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There’s a curious phenomenon in the California wine industry called “hostage” wines—limited production, highly desirable quaffs sold directly only to select devotees. They’re also called “cult wines” as in “furiously sought after” by wine lovers.
Cabernet sauvignons are the most prevalent example, followed by pinot noir. This movement was born of wines from producers such as Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate, Marcassin, Kistler, and Sine Qua Non, but many have joined their ranks. The wines are highly allocated and only sold to mailing-list customers who receive an offering to purchase an allocated number of bottles based on their past buying history.
Production is limited, and customers are not given the opportunity to taste the wines prior to purchase. They may also have to buy a minimum number of bottles, and may even be required to buy other wines in order to keep their allocation of the cult wines high.
Sometimes the offers come with a disclosure that if they fail to buy any wine from the current list, they’ll be unceremoniously dropped from the mailing list. Prices are high, of course, and always sold only at full retail with no discount for volume purchases or full-case orders. Prices are so high for some wines that consumers buy three bottles and sell two bottles to pay for their single one.
Many hostage wine mailing lists have a waiting list of several thousand, which has led to group-buying under someone who has beat them to it. Occasionally these wines can be purchased at fine restaurants or in the secondary auction market, but they’re marked up at least two or three times the initial retail price, discouraging escapees from the hostage program who try to circumvent the constrictive process.
Mailing list members have been known to take others as captives by selling their allotments at a significant profit. In truth, buyers of these wines frequently never drink them since they are so valuable and can bring significant profit on the secondary market. These “wardens” of hostage wines show no mercy in pursuing their profits.
Those who possess a coveted mailing list position often tire of the commitment over time, and realize there are a significant number of comparable wines from the same appellation that can be easily and openly purchased from other fine producers—or even on the open retail market. Freed from the shackles of allocation, these runaways can explore the diversity of California wine choices.