When danger signs pile up for a cult winery
I wasn’t surprised that one of the co-owners of Screaming Eagle sold his portion to his business partner.
Although published reports made the deal between the two men sound tranquil enough, with no one pointing fingers, it brings up the always-controversial issue of when a winery brand is showing signs of stress.
A winery that’s in good shape generally does not change hands. Unless an owner dies, or some catastrophic event occurs, the people that own it don’t walk away. When founder Jean Phillips sold SE, in 2006, she did not attempt to hide the fact that she would have preferred to keep her “precious little winery.” But financial constraints — the necessity for vineyard redevelopment and building a proper winery — forced her to.
The partner who sold his share said he felt “no longer needed” and that the winery would continue on course. But I don’t think this deal would have gone down if everything was hunky-dory at Screaming Eagle.
SE was like a rocket launch, beginning in a spectacular burst of light, then on to a consummate liftoff and perfect orbit. But things go wrong even in perfect orbits. A bit of space debris strikes the vessel, sending it off-course. Suddenly, Mission Control has a problem.
The first signs of a troubled winery are when it replaces its original winemaker. This causes local tongues to wag at the possible compromise of quality. Napa Valley watched as the new owners did just that. There was raised eyebrows, insider whispers. It didn’t necessarily reach the people who buy SE. But it wasn’t helpful.
The next sign is when the wine’s price is autocratically raised to unsustainable levels. SE’s owners did that, too, when they boosted it from $500 to $750. That was before the Great Recession. It is highly doubtful that everyone who could afford SE a year ago can do so today.
A final sign of stress is when owners begin bailing. That’s what’s happening now.
There’s been no parallel in Napa Valley, or anywhere in California, to Screaming Eagle’s spectacular success. It’s the Google of wineries. But like a high-flying stock, what goes up must come down, eventually. As difficult as it is for a wine brand to make it to the top, it’s far harder to stay there. The wine biz today is more like show biz than a consumable industry. Maybe it always has been.
I’m sure Screaming Eagle will be around for a long time, but I personally don’t see it sustaining its price. Like wineries before it that sat at the pinnacle — Groth, Grace Family, Pahlmeyer — It’s a good wine, but not better than everyone else. Screaming Eagle has always been more about its narrative than its reality. But in this troubled world of wine, the narrative is shifting away from exclusivity and exorbitant prices and more toward pleasure and affordability, which is where the narrative should be.