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Exceptional Hard-To-Find Wines

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

There are some wines, it seems, that money just can't buy.

Anyone, provided they have enough room on their credit card, can walk into a top wine shop and buy a $3,900 case of 2003 Chateau Mouton Rothschild.

But try the same thing with another Bordeaux, the $7,000-per-case Chateau Le Pin 2004, and your request will most likely be greeted with an amused shake of the head and a polite "Sorry, Sir."

The difference here has nothing to do with quality, but with production. That's because, in a typical year, Mouton will make 19,000 cases whereas Le Pin only 120. This limited production makes Le Pin a member of a small and exclusive group of wines—mostly Burgundies and California cabernet sauvignons—that are produced in such minuscule quantities, and for which demand so far exceeds supply that they have achieved a cult-like status.

But limited supply is not the only factor that contributes to these wines' rarified standing.

"The thing about cult wines is that they are great wines, but they are not cult wines because of the wine itself" says Sam Rosen, owner and chief operating officer of Sam's Wines & Spirits in Chicago. "They become cult wines based on availability and reviews."

The result? A large number of extremely well heeled wine aficionados chasing very small amounts of wine, And as one would expect of a commodity that's as rare, expensive and highly sought-after as this, there's a clandestine, even secretive air to the business that you don't find with more normal wines.

Finders Keepers

These wines are not sold on the open market with price balancing supply and demand, but by allocation. In some cases, importers try to see the wines get to the top restaurants and retailers, often not in the standard 1 2-boffle case but in special three-packs, so they are able to provide more outlets for consumption.

The California cabs, on the other hand, are usually sold directly to the consumer, or to those lucky enough to be on the winery's mailing list. Colgin has 3,000 names waiting to get on their list...

...Not surprisingly, for a product so sought after as these dozen or so cult wines, there is an active secondary market in which they can command several times their release price...

Ann Colgin, of the eponymous California winery, is aware that some of the people on her mailing list turn around and sell their allocation for considerable profit.

She doesn't spend a lot of time policing the situation, but if she learns that someone is reselling the wine, she says she's "perhaps not as generous with future allocations."

 By Nick Passmore