collectible Wines

Illustration of 5 wine bottles, a glass of wine and wine in a decanter
Illustration by Feifei Ruan

Anyone who has uncorked a carefully stored 20-year-old Dominus or 30-year-old Ridge Monte Bello knows that California wine can age well. The bouquet is fascinating and evolved, the palate retains some freshness, and the mouthfeel has turned silky—just what’s supposed to happen as a great wine matures.

Last year, Liv-ex, the global marketplace for the wine trade, introduced its California 50 Index, and sales of the top collectibles have surged at Sotheby’s in New York City, Hart Davis Hart Wine Co. in Chicago and on the San Francisco-based Vinfolio trading and cellar-management platform. This means that now is an ideal time to collect the crème de la crème of California wines, those with proven ability to improve over time in both enjoyment and worth.

With that in mind, we gathered secondary market data on dozens of wines to calculate the most collectible California bottlings today. We considered wines whose first vintage was at least 15 years ago, those widely regarded to hold or improve in quality with time, ones traded most frequently in the U.S. and abroad, and bottlings with high price appreciation, calculated by comparing release prices and future resale figures compiled by Liv-ex.

Read on to discover the state’s top 10 blue-chip bottles, ranked by the average rate of their six-year appreciation.

Illustration of three bottles of wine, wine in glasses and clocks
Clockwise from L: Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon, Dominus, Scarecrow Cabernet Sauvignon

1.  Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon

Appellation: Oakville
First Vintage: 1992
Current Release: 2016, $2,500, 780 cases
Current Winemaker: Nick Gislason
Average Recent Market Prices: 2010 – $3,510; 2005 – $3,310; 1995 – $3,750
Average Six-Year Appreciation: 103%

Screaming Eagle is the most collectible California wine, based on its secondary market value and average price appreciation. The story of its beginning has been told many times. Real estate agent Jean Phillips bought a vineyard along the eastern edge of Napa Valley’s Oakville appellation in 1986. It turned out to have a small block of exceptional Cabernet Sauvignon. She later hired Heidi Barrett as her first winemaker, and the wine was launched with a memorable name and striking bottle. Since then, new owners have come in, vineyards have expanded and production has increased from around 200 cases to as many as 800 cases per year, and yet the glow of this silky, polished and beautifully concentrated wine has never diminished.

2. Dominus

Appellation: Napa Valley
First Vintage: 1983
Current Release: 2016, $299, 5,500 cases
Current Winemaker: Tod Mostero
Average Recent Market Prices: 2010 – $295; 2005 – $200; 1995 – $185
Average Six-Year Appreciation: 93%

Christian Moueix belongs to a Bordeaux wine merchant family whose assets long included Château Pétrus in Pomerol. He first fell in love with Napa Valley as a grad student studying enology at the University of California, Davis, during the 1960s. Dominus Estate, a minimalist stone winery in the historic Napanook vineyard in Yountville, is his monument to that moment. The brand has consistently released one of the most long-lived and classically styled wines in California, mostly from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. Collectors have invested in Dominus for a generation, but it’s recently appreciated in value almost as fast as Screaming Eagle.

3. Scarecrow Cabernet Sauvignon

Appellation: Rutherford
First Vintage: 2003
Current Release: 2016, $400, 2,000 cases
Current Winemaker: Celia Welch
Average Recent Market Prices: 2010 – $605; 2005 – $650
Average Six-Year Appreciation: 80%

In the early 2000s, photographer Brett Lopez acquired a home and vineyard property adjacent to Inglenook on the west side of the famed Rutherford appellation of Napa Valley. Planted to Cabernet Sauvignon in 1945, it had belonged to his grandfather, J.J. Cohn, who, as the chief of production for MGM, had been instrumental in making The Wizard of Oz. When Lopez began to make wine from these vines stretching toward the mountains in 2003, he borrowed the name of one of the bravest characters from his grandfather’s classic. Previously, the Scarecrow estate supplied grapes for classic Cabernet Sauvignons from Inglenook, Niebaum-Coppola, Opus One and Joseph Phelps Insignia.

A wine bottle on its side with two wine bottles next to it
L to R: Opus One, Ridge Monte Bello, Harlan Estate / Illustration by Feifei Ruan

4. Opus One

Appellation: Napa Valley
First Vintage: 1979
Current Release: 2016, $365, 21,900 cases
Current Winemaker: Michael Silacci
Average Recent Market Prices: 2010 – $475; 2005 – $500; 1995 – $450
Average Six-Year Appreciation: 71%

Napa Valley producer Opus One is a French-American wine estate located in Oakville. It was founded by two larger-than-life figures in 20th-century winemaking, local icon Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Bordeaux, who came together in pursuit of a classic, ageworthy red wine from Napa grapes through traditional French techniques. While Rothschild owned the first-growth Château Mouton-Rothschild and brought instant celebrity to the venture, the wine wouldn’t have become such a success if it didn’t live up to that hype. The duo built a monumental winery, and, within only a few years, their enologists perfected the wine’s layered, sculpted style. Eventually, Opus One became the first American wine sold through négociants on La Place de Bordeaux alongside the elite classified growths.

5. Ridge Monte Bello

Appellation: Santa Cruz Mountains
First Vintage: 1962
Current Release: 2016, $225, 5,150 cases
Current Winemaker: Eric Baugher
Average Recent Market Prices: 2010 – $195; 2005 – $265; 1995 – $350
Average Six-Year Appreciation: 67%

Ridge Monte Bello has the longest track record of California’s top collectibles, and it’s the only one made outside Napa Valley. The firmly structured, intricate and famously long-aging wine grows on Ridge Vineyard’s home property situated between 1,300 and 2,700 feet above sea level, where it sits above the high-tech campuses of Silicon Valley and catches cool breezes from the Pacific. The 2016 was made from 72% Cabernet Sauvignon blended with Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. After a period of lower recognition, Monte Bello’s value has begun to appreciate quickly. Meanwhile, bottlings at peak maturity and those from fascinating vintages from the 1980s and 1990s remain available at lower prices than new releases.

6. Harlan Estate

Appellation: Napa Valley
First Vintage: 1990
Current Release: 2015, $1,500, 1,800 cases
Current Winemaker: Cory Empting
Average Recent Market Prices: 2010 – $1,000; 2005 – $750; 1995 – $850
Average Six-Year Appreciation: 64%

William Harlan, a former real-estate developer, built Harlan Estate from the ground up. He envisioned a classic estate winery that could grow and produce wines on the same site, one with the potential to last for many generations. In 1984, he chose a beautiful hilly location in Napa Valley’s Oakville district that overlooked famous properties like Martha’s Vineyard and To Kalon, and, having previously been an owner of Merryvale Vineyards, tapped former employee Bob Levy to be his founding winemaker. Harlan Estate’s signature red became a classic from its first vintage in 1990, with its bold Cabernet Sauvignon flavors, massive structure and slow aging curve keeping it near the top of today’s collectors’ wish lists. Note that older, drinkable vintages can be about half  the price of new ones.

Illustration of two bottles of wine in front of a barrel
Colgin IX Estate Red Wine (L), Joseph Phelps Insignia (R) / Illustration by Feifei Ruan

7. Colgin IX Estate Red Wine

Appellation: Napa Valley
First Vintage: 2002
Current Release: 2016, $650, 1,800 cases
Current Winemaker: Allison Tauziet
Average Recent Market Prices: 2010 – $550; 2005 – $400
Average Six-Year Appreciation: 63%

Art collector and philanthropist Ann Colgin and her then-husband, Fred Schrader, made their first vintage from the Herb Lamb Vineyard in 1992. Offerings from the small winery, of which luxury goods group LVMH purchased a 60% stake in 2017, have evolved over time. Today’s most collectible item is the IX Estate Red Wine, an inviting and richly textured blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot that debuted for the 2002 vintage. The grapes are grown in the Pritchard Hill area at elevations ranging from 1,150–1,350 feet, in rugged terrain along the eastern rim of Napa Valley. Colgin’s Cariad red wine, which launched in 1999, is a close runner-up in collectability.

8. Joseph Phelps Insignia

Appellation: Napa Valley
First Vintage: 1974
Current Release: 2016, $300, 13,400 cases
Current Winemaker: Ashley Hepworth
Average Recent Market Prices: 2010 – $215; 2005 – $225; 1995 – $215
Average Six-Year Appreciation: 53%

Joseph Phelps Insignia was the first of many high-end red wines in the modern era to carry a proprietary name rather than a varietal label. Though the initial idea was to allow for flexibility to make the wine from any varietal, founder Joseph Phelps and then-winemaker Walter Schug would soon focus Insignia on a blend made from Bordeaux varieties. Eventually, the grapes came mostly from Phelps’ own vineyards, especially those from the cooler parts of Napa Valley, like the Stags Leap District, Oak Knoll and the south of the valley. Recent vintages stress Cabernet Sauvignon and show vivid fruit character complemented by generous oak spices. Insignia ages well, and its price stays near the low end of Napa collectibles, due in part to its relatively large production.

Illustration of a glass of wine next to two bottles of wine
Paul Hobbs Beckstoffer Dr. Crane Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (L), Robert Mondavi To Kalon Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (R) / Illustration by Feifei Ruan

9. Paul Hobbs Beckstoffer Dr. Crane Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon

Appellation: Napa Valley
First Vintage: 2003
Current Release: 2015, $285, 815 cases
Current Winemaker: Paul Hobbs
Average Recent Market Prices: 2010 – $350; 2005 – $345
Average Six-Year Appreciation: 50%

Sonoma County-based winemaker Paul Hobbs is adept at both Russian River Valley Chardonnay and Argentine Malbec. But it’s his Napa Valley-grown Cabernet Sauvignon from a St. Helena vineyard first planted in 1858 that’s become his most collectible wine. The warm, flat site known as Dr. Crane Vineyard has been owned and managed by Beckstoffer Vineyards since 1997, and it features deep, gravelly loam soil well-suited to the four clones of Cabernet that grow there. Hobbs touts the wine’s powerful aromatics, while others remark on its silky tannins. Collectors have shown their intense interest, as average prices have surged 50% since 2013.

10. Robert Mondavi To Kalon Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

Appellation: Oakville
First Vintage: 1971
Current Release: 2016, $175, 8,829 cases
Current Winemaker: Geneviève Janssens
Average Recent Market Prices: 2010 – $135; 2005 – $125; 1995 – $85
Average Six-Year Appreciation: 50%

With the least expensive release price on this most-collectible list, the Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet is an ideal starting place for a wine collection. Mondavi began to make Cabernet in the winery’s inaugural vintage of 1966, and the “Reserve” term was started with the 1971 vintage. Grapes from the famed and subdivided To Kalon property, on which the winery was built, have been included from the beginning. However, it’s only been called out on the label since 2011. While it’s aged in all-new French barrels each year, the winery has refrained from crafting the wine with too much ripeness, and it retains a distinctive sage and currant character that sets it apart. Some beautifully mature older vintages can be had for half the price of new releases.

How Red Wine is Made

Five Musts for Successful Cellaring

Whether you choose to enjoy or resell, collectible wine is an investment. To protect that investment, it’s necessary to store your wine under the best conditions. These are the five conditions to ensure proper cellaring.

1. Keep it cool. Storage at or near 55˚F is optimal to ensure slow, patient maturation of the wine.

2. Mind the moisture. If the space is too humid, the labels can mildew. Too dry? Air space in the bottles (called “ullage”) will increase too fast over time.

3. Go dark. Light can penetrate clear glass wine bottles and affect the wine.

4. Do not disturb. Don’t store bottles where strong vibrations or frequent changes of position will stir the wine inside.

5. Take note. Keep accurate records of your purchases to show good provenance for eventual resale, or simply to remind yourself just how well you planned.

Where to Score Old Beauties

The best way to buy new vintages of the top collectibles is to sign up for direct purchases via winery websites. Be warned, however, that this can involve spending years on a waiting list.

More immediate gratification can be had by bidding on older vintages at the U.S. auction houses of Sotheby’s, Zachys, Christie’s and Acker Merrall & Condit in New York City; Hart Davis Hart in Chicago; and Heritage, Bonhams, Spectrum and Zachys in California. Virtual bidding is another option, and WineBid and Heritage Auctions conduct online auctions.

Collectors buy, store and sell wines through Vinfolio, while Liv-ex is a unique resource for the global wine trade that allows them to price, source and sell wine . And Wine-Searcher gives instant, specific retail prices on virtually any wine, as well as links to the stores that sell it.

For past vintages of top collectibles, Wine.com often has a few in stock. Finally, most major U.S. cities have at least one or two fine wine shops that carry California collectibles, so it’s smart to meet your local retailers, too.

Published on November 4, 2019
Topics: Wine and Ratings


SUBSCRIBE TO
NEWSLETTERS
The latest wine reviews, trends and recipes plus special offers on wine storage and accessories