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How many cult wines can dance on the head of a pin?

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There’s this blogger, Sean McBride, a Brooklyn lawyer, whose site is called Slaked! (I love it.) He recently posted a list of — well, in his own words, “the past year’s release schedule of a number of California Cult wines.” Sean warns that his list may not be complete and may even be inaccurate, but that’s beside the point. What struck me was how many wines he identifies as cults: about 100, by my count. (Some of the wineries are listed more than once, because they release different wines.) They’re mainly from California, with some Oregons and Washingtons; nothing from anyplace else, so far as I can discern. (You mean there’s no cult wine from Alaska? Paging Gov. Palin! How about a North Slope Todd’s Vineyard Moose Block Clone 4 You Betcha Cabernet Sauvignon for, oh, I don’t know, $150, proceeds to the Palin 2012 committee?)

I was surprised at the extent of Sean’s list, mainly because I’d never tried to make one of my own, but I can’t really argue with any of his inclusions. There really are a lot more than when the term “cult wine” came into popularity, in the 1990s, when there were maybe 10 or 12 in contention. Sean puts onto one page the West Coast’s equivalent of the Classified Growths of Bordeaux, of which there are about 61. So there are roughly the same number of West Coast cult wineries (as determined by Sean) as there are Classified Growths.

Any such list raises complicated questions.

– How does a winery get on the cult wine list?
– What keeps a winery off it?
– Can you buy your way onto it?
– How do you stay on it once you’re on?
– Is the list meaningful?
– Do millennials and younger wine lovers care?
– How will the list change in 5 years?

I invite your comments.

P.S. How many lists can dance on the head of a pin?

I swear, every blog in the world has been publishing top 10 lists as we careen into year’s end. I promise not to have any — this year. No guarantees for 2009. Meanwhile, this interesting list just came in from the respected winery P.R. professional, Kimberly Charles, on the top beverage trends. Check it out. We’re certainly seeing them in San Francisco. I might add a few more:

– unoaked white wines from lesser-known varieties like Albarino and Verdelho
– lower prices
– lower alcohol wines
– continued growth of Pinot Noir
– rejection of cutesy critters and colorful vehicles etc. on wine labels
– contined migration of wine P.R. to blogs and the Internet
– even cult wineries have their work cut out for them

  1. Hey Steve,

    I will definitely not post a top something list because I had far too many good wines this year.

    I wish you and your family a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year 2009.

    Cheers
    Franz

  2. Isn’t it “How many pinheads are chasing cult wines?”

    I’d actually argue with a lot of the wines he included on his list–Hanzell? I think of cult wines, if I think of them at all, as wines that are very difficult to obtain, basically mailing list only, get high scores, particularly from that Parker guy, and can be flipped for much more money than you paid for them. That disqualifies an awful lot of Mr. McBride’s list.

    The cult wine phenomenon eats its young. There are a lot of wines that used to be cult wines that the geeks are no longer hot for–Bryant Family jumps to mind. And an inordinate amount of time is spent on chat rooms like EBob speculating about what the next cult wine will be, with everyone wanting to have the bragging rights of having been the first one to have “discovered” it. Ovid isn’t cult wine yet. When its price doubles on Wine Commune, then it qualifies.

    So, how to become a cult wine? Get friends to rave about you on EBob, get those suckers to sign up for your mailing list. Sell the wine for at least $150/btl. Then buy it back on Wine Commune for $300. You lose a bunch of money, but, hey, you’re a cult wine!

    Happy Holidays, Steve! Thanks for no top ten lists!

  3. Steve, maybe the word “Parker” should be added in front of “cult wines.” Syrupy, high-test, Cabs that probably won’t age well – I think at least some of the lesser known wineries trying to sell $100+ Cabs will be sitting on them for a while over the next couple years. Before you know it, that list of cult Cabs will be back to 8 or 10.

  4. Ron, I’m working on a Top 10 Reasons Why I Don’t Have a Top 10 List List. Stay tuned.

  5. Morton Leslie says:

    If I had another lifetime, I would go back to school and study psychology especially learning about all aspects of things like greed and self image. This is the key productive area in the marketing of luxury products. I wish I knew more.

    The possession of these wines seem to satisfy a deep seated insecurity or need. I have met many collectors of what they consider to be cult wines. It is surprising how little they know about the wine except how hard it was to obtain. I’m sure these human frailties have been around for millenia. Hell, wealthy Romans would spend a small fortune for a bowl of peacock tongues.

    I was struck that Paloma was not on his list. It is probably because despite being named wine of the year and having a couple thousand individuals put themselves on a waiting list to get on a mailing list to buy the wine, the owners not only honored their old customers, but did not raise prices. There is nothing cult about a $54 Merlot that did not sell out to greed.

  6. Hi Steve

    Just about all of those on his list, save for SQN & SE, (which he has priced at $500 and is really $750, and still commands over $1K a bottle) are readily available for less then retail prices. I believe at a recent auction back east, I forgot which one, Acker or Christie’s, wines like Colgin and a couple other “Cult” wines sold for under release price.

    It reminds me of the line about Union Street in 70’s where it was the land of $10 haircuts on .10 cent heads.

  7. Common sense: A list is either definitive or not in terms of history.

    What makes any list definitive over time? The list must be comprised of benchmarks by which we all judge wines every season. All professionals must be able to have reasonable access to the wine, simply to judge whether the wines are worth the price, and if it is to recommend it to buyers. Nothing else makes sense.

    Caveat: To be absolutely sure a wine belongs on the list, the wine must be produced in volumes that are significant every vintage, which does mean your given candidate cannot be a wine produced in tiny batches.

  8. Leo, only problem with your analysis is that the original list, which is the 1855 classification, was developed under tightly controlled conditions by people who all knew each other. These days, with bloggers all over the world demanding to be heard, it’s going to be a lot harder for everyone to agree. This is a marketing challenge of the highest order for existing cult wineries, it seems to me.

  9. Why not start with the definition of a cult and see if that definition applies to cult wine? Rushkoff identifies 20 characteristics of cults (http://www.amazon.com/Coercion-Why-Listen-What-They/dp/157322829X).

    That’s the research I’m working on. It’s not going to cure cancer, but it’s more fun that evaluating a crappy regression model.

    If anyone knows people on cult wine mailing lists (closed list, long wait, high prices) who I can do a filmed interview with hit me up! dmhoro@gmail.com

  10. There are some words I wish we could get rid of. They include cult and terroir. Unfortunately, they’re useful terms. In a single word they communicate a complex range of ideas, which makes for a more economical way of writing and speaking.

  11. California cult has a nice alliteration ring to it. It’s better that Veblen wine (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veblen_good)…

    What’s the etymology of “cult wine”? I have a newspaper article from 1997, but I’m sure you heard the term used before then. When did you first hear the term?

  12. I actually can’t remember when I first heard the term cult wine. At least the 1990s. Maybe even the 80s. I remember when Parker gave Groth Reserve 100 points (the 1985), but I don’t remember if the term was around then.

  13. Wikipedia has “cult wine” and lists a 1999 reference from Oxford Companion to Wine, which I don’t have. Maybe there’s a history there.

  14. The term cult wines goes back further in the 1990s. Nothing earthshattering about the overuse of the term these days. ONe thing is for sure: $100 Cabs are looking sillier and more out of place with every passing week. A couple years from now we will know which ones were truly sought-after and which were merely highly priced and highly rated.

  15. Tish, you’re right. Some of these cult wines are looking like Nero fiddling while Rome is burning.

  16. “Is the list meaningful?” No.

    Frankly, this is not a very good list – some are not even Cult-wannabees.

    “but I can’t really argue with any of his inclusions.”

    I guess you definition is quite broad compared to mine and some others.

    And let’s face it, Cult Wines are Tired on the Wired scale.

  17. I am on a few of these lists but never seem to pull the trigger on my allocations. The wines are just way overpriced when you look at what you can get in France for fractions of the price. Bordeaux for me is still the best wine in the world and all the Harlan and Screaming Beagle!!! couldn’t change my mind. It would however , be nice to be on the screaming eagle list just so I could re-sell the wine for triple the price then buy some real wines.

  18. Once again, Morton Leslie channels my thoughts. Excellent expression of the cult wine phenomenon.

    If I get Tom Cruise to endorse our wines, are the wines not cult at that point?

  19. To Leo:

    Who cares what you or any other “professional” thinks? Can we please let people think for themselves?

  20. Precisely, Lee. Those who would drink of the Koolaid, should.
    There will always be a Robert Finnigan or Robert Parker to tell folks what to think and drink. Exclusivity and availability still sells sustainably well when coupled with a perception of quality.
    A philatelical analogy would be the exquisite Graf Zeplin or Magenta issues which, if pressed into practical usage would come back “postage due”.
    We’re skipping the already blurred and saturated “cult” club and going straight for “coven”.

  21. Isn’t ‘cult’ simply a synonym for ‘expensive and hard to get’ these days?

    Oh wait, that was sooooooo early 2008 – not the case anymore!

    We’ll see how many of the so-called ‘cult’ wines are ‘cultish’ anymore now that either production has increased to the point they can satisfy the needs of most on the lists OR they are simply not as ‘economically attractive’ with the current economic state of things . . .

    It certainly will be ‘interesting’ to see how things unravel in 09 and beyond . . .

    Cheers!

  22. Hey Steve,

    Thanks for the link. I’d like to clear up a couple things. For one, I did include a New York winery on the list, Shinn Vineyards, which makes some of the best (and biodynamically farmed) wine on the North Fork of Long Island. It costs about $34 as a future. I even paraphrased Shinn’s proprietor, David Page, at the bottom of my post, to underline the fact that the phenomenon of the “cult” wine is a creation of Madison avenue executives.

    Second – and this is really the most important thing – the list is for informational purposes. For example: You can’t remember when your Araujo allocation is supposed to come out, and you don’t want to go through your credit card receipts or cancelled checks to figure it out. Well, google “SLAKED Cult Wine” and there you go.

    As for the question of whether you want to remember Araujo’s release date because you’re a “pinhead” obsessed with “greed and self image” … well, that’s your own problem. Of course, another perfectly valid reason might be, for example, because you just really happen to like their wine. Araujo, after all, makes some damned fine wine….

    I did not nor do I intend to classify wines into what is and what is not a cult wine. The question of what is and what is not a cult wine is purely subjective (and not one I am inclined to consider). What I did intend to do was let buyers know when these wines had been released in the past. Let’s say you plan on only buying Harlan and BOND this year because that’s what your wine budget allows. Well, now you will be happy to know that Harlan comes out in the fall and BOND in the winter, and you can budget accordingly.

    It would be impossible (and foolish) for anyone to try to refute any given buyer’s subjective determination that, say, OVID, is a cult wine, despite the fact that you can buy it for less than double its release price. (Okay, there are exceptions to this; Two Buck Chuck = Cult Wine? Probably not. But generally, I stand by this position.) Mr. Washam HMW’s argument to the contrary is not convincing. Why does the HoseMaster get to decide for the rest of the world that OVID will only qualify for “cult” status when you can purchase it for double release on WineCommune? That’s just his opinion, it’s a purely subjective opinion, and it’s (probably) wrong.

    Mr. Leslie’s point that Paloma did not make my list, despite being named wine of the year by Wine Spectator, because it only costs $54, is comical as well. I didn’t put Paloma on my list because I don’t really like the wine, I don’t follow the winery, and I don’t care how many gold stars it received from James Laube. That said – in retrospect – Paloma should probably go on the list, because the list is for others, as well as myself, so if Morton would be kind of enough to comment on my blog and let me know Paloma’s release date, then I will be more than happy to add it to my list, and I’ll even post my top secret recipe for peacock tongue. “Mmmmm … peacock tongue.”

    Now if you want my opinion with respect to the broader questions you raised, I can tell you this:

    “How does a winery get on the cult wine list?” The wineries that made my list are pretty much all the wines that I know of that send me emails or letters telling me when they are releasing their wines. For purposes of the list, I didn’t discriminate at all. That said, if I have never bought wine from a specific winery (e.g. Paloma), and I don’t get their correspondence, they probably didn’t make the list. Alban Vineyards didn’t make my list – not because it doesn’t have the status – but because I am still on the damned wait list, as they like to remind me every winter when they send me a postcard that reads, “NO WINE FOR YOU!”

    “What keeps a wine off it?” See above.

    “Can you buy your way onto it?” I have never received money or anything else of value from a winery – it tends to work the other way around – but I have received a few samples from wineries, and I would accept samples from wineries, if offered. Does that mean they make the list? I’ll tell you when it happens….

    “How do you stay on it once you’re on?” Keep sending me emails letting me know when the wine comes out.

    “Is the list meaningful?” The list is informational, nothing more. If information is meaningful, and I propose it is, then yes, the list is meaningful.

    “Do millenials and younger wine lovers care?” I don’t understand the question. “Care” about what? Are you rephrasing the question above?

    “How will the list change in 5 years?” It will probably grow. The wines on this list are all (generally) high quality wines. So for the wine industry’s own good, the list will grow.

  23. Hey Slaked, thanks. I should have made myself clearer: When I was asking “how do you get on the list,” “how do you get off the list,” “Do younger wine lovers care?” etc., I wasn’t referring to your list. I meant just the concept of cult wines in general — how does a wine end up being a “cult wine” by common consensus. By asking “Can you buy your way onto the list?” I didn’t mean can someone pay you to put them on. I meant, If some billionaire moves up to Napa and drops a fortune hiring a famous winemaker, etc., can they get on the list (not necessarily yours). So like I said, I should have made that clearer. Anyhow, it’s an interesting topic.

  24. Not sure if this completely answers your question about millennials, but it is more food for thought: http://millennialmarketing.blogspot.com/2008/12/fussy-drinkers-wine-brands-matter-to.html

  25. Sam, interesting study. Thanks. I’ve seen other studies suggesting that Millennials aren’t being hit as bad by the recession as Boomers. But even Millennials are less well off than they were earlier in 2008, and it seems to me likely that by 2009 they’ll be worse off than they are now.

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