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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.

  1. Corey/Steve,

    There are few things that sell wine faster than a good story. Any retailer will tell you this. So make a good one up! I’m kidding. If your passion is in fact Cabernet, then by all means go for it! You can try until your face turns blue to “build prestige” into a wine, but the fact is, if the wine is just okay, then it’s going to be just ok wine. As a low production cab winery, what YOU need to do is not build prestige into your wine, but to infuse it with the passion you clearly have, and let the prestige become the natural bi-product. Nothing is more contagious than passion. Nothing. Be very aggressive about self promotion. Visit restaurants and retailers. VERY AGGRESSIVELY pursue DTC sales and wine club memberships. Remember, you ARE your wine at the cult level. When Tony left Domaine Serene, the winery lost something intangible. If Bratasiuk bailed on Clarendon, it just wouldn’t feel the same. A brilliant recreation of a Picasso, is still not a Picasso no matter how good it is.


  2. Steve, this and your previous post on this topic are interesting indeed. For Corey and others that might be interested there are a few recent scholarly papers on this topic worth looking at:

    Title: Uncovering “theories-in-use”: building luxury wine brands

    Author(s): Michael Beverland

    Journal: European Journal of Marketing

    Year: 2004
    Volume: 38
    Issue: 3/4
    Page: 446 – 466

    Despite the high profile of many international luxury brands, little is known about the processes by which these brands are created and how their market position is maintained. Research and practitioner experience suggests that these brands focus on building abstract, “timeless” images or dreams. However, no systematic research has been carried out on the processes and strategies of luxury marketers. Based upon case studies in the luxury wine trade, this research sought to uncover the tacit processes underlying the creation and maintenance of luxury wine brands. Results highlight that luxury brands are a complex combination of dedication to product quality, a strong set of values, tacit understanding of marketing, a focus on detail, and strategic emergence.

    The ‘real thing’: Branding authenticity in the luxury wine trade

    Michael Beverland,

    Marketing Group, University of Melbourne, Alan Gilbert Building, 161 Barry St, Parkville, Victoria 3010, Australia

    Journal of Business Research
    Volume 59, Issue 2, February 2006, Pages 251-258

    Authenticity is a cornerstone of contemporary marketing practice yet confusion surrounds the nature and use of authenticity in the brand arena. We identify six attributions of authenticity based on an examination of the strategies of 20 ultra-premium wineries and interviews with 30 wine consumers. These six attributes are: heritage and pedigree, stylistic consistency, quality commitments, relationship to place, method of production, and downplaying commercial motives. These attributes of authenticity resonated with consumers. The attributes of authenticity were both real and stylized versions of the truth.

    You may need to do some digging to find these if you don’t have access to a scholarly database. Enjoy!


  3. Corey Miller says:

    Thanks very much to Steve for addressing my (many) questions in this post and to Louis and Jeremy for their helpful suggestions!

    I’ll definitely check out the articles you mention Jeremy. I’m a scientist by training, so I do love the academic journals.

    To Louis: I couldn’t agree more that passion has to be the foundation of a successful wine business. It’s certainly what has attracted me to many of the wines that I have loved in the past and do love today.

    However, I can certainly think of times in my life when JUST passion wasn’t quite enough. The combined wisdom of mothers across this great land would suggest that art school isn’t a secure career path – and yet there’s plenty of passion to be found within their paint daubed halls. In my mind, passion can only be fully beneficial when it’s funneled and directed in productive ways (at least, when it also has to pay the bills).

    The problem is that, as Steve points out, we can never really know a priori what those productive areas are. I guess the hope is that by asking the people who have been in the business through all the ups, downs, etc. you can start to make informed decisions about a strategy for applying all that passion. There is certainly no formula, but there is the experience and insight of others…

    I’d like to believe that if I focus on making truly great wine (and succeed), business success will follow. But when Steve describes Heidi Barrett’s “wildfire”, it underscores just how out of control brand development can truly be!

    Thanks again to everyone, I really appreciate your thoughts.

  4. Corey, to emphasize the point of how out of control brand development can be, consider that what made Pahlmeyer famous was their Chardonnay being in that Michael Douglas movie. Who could have predicted that? Or consider how Gary Pisoni and his vineyard got famous. There was no PR, no professional marketing, just Gary. He made it happen by the force of his personality (as well as some pretty good grapes and wine!).

  5. Gary is a lion of a man. I think that energy and charisma carry the brand in large part (but the lore behind the “Pisoni clone” and the quality of the fruit don’t hurt, either).
    Would anyone here disagree that it is not infrequent to see good PR replace the passion and dedication to quality?

  6. Morton Leslie says:

    Every winery has a story about their heritage and pedigree. Everyone has a story about their unique style; no winemaker is ever uncommitted to quality; and we know, every wine tastes of place; only the best equipment and methods are ever used; and no one wants to make money. It is all about the art.

    Yet. These things have little relationship, cause or effect, to cult status. In fact, most who rush headlong to buy these wines usually have no knowledge of these “facts” we try to provide to them.

    The magical ingredient Screaming Eagle, Harlan and before them Silver Oak is tapping into a psychological element that lies somewhere between mass hysteria and greed. It does not include any element of logic.

    The cult wine cannot be a wine that everyone can have, it is for only a chosen few. You will take all you can get, because even if you don’t drink it, you have to HAVE it. You think you will incur such bragging rights and such envy from your peers, because you “scored” a few bottles, that you approach hysteria in your search for an “in”.

    It is not something that looks attractive to someone on the outside who doesn’t care. It looks very silly. And just like mass hysteria it is never possible to predict where or why it struck. Among the luxury category it stands out as a random happening.

  7. Arthur, I wouldn’t disagree that it is not infrequent to see good PR replace passion and dedication to quality — if I understand the double negative of “not infrequent.” But I wouldn’t want that in any way to suggest that PR was responsible for Pisoni’s success. As you yourself pointed out, the quality of the fruit doesn’t hurt! All I meant to suggest is that lightning can strike in unpredictable ways. There’s a great deal of “in the right place at the right time” luck in achieving success.

  8. I’m more curious about what the next CHEAP cult wine will be. In short, the next Two Buck Chuck. A killer-app wine for the common wine drinker, not the $200 Cab cellarer.

    Maybe a box wine. Maybe something from Eastern Europe. Whenever that does happen, it will have to involve a combination of Quality and Lore. In the modern age, PR and winemaking need to work in tandem.

  9. Thom Calabrese says:

    I think that we are all suckers to a degree when it comes to luxury goods. I have had the opportunity to taste my share of cult type wine. I have never felt they were worth the price.
    Remember what Thorstein Veblon found in “The Theory of the Leisure Class”
    Basically said people actually want things more when the price is raised.
    Frederic Brochet in “Chemical Obect Representation in the Field of Consciouness” fooled 57 French wine experts by serving them 2 identical wines. One in a Grand Cru bottle and the other in VDT and of course they preferred the Grand Cru.
    So much of our buying choices are driven by ego and not by value. Value is still subjective and what is a value me you, is not necessarily a value to me.
    As I’ve said many times, I like good wine, and drink it every day.
    I buy only good wine and that is wine which brings me pleasure and I can afford. It is hard for me, being one of the masses economically, to think of spending $400 or more for one bottle, no matter how special.
    Of course that being said, I wouldn’t give it a thought to spend $5 on a sandwich and when you are talking my wealth compared to the owners of all these trophy wines, they are buying a big mac!
    Caveat Emptor

  10. Tish, I wonder too. Maybe there won’t be a new 2 Buck Chuck. That kind of pheenom may happen once in a generation.

  11. Steve, I have enjoyed your articles as well as reviews for some time now, and have actually been waiting for this article. Below is a quote from the Sept, 2007, Wine Enthusiast Buying Guide:

    91 Byington 2004 Cerro Prieto Cab Sauv(Paso Robles): $32

    “I like this wine for the way it mimics Napa cult Cab, yet carves out a distinct identity. Like Napa, it’s dry, soft and ripely opulent, with rich blackberry, cassis, cherry, cocoa and oak flavors, housed in sweet, finely ground tannins. Yet there’s an earthy, tobacco and sassafras quality that suggests real terroir. Showing its best now.—S.H.”

    Frankly, how you described our vineyard to a tee, never having seen it, was a signal moment in my grape/wine life. Prior to that we had dabbled in making a barrel or two, but at the time of this review, we were already a yr into commercial production. Our first vintage, 2006, was just bottled 3 days ago, and it has exceeded our expectations.

    Returning to your incredibly on-the-mark evaluation of our vineyard, my first question was, “How in the world could he know that?” Previously, I had always taken a wine review with a grain of salt…a large grain, at that. But to see our vineyard , terroir, and its wine described so on-the-spot accurately, was akin to the bright light that went on when I got to medical school and first realized how intricate was the human body, and how magnificently it interacted to work so well. Your article literally changed my appreciation of top notch wine writers from “Hmmm… to Wow, this guy is a magician, and a smart one at that.”

    We were, of course, encouraged by your review, and worked even harder to be worthy of your comments. The old adage of “find me a great winemaker, and I will show you a great viticulturist”, is in fact, how we achieved making a noteworthy wine. The key, naturally, is site, exposure, soil composition, proper clone selection, minimal non sustainable ag intrusion(ie, as close to “organic” or eco friendly as possible), loving care of the vines, vast knowledge of pitfalls(phylox, Pierce’s), and necessities such as irrigation(minimal), proper NPK(nitrogen, phos, potassium)levels, and dozens more intricate variables going into the “perfect grape”.

    Assuming everything is done properly(as well as timely), the one most important feature of a great wine, is a low yield vineyard. More wineries have stubbed their toes on this than any other one obstacle to make the “perfect” wine.

    Regarding the question, “What will replace $200 cult cabs”, I would predict small, boutique vineyards (with virtual wineries such as ours), with extremely low yield vines, ( 1 to 2.5 Tons/acre), would be the answer… with a price most wine aficionados can afford.

    After several months allowing for bottle shock to settle down, we will send you our low yield Merlot, as well as Paso Bordo, a blend of 85% Cab/ 15% Syrah. Hopefully you will enjoy this answer to “What will replace $200 cult cabs”. The dedication to detail, love of the vines, terroir and even lower yield/vine all remain the same. It will be interesting to see if you concur.

  12. this is not a comment, rather a typo correction, from the 3rd paragraph of the above comment after your wine evaluation segment, line 6, which incorrectly reads,
    “NON sustainable ag”…the word NON needs to be deleted. My profuse apologies for not catching that even with multiple proof readings. Thank you , Larry Stanton

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