Cult wines are among the most popular and expensive bottles in the world, making them tempting investments for every type of collector. I’ve known collectors who have made tens of thousands of dollars by selling their cult wine collections on the secondary market. Whether you buy wine for investment purposes or to enjoy it yourself, seeking out cult wines can be worthwhile if you’ve done your research. The challenge is that these wines are exceptionally rare and valuable, often making it difficult to obtain the best vintages or get the best value for the quality. This guide can help you navigate some of these challenges and build a fantastic collection of the right cult wines for you.
What Makes a Wine a Cult Wine?
A cult wine is generally high in quality, rare, and very valuable. These wines usually have a loyal fanbase of collectors who are willing to pay top dollar on the secondary market to own them. What gives cult wines their “cult” status is that demand for them usually far exceeds the available supply.
For example, Screaming Eagle—perhaps the most famous example of a cult wine—only produces between 5,000 and 9,000 standard-size bottles per year and these always sell out immediately upon release. Collectors can buy Screaming Eagle wines directly from the estate, but due to the producer’s popularity, this is possible for only a very small group of people. There are more than 5,000 people on the waitlist to buy bottles from the winery, and anyone lucky enough to be on the winery’s mailing list rarely leaves. Even if you signed up for the waitlist now, it would likely take many years to earn a spot on the list. For this reason, most collectors buy Screaming Eagle wine on the secondary market from collectors who are already on the mailing list. This drives up prices significantly, as a bottle that was originally worth $500 on the mailing list might easily be sold for twice as much on the secondary market even later that same year.
A blue-chip wine may take years to double its value, while a cult wine could potentially do so within just a few months.
Critics’ scores also have an impact on a wine’s popularity and thus its cult status. The term “cult wine” was frequently used in the 1990s to describe Napa Valley Cabernet that received perfect scores from critics like Robert Parker. Due to this history, when many wine enthusiasts think of cult wines, they picture bold California Cabernet. While it’s true that many cult wines come from the New World, there are also wines that fall into this category made in Bordeaux, Tuscany, and other Old-World regions. A cult wine isn’t defined by the region in which it’s made.
It’s a good idea to keep in mind the difference between cult wines and blue-chip wines. A bottle of 1949 Domaine Leroy Richebourg is rare and very valuable on the secondary market, but many collectors consider this to be a blue-chip wine—a wine that’s made to age long-term and grow slowly and steadily in value until it reaches maturity. This differs from a cult wine in that cult wines usually increase significantly in price quickly while they’re very young. A blue-chip wine may take years to double its value, while a cult wine could potentially do so within just a few months. Moreover, while blue-chip wines often have a great quality-to-price ratio, some cult wines’ prices have exceeded their quality, though this is subjective and will also depend on the vintage.
Do Cult Wines Make Good Investments?
Cult wines generally make very reliable investments because there is a ready market willing to buy bottles, even if prices are inflated. One of the challenges of investing in wines without a cult following is that there’s no guarantee that you’ll find a buyer when the time comes to sell off your collection. For example, Oregon winemakers craft some of the highest quality Pinot Noir in the world, but only a handful of producers from this region are in high demand on the secondary market. This doesn’t mean that Oregonian Pinot Noir isn’t worth buying—it simply means that you likely won’t make a significant profit from reselling your bottles unless you’ve invested in wines from one of Oregon’s cult wineries, like Beaux Frères.
The bottom line? Cult wines might be a good investment if you:
- Can get on a mailing list for the winery.
- Can find the best examples of these wines on the secondary market—demand for the best vintages of cult wines, like 2010 Harlan, is often so high that they’re nearly impossible to find.
- Can afford to buy bottles for a steep price upfront.
- Want to make a profit from reselling your bottles just a few years after release.
- Get your wine authenticated by an expert before you agree to buy, as fake cult wines are frequently sold on the secondary market.
As long as you approach your cult wine purchases with caution and take the necessary steps to protect yourself from fraud, you’re likely to make a return on your investment.
Finding Cult Wines That You’ll Enjoy
Generally, collectors who invest in cult wines never open their bottles. Most cult wine collectors buy and sell these bottles purely for investment purposes and treat the wine as an asset class. This isn’t true in all cases, though. I know some collectors who regularly drink sought-after bottles of Sine Qua Non, Stag’s Leap, and Mollydooker.
Every collector defines the term “cult wine” differently—for instance, some think that Château Le Pin has achieved cult status while others disagree.
The problem with treating your cult wine collection solely as an investment is that there’s no guarantee that the wine will retain its high value in the future. As with any investment, cult wines are a gamble. This year’s most popular “it” producer could fall out of fashion by the time you sell off your collection. This is why it’s important to buy cult wines that you actually enjoy. If the wine falls out of favor on the secondary market or your bottles are damaged, you can still get something out of your collection by drinking the wine yourself. For example, I know a collector whose wine cellar flooded a few years ago. Most of his cult wine labels were damaged in the flood, which significantly affected their value. The wine inside was fine, though, so he decided to host a blind tasting party and enjoy the wine with his friends.
To buy cult wines that you’ll want to drink, consider choosing a producer that makes wine in a style you enjoy:
As you can see, not all cult wine producers come from the New World. While some of the most popular cult wines do come from California, Australia, and Oregon, there are also a number of Super Tuscan and Bordeaux producers that also fit the definition. Keep in mind that the list above is by no means comprehensive. Every collector defines the term “cult wine” differently—for instance, some think that Château Le Pin has achieved cult status while others disagree. Regardless of how you define a cult wine, all of the producers in the list above are making rare, top-quality wines that are in high demand on the secondary market. By selecting the producers that appeal most to your palate, you’ll build a collection that you thoroughly enjoy drinking, even if you choose not to sell your bottles in the future.
How to Store Cult Wines Long-Term
Collecting cult wine is just like collecting any other valuable wine—you need to protect your investment using reliable storage methods. If you don’t store your bottles professionally or hire a consultant to check that your home cellar’s environmental conditions are up to par, then you could cut into your bottom line when you resell your bottles on the secondary market later. All of the cult wine collectors that I know are very selective about which bottles they buy. After all, if they’re going to pay several hundred dollars for a bottle of 2009 Harlan, they want to verify that the wine has been stored properly throughout its lifetime and that it is an authentic bottle that was purchased directly from the estate by a previous owner. I’ve seen collectors turn down even the rarest cult wine bottles just because there was a short gap in provenance or they couldn’t confirm whether the wine was stored professionally.
Before holding on to your cult wines for too long, you should think about whether the wine will likely maintain its popularity.
It’s also important to consider when to resell your bottles, if you plan on doing so. This varies from estate to estate. Most cult wines are designed to age for at least 15 years, so it’s worth holding on to them for a few years before selling; however, you should always research recent tasting notes to confirm the precise drinking window. Another reason to hold on to bottles for a few years is that some wineries may kick you off their mailing list if they find out you are reselling bottles immediately after release. If you’re on a cult winery mailing list, be patient and deliberate about selling off your allocation.
Before holding on to your cult wines for too long, however, you should also think about whether the wine will likely maintain its popularity. Cult wine producers that started gaining a following in the 1990s or earlier will likely continue to be reliable investments in the future because they’ve already proven that they have lasting power. Unless the quality of the wine from these estates changes significantly or they hire a winemaker who uses very different techniques, you can safely invest in established cult wines that have been around for decades. Newer cult wine producers are trickier to invest in. For example, Argentinian Malbec and Oregonian and Washingtonian Pinot Noir are only just starting to gain in popularity, but they don’t have a proven track record yet. Invest in these wines with caution if you wish to make a profit.
While there are a few considerations to keep in mind that are unique to cult wines—like the ones we detailed above—for the most part, you can treat your cult wine investments just like any other. Building a lucrative cult wine collection is easy when you know which producers are the most sought-after and when you keep your bottles under the ideal storage conditions.
Whether you are starting your high-end wine collection or adding to an established portfolio, Vinfolio is your partner in buying, selling, and professional storage. Contact us today to get access to the world’s finest wine.