Cult wines in a post-cult era
An interesting back-and-forth happened here yesterday following my post, Waterford Wedgwood bankruptcy: lessons for high-end wine. One commenter, Corey Miller, asked a two-fold question: If $200 Napa Cabs “aren’t the way anymore,” what will replace them? And are there any former cult wines that have re-invented themselves to suit this new, troubled era? In a later comment, Corey asked two more good questions: “What qualities would get you [me, Steve, the critic] excited” about a new wine discovery. And “How does one build prestige into a wine while avoiding the leftover stale aftertaste of the Napa cult Cab era?”
Let me try to answer. Not that I have all the answers, or even any of them. But the mere struggle of trying to answer a hard question makes you think more deeply about it, which is good.
What will replace $200 Napa Cabs?
Let’s posit that a lot of high-end wines are going to get slammed in this recession. I don’t know if anything will “replace” them. If 20 Cabs that now cost in excess of $80 have to lower their prices or even disappear, that doesn’t mean that 20 other expensive wines will pop up someplace else and take their place. It’s not a zero-sum game. Sometimes less is less.
Are there any former cult wines that have reinvented themselves?
None that I can think of. Once you’re yesterday’s papers, it’s hard to become front page news anymore.
What qualities get me excited about a new wine?
Quality, first and foremost. Extra features that can be hard to define — what the Germans call Prädikat: special distinctions or attributes. Standing out from one’s peers. For example, a couple years ago I was at a big Pinot Noir walkaround tasting with lots of big names. I came across a brand I’d never heard of, Anthill Farms. The wines were so compelling, especially coming from a total unknown, that it put them on my radar. It didn’t hurt that the owners were a bunch of young guys who had a great back story. As I ponder my career as a wine critic, I’m struck by how often this happens — you stumble across some new little brand that blows you away.
How do you build prestige into a wine while avoiding the Napa cult Cab era?
All that I, as a critic, can do is review wines. I’m sure that a very high score attracts some attention in certain circles. But in order for a wine to be perceived as “the next classic,” something magical has to happen that’s beyond anyone’s control. Heidi Barrett once described it to me as “word of mouth, this wildfire undercurrent, person-to-person, friends to friends: ‘Have you tried this?’ It just spreads like wildfire.” (She was talking about what happened to her when she made Screaming Eagle, Grace Family and Dalla Valle Maya.) It used to be that a Robert Parker 100 could achieve this magical effect. I’m sure the Sage of Monkton can still launch a wine to stardom, BUT I think his power is reduced from what it used to be, and will never be the same. That’s because there are so many more critical voices out there, including the blogs. It’s also because a younger generation has come online, and they don’t care as much about Parker (or me) as their parents did.
Look, if there was a formula for “building prestige into a wine,” everybody would know what it was. But there isn’t. We don’t even know all the necessary and sufficient conditions — that’s why P.R. and marketing folks exist. So with the explosion of critical voices out there, it’s going to be harder than ever for any one new brand to be launched to cultdom. Anyhow, that’s my opinion, and I’m sticking to it.