Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Wine Spectator Online
April 30th, 2000

California's Cult Wines
Who they are and why they're red-hot


By James Laube

They flew north to Napa from Los Angeles and settled in for dinner at the restaurant Don Giovanni. They feasted on chef Donna Scala's sumptuous Italian cuisine, though they were there for more than just the food. It was Cabernet Sauvignon they were after--but not just any Cabernet. They were hunting for a high-flying bird of prey, and they found it. * This year, the group of 14 wine lovers outdid themselves, draining, among others, eight bottles of the exotic Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 1996. At a cool $750 a bottle, the tab for the Screaming Eagle alone soared above $6,000. While that might make most heads spin, it happens more often than you might expect. Owner Giovanni Scala, Donna's husband, insists that it's just part of the madness surrounding the surge in popularity of California's "cult" wines. "It sounds crazy," he says with a laugh, "but they come here every year, looking for [Screaming Eagle]."

Welcome to the brave new world of California cult wine, a 1990s phenomenon that still has collectors in a frenzy. The cult wines are rare and majestic. They have received glowing reviews, glorious accolades and stratospheric scores. The typical example is a Napa Valley Cabernet from a single small vineyard capable of producing only a limited number of bottles. Often made by California's cutting-edge winemakers, these wines sell for high prices and are marketed via exclusive mailing lists. Also, they have set the auction market on fire with sizzling prices.

Today, the inner circle of California's top cults encompasses nine wines. The current lineup includes eight Napa Valley Cabernets: Araujo Eisele Vineyard, Bryant Family Vineyard, Colgin, Dalla Valle Maya, Grace Family Vineyards, Harlan Estate, Screaming Eagle and Shafer Hillside Select. There's also one Chardonnay: Marcassin.

Because they are a prized few--and so many seek them out--California's cult wines have been driving collectors to extremes, pushing prices well beyond the means of most buyers. As the roaring '90s came to an end, California's cult wines were hotter than ever, with the most cherished wines selling for record prices.

Are they worth it? Yes and no. If you're among the fortunate few who are able to buy the wines directly from the wineries at prices ranging from $50 to $125 a bottle, the cost may seem high--but not as high as a great Chteau Margaux, Chteau d'Yquem or Domaine de la Romane-Conti. But if you seek them out on the open market, be prepared for sticker shock. The demand is so great for these wines that they regularly garner five to 10 times their release prices at auction. It's one thing to pay thousands of dollars for a rare vintage of chteaus Ptrus or Le Pin, wines that are renowned for aging for decades. It's quite another to pay comparable prices for what most of the wine trade considers to be unproven upstarts.

Yet there's no ambiguity about their quality on release. For the most part, these are extraordinary wines. The best display uncommon richness, depth, complexity, personality and finesse. Capable of earning exceedingly high ratings--94 to 99 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale--they are setting new standards of excellence for California wine. While they're not always the highest-scoring or the highest-priced wines, they're usually among the elite. Indeed, even a working definition of cult wines can be elusive, and their ranks can be quite fluid--great wines fall out of favor almost as fast as they catch fire.

Each of the nine cults has a distinctive identity, but they can also be grouped based on their origins. First, there are the newcomers, the Cabernets from Bryant Family, Harlan Estate, Colgin and Screaming Eagle. These wines didn't exist 10 years ago, so there are only a few vintages from which to judge their quality. Age-worthiness--how well (or if) they will improve with time in the cellar--doesn't seem to enter into the equation, as it does with many of the world's most collectible wines.

Then there are two wines from more established sources: Araujo Eisele Vineyard and Grace Family. These wines are the products of vineyards that produced stellar wines as far back as the 1970s. Eisele Vineyard made its mark as a Joseph Phelps vineyard-designated wine from the '70s through the '80s. Grace Family also got its start as a vineyard-designated wine, produced and bottled at Caymus Vineyards until 1985.

The last two Cabernets, Shafer Hillside Select and Dalla Valle Maya, are examples of wines that have hit their stride. Each of these bottlings had been produced for several vintages, experiencing variable quality, before they reached the elevated plateau they're on now.

Finally, there's the meteoric rise of Marcassin, the darling of fans of Burgundian-style whites. Marcassin's reputation was built on a trio of ultrarich Chardonnays, tapping single vineyards in Carneros, Alexander Valley and the Sonoma Coast. The attention now shifts to the new Marcassin Vineyard wine.

Whatever their pedigrees, there's no doubt that the cult wines are among the most sought-after in the United States--and that they have created a global buzz among wine connoisseurs. For detailed descriptions of each of these wines, see the individual profiles that begin on page 52. A list of up-and-coming cult wines begins on page 72. The phenomenon of the mailing list is examined in depth on page 79. The cults' unprecedented auction prices, which stagger even those who are used to sky-high auction bids, are analyzed on page 82.

California's cult wines are "bigger than life," says California wine expert Bruce Kaiser of Butterfields, a San Francisco auction house. "Whether or not they're any good is irrelevant. But when Wine Spectator or [Robert] Parker gives a wine a high score, it creates a demand." Once that happens, Kaiser says, demand swells and prices go through the roof, fueled by collectors who have deep pockets because of the booming economy.

Feeding collectors' thirst are people who are willing to cash in on their allocations and resell their coveted bottles at auction or on the gray market, usually at a substantial profit. "I can't afford to drink a wine that's worth $1,400," admitted one collector, who routinely sells his two- and three-bottle allocations of Screaming Eagle and Colgin Cabernet, pocketing $2,500 to $3,000 at a clip, which he in turn uses to finance other wine purchases.

Then there's the "Internet factor," says Kaiser, which ricochets information through cyberspace, where the audience is vast--and growing by the hour. Whereas news of great wines once traveled by word of mouth and through the print media, the Internet's speed and global presence transmit the information at a lightning pace.

"I don't think anyone realizes what happens when one of those stories or scores hits," says Jean Phillips, owner of Screaming Eagle, the hottest of the new cult wines. "It's like an avalanche. I used to think it would be over [after a couple of weeks], but it lingers on." Her phone and her fax machine churn out requests to be put on her mailing list--which is already 5,000 names long--to buy the three-bottle limit. Phillips makes only 6,000 bottles a vintage, selling about half to mailing list customers and another third to restaurants. She keeps a small stash to donate to charity auctions and to share with friends.

High prices also generate their own demand. If a wine doesn't command an eye-popping price at auction or on restaurant wine lists such as Don Giovanni's, then it's less likely to garner attention as a cult wine. Cult wines that are traded at auction and given huge markups at retail benefit from the publicity and exposure. Grace Family Cabernet, with the smallest production of the group (125 cases annually), has reaped huge benefits from selling at charity auctions, which typically fetch much higher prices than do commercial auctions and generate more publicity.

Another aspect of cult wines is their association with well-known winemakers. The most influential these days is Helen Turley. Turley--who along with her husband, John Wetlaufer, owns Marcassin--makes Bryant Family Cabernet and made the first several vintages of Colgin. Before that, she turned Landmark and Pahlmeyer into stars. Turley also oversees winemaking at Martinelli, whose Zinfandel is beginning to gain cult status.

Tony Soter, another highly regarded winemaker, has counted Spottswoode, Shafer and Dalla Valle as clients and was instrumental in helping Araujo get established. He also owns his own label, Etude. Heidi Peterson Barrett, yet another of the superstar consultants, made the Dalla Valle wines through the 1996 vintage and is the winemaker for Grace Family, Paradigm, Jones Family and Screaming Eagle. She also consults for Diamond Creek.

Harlan Estate, located in Oakville, has a talented winemaker in Bob Levy but has also long relied on the consulting services of Bordeaux master Michel Rolland to help fine-tune its wines. Many of Randy Dunn's fans signed up in the early 1980s to buy his eponymous wines based on his reputation as winemaker at Caymus; at the time, Dunn made both the Caymus Special Selection and Grace Family Cabernets.

Although celebrity winemakers help bring attention to the wines and often give them added personality, the bottom line is that all of these bottlings stand out in quality because of their grape sources. Ninety percent of a wine's quality is tied to the quality of the grapes that are harvested. Much of the winemaker's magic can be traced to his or her attention to vineyard details--that, and making sure that the grapes are picked at the right time and not mishandled once inside the winery.

California has long had its share of exclusive wines, but what's changed is that they are now quite expensive, with a much larger and faster-moving fan base.

In the 1960s, Stony Hill Chardonnay, grown at the base of Spring Mountain in Napa Valley, was the rage. At $4 to $6 a bottle, it was bringing what was then one of the highest prices paid for a California wine. Ridge Zinfandels from the '60s and '70s also developed a cult following as the Santa Cruz Mountains winery began to bottle vineyard-designated wines from different sites and appellations.

In the 1970s, Heitz Martha's Vineyard developed a cult status that lasted more than a decade. Its popularity led wine lovers to line up outside the Heitz tasting room in St. Helena to buy it. The wine started the '70s at $12.75 a bottle and ended the decade at $25, defining that era's upper price range in California. But even then, and even during crunch times, you could still buy a 12-bottle case. Today, many of the cult wine producers will only sell you three or four bottles through their tightly controlled mailing lists.

Also in the '70s, American wines first attained widespread international recognition. In 1976, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 1973--only the second vintage from that winery--rocked the wine world when it placed first in the famous "Paris Tasting," where it vanquished a mixed field of California Cabernets and prestigious Bordeaux in a blind tasting judged by French wine critics.

In the 1980s, California wines improved in quality and gained momentum in the market. With greater national and international exposure, California wine began to push beyond its state borders, moving into traditional markets for French and Italian wines, such as New York and Washington, D.C. Coverage of the California wine scene in newsletters, newspapers and magazines also expanded, creating a greater awareness that exciting wines were being made.

A key turning point came in 1981, when the Napa Valley Vintners Association held the first Napa Valley Wine Auction. The results were staggering--and a portent of things to come. Retailers and collectors broke out in a bidding war for the first bottles of Opus One, the joint-venture Franco-Californian Napa Cabernet made by Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Chteau Mouton-Rothschild. No one outside a tight circle of winemakers had ever tasted the wine, and when that first case sold for $24,000, it set a record: $2,000 for a single bottle of California wine.

"Every newspaper in the world carried a story about that event," recalls Harvey Posert, former public relations director for Robert Mondavi Winery and, for a while, Opus One as well. While that's a bit of an exaggeration, the auction did generate enormous worldwide publicity for Napa Valley wines.

In its early vintages, Opus One was very much a cult wine, says Kaiser. Production of the first vintage, 1979, was only 2,000 cases, and 4,000 cases were made of the 1980; the wines, made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, sold for $50 a bottle at retail, then one of the highest release prices for a California wine. Every major restaurant in the United States--as well as many in Europe and, later, the Far East--wanted Opus One on its wine list. The success of the Napa auction, which as a charity venue commanded prices considerably higher than those of a commercial auction, also worked wonders for Grace Family, Diamond Creek Lake Vineyard, Dominus Estate and others.

Also in the early '80s, Randy Dunn, the soft-spoken winemaker at Caymus Vineyards, spread word via mailing list that he had a new Cabernet from a 5-acre vineyard that he and his wife, Lori, owned on Howell Mountain. And in Sonoma County's Russian River Valley, Burt Williams and Ed Selyem, two home winemakers, had started fermenting small lots of Zinfandel and Pinot Noir in the basement of their garage. If you were in the know, you wrote to Williams Selyem Winery and asked to be put on the mailing list.

According to Kaiser and others, though, these last three wines are prime examples of onetime cults that no longer carry elite status. With its case volume up to 30,000 annually, Opus One's availability is now global. Dunn Howell Mountain remains a remarkably consistent, dark, chewy wine with a rustic personality, but it's easier to find than it once was, and some of the luster of its image has faded. Williams Selyem Winery was sold two years ago, and while its wines are still wonderful and difficult to buy, the label no longer enjoys the cult status it once did.

For Burt Williams, the retired winemaker for Williams Selyem, the lack of attention came as a welcome relief. Williams is glad that he no longer has to deal with the mailing list; he didn't like to say "no" to would-be buyers, and he didn't like to listen to the excuses offered by those who missed the deadline for buying a new vintage.

Demand, however, is still strong for these wines. What's gone is the frenzied atmosphere of the past. At Dunn, there's still a five-year wait to be put on the mailing list. "It's an interesting phenomenon," admits Dunn. He continues to make about 2,000 cases of his Howell Mountain Cabernet and sells it for $50 a bottle, but his price increases over the years have been small compared with those for many Napa Valley Cabernets.

"It's almost like if you make 100 cases, charge $100, and it gets good press, boom, you've got it," says Dunn. "If you made 100 cases of $25 wine that was just as good, it wouldn't work. Who's the bigger fool? Me, for not charging $100," he says with a laugh. On a more serious note, he continues, "I'm not chasing the almighty dollar. There are other things in life beyond wine and money."

Bill Harlan, owner of Harlan Estate, enjoys the rave reviews of his wines and the fact that they're in great demand. But he is prepared for the day when his wine loses cult status, which he considers to be "fleeting and very temporary."

There are some wines that have enjoyed brief stints in the cult club. For a while in the early 1990s, Turley Zinfandel Napa Valley Hayne Vineyard boasted cult status, when Helen Turley presided over her brother Larry's ultraripe, high-octane bottling. Caymus Special Selection and Diamond Creek Lake Vineyard are two other examples of wines that once had cult followings, powered by their high ratings and the attention given to their (at the time) high prices.

Why do cult wines lose their luster? A bad review always hurts, says Kaiser. Retrospective tastings, where wines are tried five, 10 or 20 years after release, often set the stage for a wine's rise or demise. Wines that improve with age and earn high marks often see their value increase. Conversely, less-than-stellar ratings can decrease a wine's value, in terms of price and in the eyes of devotees.

The state of the economy always plays a critical role, too. The prosperous 1990s stock market has been a boon for those who like to pursue the rarities of California wine. When the stock market declines sharply, as it did in Japan in the '90s, auction houses see a drop-off in prices, says Kaiser. But as long as California's hot streak of great vintages continues, and vintners keep finding those special plots of land capable of producing stunning wines, there's no reason to expect the cult wine fad to fade. Prices may soften a bit, but no one expects demand to taper off.

As for the future, the ongoing presence and obvious success of these great, hard-to-find, mostly Napa Cabernets made by gurus who've stacked up high scores almost assures that there will be another generation of California cults. The boom in new, small-production, estate-grown wines is growing larger every year, and it only takes a few big scores to rev up interest in the next wave of cult wines.

MaryAnn Worobiec contributed to this report.

California's Top Cult Wines

ARAUJO Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Eisele Vineyard

BRYANT FAMILY Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley

COLGIN Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Herb Lamb Vineyard

DALLA VALLE Maya Napa Valley

GRACE FAMILY Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley

HARLAN ESTATE Napa Valley

MARCASSIN Chardonnay

SCREAMING EAGLE Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley

SHAFER Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District Hillside Select