It's California's turn to go under the microscope as we look for the world's most expensive wines.
Along with death and taxes, one of life's nailed-on certainties is that the price of California – by which we really mean Napa – wines go in one direction only, and that is up; but it isn't quite true.
Certainly, there has been some price inflation in the past year, but taking a look at the list of California's 10 most expensive wines shows that some have actually decreased in price since we last checked. Decreased! Yes, it sounds strange, mysterious, even disturbing, but we can assure you it's true.
What is clear, though, is that California – sorry, Napa – can still command relatively vast prices for wines with a pretty slim pedigree. In fact, there are four new entrants on the list, three of them having just achieved one of Wine-Searcher's main ranking criteria: four available vintages. They have flown straight into the top 10, which gives you some idea of which end of the price scale we are talking about here. Indeed, they have pushed some wines down the placings because the older wines haven't raised their prices sufficiently high to keep the interlopers at bay.
The big story, of course, is the disappearance from the list of last year's most expensive California wine. Screaming Eagle's outrageously priced $3577 Sauvignon Blanc – Sauvignon Blanc, for heaven's sake! – has dropped off the list because there are only three vintages of it available. The reason we insist on a four-vintage minimum is to ensure that we don't get distortions caused by special production, one-off wines. However, even with the requisite number of vintages available, the Screaming Eagle Sauvignon was something of a distortion anyway. The crazy price was a result of people putting the wine on the secondary market and watching the prices go frankly insane. You can't blame the winery for overambitious pricing; the wine ended up sitting at such a laughable price level because the consumers fell foul of a combination of two of the most powerful of all human urges – desire and greed.
And so to this year's list of the most wallet-punishing wines from California, and it's a mix of the old and the new. There are new faces, which is always a healthy sign, indicating that consumers are still looking for different experiences, but one thing remains absolutely resolute – red wine, and Cabernet in particular, is what people want when it comes to California.
1. Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa The king of cult Cabs moves into top spot, displacing its Sauvignon Blanc stablemate. It sits proudly atop the pile after a 5 percent price increase took its average price from $2890 last year to $3044 today. Naturally enough, the critics love it and older vintages can fetch even steeper prices; the 1992 vintage has an average price of more than $10,000.
2. Harlan Estate, Napa With a hefty average price tag of $894, five 100-point scores from young Mr Parker and a one-place jump to #2 on this list, Harlan could be forgiven for feeling a little smug. Its average price is also rising at a faster rate than Screaming Eagle, even if it commands little more than quarter of its rival's price – it has increased by more than 8 percent in the past year.
© Tusk Estates/Promontory | Newer producers aren't shy about charging top dollar for their wines, with four new entrants on this year's list.
3. Tusk Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa The highest-placed of the new entrants, Tusk weighs in with an average price tag of $868. Made by in-demand consultant Philippe Melka, it's a mailing-list wine, which means most of the offers we list for it are secondary offers. Any wine that describes itself as "a luxury wine, custom designed to fit your lifestyle" is going to induce a sharp intake of breath at the point of purchase.
4. Scarecrow Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford Bret Lopez makes just 500 cases of his cult Cabernet each year, which explains the $724 average price tag, a jump of 10 percent on last year, which also bumps it up one place to fourth. Named for Lopez's family connections with the Wizard of Oz movie (his grandfather JJ Cohn was head of production at MGM), it's one of California's most sought-after wines.
5. Schrader Cellars Old Sparky Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, NapaNamed for former owner Fred "Sparky" Schrader, rather than an electric chair, this wine will be worth keeping an eye on in the coming year. Already down almost 9 percent in price on last year, its acquisition as part of the Schrader Cellars purchase by Constellation last month for a whopping $60 million could see changes being made. It has dropped one place since last year.
6. Promontory, Napa Owned by the Harlan family, this is the second new entrant on the list, weighing in with an average price of $664, and a critic rating of 96 – the 2013 got a 99 from Robert Parker. Its price has increased steadily since it was launched in 2014, appreciating by a total of 20 percent. Fittingly, the label bears a more than passing resemblance to a dollar bill.
7. Screaming Eagle Second Flight, Napa Stan Kroenke's second entry on the list, this is a substantially more affordable offering, coming in at an average of $633, a modest rise of 4 percent on last year. It has maintained the same placing as well, perhaps as people realize that the top wine is either beyond their wallets, or has already been snaffled up people with quicker reactions.
8. Dana Estates Lotus Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Raised from a ruin in 2005 when Hi Sang Lee bought the property, Dana's turnaround has been impressive. One of seven wines produced by the estate, this one has fallen two places on this year's list, a reflection of a $6 fall in the average price to $620.
9. Carter Cellars Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard The GTO Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Carter Cellars' magnum-only red is a favorite of Robert Parker, who awarded the 2012 the full 100-point laurel. This is the third new entry on the list and it knocks Schrader's CCS and Abreu's Thorevilos off this year's list, with an average per-bottle price of $571.
10. Bryant Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Pushing out its Bettina stablemate, this is the last new entrant on the list and it is here because of a sharp rise in its average price, shooting up 11.5 percent in the past year to $562. Red wine specialists, Bryant's consultant winemaker is Michel Rolland, which at least partially accounts for the average critic score of 95.