When Wine Becomes Collectible: Who Wins?


A fascinating profile of the art dealer Larry Gagosian that ran in the New Yorker recently concluded with the startling (at least to me) revelation that the Geneva Freeport – a tax-free warehouse complex in Switzerland specializing in secure storage for fine art – may contain as much as $100 billion dollars’ worth of art. Wikipedia notes that along with about 1000 Picassos (among more than a million works of art) the facility holds about three million bottles of wine! This is art that no one sees, and wine that no one drinks, simply commodities waiting for the next buyer to pay more than the current owner did.

Long ago it became almost impossible to find, let alone taste, many of the world’s most collectible wines. Even wines that were hardly ever in limited supply can appreciate to sky high levels regardless of whether they are even drinkable. The 1982 Chateau Mouton Rothschild, which I once purchased for about $45 a bottle, now sells for an average price of almost $2000 according to Wine Searcher.

How many of those remaining bottles will actually be consumed? I suspect they’ll continue to be traded like rare baseball cards. The wine itself is almost surely over the hill (it was heading that way when I drank my last bottle about 15 years ago).

Even brand new wines whose prime drinking years are well in the future, not the distant past, can become commodities simply because of the name on the label. The average price for a regular bottle of 2020 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Burgundy (again according to Wine Searcher) is just a tad under $30,000.

At least we can go into any number of museums around the globe and feast on Picassos, as I have often done. But turning rare wines into speculative investments means that for the vast majority of wine drinkers they will never be experienced. This was not true in the past. That Mouton I purchased was a bit steep for my budget at the time, but not out of reach. In fact I bought a half case. Not as an investment – I bought it to drink over many years as an opportunity to see how a first growth Bordeaux might age.

When I was learning about wine in the 1980s there were no current releases from anywhere that couldn’t be found and tasted. The most expensive young bottles might have cost a couple hundred dollars, so you could split the tab among friends. My tasting group often did that, and up to a dozen people could each get a decent two ounce pour. The point being you could taste the world’s greatest wines and dial them into your palate memory. They were learning tools, in the best sense. Wine was democratic (small ‘d’) – meant to be opened, shared, drunk and enjoyed.

Now for myriad reasons the acknowledged great wines – the DRC Burgundies, first growth Bordeaux, over-hyped Napa Valley Cabernets and others – have much in common with the hyper active fine art market. They are investments, and treated as such. They are no longer wines to be opened, shared, enjoyed among friends.

What to do? Find great wines that have not been discovered. Search out new, small, creative producers the way an art dealer looks for young, unknown talent. Explore and work to expand your wine knowledge. Take chances on unknown wines. Don’t look for treasures in your local supermarket or big box store – trust me, they aren’t there. If you are lucky enough to live somewhere with a thriving local wine industry, as I do here in Walla Walla, you are almost certain to strike gold if you take the time to dig for it.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be among the first to taste and write about such wines as Cayuse and Leonetti, now available only to those who joined their mailing lists long ago or are willing to pony up restaurant prices for a bottle or two. I promise you the next great wineries are already out there.

I wrote in my last post about the marvelous Sauvignon Blanc from Devison Vintners here in Walla Walla. I met Peter Devison a decade ago while he was briefly working as a consulting winemaker for Precept Brands. From there he went on to Efeste and then Cadaretta. When Cadaretta closed shop he purchased the final, unfinished 2018 vintage and started his own winery, releasing those first wines in 2020. His wife Kelsey Devison studied at the Northwest Wine Academy, worked at Noble wines and handles sales and marketing for their wines. A perfect team.

There is still a chance to join the Devison mailing list, and for those who cannot purchase from the tasting room there are more opportunities to purchase online as the winery has just announced that they can now ship directly to Alabama, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia along with all previous destinations.

Devison wines, both white and red, share a common elegance. Aromatic, sensual, detailed and refined, they express the grapes, the blends, and the vineyards with impressive purity. Their labels carry valuable information (bring your magnifying glass) and the occasional pun. Reading Peter Devison’s tasting notes I’m struck by his modest predictions for longevity. I would expect many of his wines to age for decades. That said, with proper aeration, they are fine for drinking now.

On a visit to the winery a few weeks ago we tasted a number of wines for which I have only sketchy impressions. The reviews posted here are for the wines I brought home and tasted over several days. Some are due for release next month; some are already listed for sale here.

Devison 2022 Evergreen Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc

The label depicts an octopus clutching a variety of mollusks in its outstretched tentacles – a pretty clear indication of what the winemaker proposes as an accompaniment to this pure varietal. The vineyard is in the Ancient Lakes AVA and is a well-known cooler site that excels with high acid white wine grapes. This wine kickstarts the palate with sappy, juicy flavors of lemon, lime and grapefruit. It is indeed a fine oyster wine, and sure to please anyone (me included) who loves high acid wines that refresh the palate and deliver more than just sour lemon flavors. 350 cases; 12.5%; $28 (Columbia Valley) 93/100

Devison 2022 The Hunter’s Pride Sémillon

Walla Walla’s Les Collines vineyard provided the grapes for this pure Sémillon. On the label is a pencil drawing of a relaxed lion, sprawled in a tree. The name is a multi-pun, referencing the lion (as in pride of lions) and Australia’s Hunter Valley, known for its excellent Sémillons. Light, tart and delicate, the wild yeast fermentation adds depth, texture and stacked flavors with penetrating power rarely found in low abv white wines. The flavors just keep on going and going, citrus, apple and white peach with nuanced notes of bee pollen, lemon curd, grapefruit rind, even a dusting of spice. It’s a wonderful wine start to finish and belongs among the all-too-slim numbers of great Washington Sémillons. 120 cases; 12.5%; $35 (Walla Walla Valley) 93/100

Devison 2021 GPR

This is 60% Syrah and 40% Grenache, the sources unspecified. In a way it’s the mirror image of the Above The Flood red blend, flipping the percentages and leaving out the Mourvèdre. The extra Syrah brings up the flavors of tea and licorice, strengthens the mid-palate, while the Grenache continues to hold down the center with a burst of plummy purple and cherry fruit. There are ample acids adding both citrus and lemon verbena flavors; and as the wine trails out it will open up with reasonable aeration. Made specifically for restaurant sales, it’s an outstanding value. 14.7%; $29 (Columbia Valley) 92/100

Devison 2021 Above The Flood Boushey Vineyard GSM

This is 65% Grenache, 32% Syrah and 3% Mourvèdre. The acclaimed Boushey vineyard is the source for this concentrated, high powered blend. Savory plum and berry fruits are amped up with spicy, peppery highlights. Tannins are ripe and polished, and the 15% alcohol (unusual for Devison) gives the finish an afterburner boost, with a trail of red licorice. Bottled this past spring, you’ll want to give this extra aeration to help smooth it out. It should drink quite nicely over the rest of this decade. 150 cases; 15%; $54 (Yakima Valley) 94/100

Devison 2021 Off The Table Mourvèdre

This is 82% Mourvèdre and 18% Syrah (the label leaves out the Syrah) and opens with intense aromatics and a lively blast of cold coffee threaded through the savory, gamy red-fruited core. It’s unlike any similar blend I’ve had from Washington, yet bears the unmistakable stamp of winemaker Peter Devison, whose ability to coax subtle highlights out of both white and red grapes is as good as the best in this state. Spicy, focused and long, the trailing notes of orange peel, breakfast tea and licorice hold your interest long past the time you’d normally reach for that second sip. Club members only. 60 cases; 14.5%; $59 (Columbia Valley) 95/100

Devison 2021 Form and Function Syrah

This pure Syrah was sourced from the Naravane vineyard (next to SJR) in the Rocks District AVA. It’s got splendid aromatics, and the palate is balanced, focused and terroir-specific, loaded with umami-drenched floral highlights around savory blackberry fruit. The oft-noted funk of the AVA is here but muted, and the burst of peppery herbs provides the principal accents. Medium-bodied, balanced and lightly earthy with a lingering finish, this should be enjoyed over the rest of this decade. Club members only. 50 cases; 14.5%; $85 (Walla Walla Valley) 94/100

Devison 2021 Beneath The Stones

From the Stoney Vine vineyard in the Rocks District AVA, this pure Syrah is an equal blend of the Phelps and 470 clones. It deftly captures the funk, the savory, the umami and the minerality for which Rocks District wines are known, while still keeping the fruit focused and centered. “The easy way to identify Syrah from the Rocks is its funk , but the funk is not the terroir” notes winemaker Peter Devison somewhat mysteriously. The core flavors resonate with somber notes of cold coffee, anise, chocolate nibs, espresso and licorice, all the while retaining enough black fruits to keep it balanced. These young Syrahs from Devison are packed with detail; it’s absolutely essential that they be decanted if drunk young. 110 cases; 14.5%; $54 (Walla Walla Valley) 95/100

Paul Gregutt
Paul Gregutt
Paul Gregutt has been covering the wines and wineries of the Pacific Northwest since the mid-1980s. From 2002 to 2012 he wrote a weekly wine column for the Seattle Times and authored two critically-acclaimed editions of ‘Washington Wines & Wineries – The Essential Guide’ (UC Berkeley Press). He served as the Northwest editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine from 1998 until 2022. Early on he was an original staff member of both the Seattle Weekly and KZAM-FM. He lives with his wife Karen and his rescue dog Cookie in Waitsburg (pop. 1204), a farm community about 20 miles NE of Walla Walla. When not tasting and writing about wine he writes songs, plays guitar and sings in his band the DavePaul5 (davepaul5.com) Follow his writing at PaulG on Wine, paulgregutt.substack.com, and in the Waitsburg Times.


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