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Mailing List Wines & Whines

Trying to get onto a cult winery’s mailing list can be enormously frustrating. So why are they still so popular? Lettie Teague finds out.

Today, wine can be purchased in all kinds of ways—in stores, at auction and, increasingly, online—but the most psychologically satisfying means of acquiring it, I’ve decided, must be through membership on a mailing list (preferably one that your friends can’t get on).

The mailing list phenomenon began some 10 years ago with small-production wineries, mostly Californian, that were (mostly) selling cult Cabernets. Only a chosen few could acquire these bottles straight from the winery; the less fortunate had to wait years for a chance to buy (or pay a premium in a restaurant, the only other place where these mailing list wines could usually be found).

Today, there are still plenty of people willing to wait. According to Manfred Krankl, coproprietor and winemaker at Sine Qua Non, there are about 4,000 people on the waiting list for his mailing list—and about one-fourth that number on the actual mailing list. Even though Sine Qua Non is one of the greatest producers in California (of Syrah, not Cabernet, as a matter of fact), I have to admit I was surprised by the numbers—especially since the competition for collectors’ attention has grown so fierce over the years, not only from established regions in Bordeaux and Burgundy, which have both had great vintages recently, but also from promising regions like Argentina’s Mendoza and New Zealand’s Central Otago.

There’s also a lot more competition at home. According to Eric Binau, whose company, Cultivate Systems, keeps track of such things, there are around 250 small-production mailing list wineries in California today—as opposed to about 30 a decade ago. And plenty more are soon to appear. "For every powerhouse like Bryant Family, there are five new Sloans, Scarecrows or Levy & McClellans coming online," he said, naming a few of the hottest properties— all, by the way, producers of Napa Valley Cabernet.

And price doesn’t seem to matter much in any case—whether for established stars or newcomers. For example, even though Sloan has been making wine only for the past few vintages (starting with 2000), its current release price is a not-immodest $245 a bottle. And its mailing list is full. And there’s no wine in sight for anyone on its waiting list, either. When I asked Marsha Chandler, Sloan’s customer relations manager (a title that seems better suited to Wal-Mart than a boutique Napa winery), how long it might take for someone on the waiting list to be eligible to buy a bottle, she wouldn’t say. One year? Two? A decade—or more? "We can’t really give an exact time," Chandler replied.

Nor could Janet Pagano, CEO of Ovid Vineyards, a California winery that has yet to produce its first wine. All Ovid has right now is an all-star production team (consulting winemaker Michel Rolland, vineyard manager David Abreu), and yet there’s a waiting list for its 2005 Napa Cabernet. "We haven’t even put together the final blend of the wine, but we’ve been inundated by people asking to be placed on the mailing list," said Pagano. Did any of the callers ask the cost of the wine? I wondered. "Not one," she replied. She couldn’t have told them, anyway, because the price isn’t set; yet they signed up all the same.

This kind of blind commitment is a big vote of confidence for California wine (though it pales in comparison to the $250 million commitment David Beckham got to make California soccer look good). Or is it? Especially when the wine is untasted, or even unmade? Are buyers of wines such as Ovid the vinous equivalent of seasoned horsemen buying on pedigree alone, or are they just speculators looking for the Next Big Thing? Perhaps they’re counting on Ovid to be worth three times its release price—whatever that turns out to be—as with Screaming Eagle. After all, even though a bottle of Screaming Eagle goes for $500, mailing list buyers can make that money back three times over (at least) by turning around and reselling the wine the very next day.

The collectors I spoke with insisted that passion, not profit, impelled them to put their name on a mailing list, though I’m sure there’s a touch of pragmatism in even the purest heart. As my friend Martin (not his real name) said, "I’d be a fool to get off the Screaming Eagle list when the wine is still selling for so much." Martin, who lives in Los Angeles, confessed he had considered selling his allocation from time to time but hasn’t so far. (Martin asked me not to print his real name, afraid he’d be punished for expressing such heretical thoughts, as wineries dislike collectors who buy and "flip" wines—and it’s not always legal.)

Of course, there are collectors who do more than just harbor such thoughts, and they often reap some very tangible rewards. For example, Martin has a friend who, it seems, sold "a vertical of Screaming Eagle a few years ago and bought himself a spanking new Corvette."

Retail stores are usually the buyers of such collections, and while some will make the transaction, others, like David Stevens of Acme Fine Wines of St. Helena, California, will not. "We have had people try to sell us their allocations," said Stevens, "but we always say no. If we sold it at the regular retail markup, it would look like we were gouging people."

David and his partner, Karen Williams, have their own allocations of such hard-to-get wines thanks to their long friendships with producers (they specialize in finding future California superstars), but they don’t necessarily sell all these wines. For example, "In our first two years of business, in 2002 and 2003, when Screaming Eagle was $300 a bottle, we’d just wrap the bottles up and send them to our best clients as a thank-you," Stevens said.

Most Acme clients, however, are like my friend Park B. Smith: collectors who simply have a great passion for California wine. Park’s love of wine is best described as outsize (his cellars hold about 64,000 impeccable bottles). He is the owner of an eponymous home-furnishings company and a partner in Veritas restaurant in New York City. He was also one of the earliest proponents of some of the most sought-after California wines, like Sine Qua Non. In fact, Park was Sine Qua Non’s very first mailing list customer back in 1996. He was also first on Harlan Estate’s mailing list and was buying Colgin Cellars’ wines back "before there was even a list." And Park is still buying—even though he sold about 16,000 bottles of his collection at a Sotheby’s auction last winter. The Sotheby’s sale just gave him "a little breathing room," he said.

Perhaps Park hasn’t dropped off any mailing lists, but I doubt he’s ever been confronted with bundling, a practice whereby wineries require mailing list customers to buy certain wines in addition to those they really want. This is one thing mailing list customers really can’t stand. "Nobody likes bundling," declared my friend Scott Manlin, a Chicago collector. Scott is on quite a few lists too, including Harlan and Araujo Estate (though "not in the top tier," he added, meaning his allocation of three bottles from each is comparatively small). Scott had also dropped off lists because of bundling. He left Williams Selyem when he was forced to buy "a bunch of cheap Pinots to get the single-vineyard wines."

My friend Martin dropped off a list due to bundling as well. "I couldn’t get Martinelli Vineyards’ Blue Slide Ridge Pinot Noir without buying a bunch of Chardonnay, too," he complained. So he dropped off. And yet there are still plenty of lists that Scott and Martin both hope to join. Particularly Marcassin and J. Rochioli Vineyards. "I’d love to get some of Rochioli’s single-vineyard Pinots," Scott said plaintively. Perhaps his friend Jim Clary, another Chicago collector, had some single-vineyard Pinots he was willing to share? After all, Jim is on "about 29 lists." Alas, Jim is not on the Rochioli list: The one mailing list he really hopes to join is Marcassin’s. But so far, his efforts have gone unnoticed. "Marcassin has never acknowledged me," reported Jim.

Manfred Krankl sends postcards to people who haven’t made it onto the Sine Qua Non list, detailing his regret in denying their request: "Please know that we derive zero satisfaction from having to send you this postcard to inform you that we are yet again unable to offer you any of the wines that are to be released in the fall of 2006," Krankl wrote. He did name a few of the new releases and suggest that the luckless reader look for them in restaurants and stores—although I suspect this piece of information might seem more like a taunt than practical advice, as SQN wines are extremely hard to find.

Harlan Estate also sends a postcard, though its message is a good bit more vague—in fact, it’s never more than a scrap of poetry or a random thought. This year’s postcard carried an aphorism from the philosopher William James: "The greatest use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it." (I found what I think would be a better James quote for would-be buyers of pricey Cabernet: "He who refuses to embrace a unique opportunity loses the prize as surely as if he had failed.") What was the point of the cards, anyway? "We send them out as a kind of ecumenical holiday note," explained Harlan Estate director Don Weaver, although he admitted the card "always confuses people. They’ll call up asking if it means they can order wine."

In fact, it’s not the Harlan card but the two-page Harlan letter that matters. "Anyone who gets our letter can place an order," said Weaver. Was that true? I’ve been getting the Harlan letter for years, but I thought they just wanted to keep me abreast of all the Harlan news. In the latest one, Weaver described the recent vintage (2004) and recalled his arrival at Harlan as a journeyman winemaker back in 1986. "Well, some people do like reading the letter for that," Weaver told me patiently. I pictured him carefully controlling himself from shouting, "Are you stupid?"

All these years I could have been buying bottles of Harlan Estate! Who knew how much I could have purchased or what "tier" I could have been in? One bottle, or perhaps two? Certainly less than Park Smith or Scott Manlin. I was so excited by the idea, I pretty much forgot that if I was "awarded" three bottles it would cost me over $1,000 (including shipping and handling). How much could I buy? I asked Weaver. "I can’t promise anything," he replied. "But you can make a request. We always tell people, we’ll see what we can do. Even if we can only get you a bottle of The Maiden," he added, naming the Harlan Estate’s $100 "second wine."

Harlan, like some wineries whose mailing lists are technically full, tries to fulfill requests even if, as Weaver said, it takes "a few years or a couple of ’consolation’ bottles of The Maiden" (which is also a very good, albeit pricey, wine). But at least there’s hope—unlike at, say, Marcassin or even Araujo Estate, which has opened and closed its list several times. It’s currently closed, though Bart Araujo has kept the price of its Eisele Vineyard Cabernet relatively low—only $215 for lucky mailing list buyers. Some wineries, including Screaming Eagle, maintain Web sites that invite people to sign up for their lists. (I put my name on the Screaming Eagle list, and when I asked how long it might be before I could buy a bottle, the answer was a vague "several years.")

Perhaps because of all these postcards and letters, Harlan, like many other vintners I spoke to, receives quite a bit of correspondence from clients—as often as not accompanied by photographs of hopeful buyers, and sometimes their children and dogs. "I have letters to Bill [Harlan] and boxes and boxes of photographs in the winery that I keep meaning to put into scrapbooks," said Weaver—and he even managed to sound pleased by this fact. (As one with dozens of unorganized photos of family and friends, I can’t imagine being happy about having to sort through pictures of people I don’t even know.)

Why do people want to be on winery mailing lists anyway? It couldn’t be just about getting great wine—collectors like Jim and Park and even Scott could buy almost any wine anywhere. (Scott, for example, does a lot of buying online from London wine brokers—though not necessarily Screaming Eagle.) Aside from the profiteering types who join lists hoping to buy wines to resell, I think most people like mailing lists because they offer a personal connection. How else to explain all of those photos in Don Weaver’s desk drawer? It’s not something that buyers of first-growth Bordeaux, for example, probably feel. I can’t picture the Rothschilds poring over pictures of strangers’ children and dogs. The producers who sell their wines direct from the source offer not only access to a bottling that may (or may not) be worth coveting but to a world that is almost certainly a worthy ideal.

Comments? E-mail Lettie Teague at winematters@aexp.com.

Published April 2007
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