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Cult Cabernet: Going down…


The Germans call it schadenfreude, “a delight in the suffering of others.”  We humans seem to take particular delight when those suffering are the wealthy and powerful, Masters of the Universe brought low by– what? Their own pride. It’s a very old emotion. Consider this remark, from the second book of Samuel in the Old Testament: “How are the mighty fallen…”, David’s lamentation over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan.

In the modern wine industry the latest episode of schadenfreude concerns ultrapremium or “cult” California wine, particularly Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons and Bordeaux blends. There’s something hubristic about them to begin with, isn’t there? During this decade, we’ve seen an explosion of them, previously unheard of wines (generally in 5-pound bottles) costing $80, $100, $150, made by people with too much money, too much ambition, and perhaps not enough common sense to have realized the oldest, truest saying of them all: Pride goeth before a fall.

If I listed the number of wines I’ve had this past year alone that meet the above description, it would take up the entire contents of this post. Besides, I don’t want to kick anyone when they’re already down. These wines are not selling. I’m told this by clerks in high-end retail stores, by restaurateurs, by sales managers and by winemakers themselves. NPR this morning had a news report on the banks and it said something like, “Lending and credit may never return to the levels last seen 2 years ago.” Neither will America’s appetite for cult wines.

Today’s San Francisco Chronicle (an endangered newspaper) has an article by their thoughtful wine editor, Jon Bonné, on this topic. He writes: “It seems many restaurants and retailers are thinning their inventories and not acquiring a whole lot more [high-end Napa Cabernet]. With a slow market for expensive wine…these may not be the cheeriest of times along Highway 29.”

I’m not blaming anyone. I understand the reasoning. It goes something like this. “Hey, I’m rich. I can buy grapes from Beckstoffer To Kalon, and I can afford to hire a famous consulting winemaker. If Bill Harlan could do it, why not me?” If I had an extra $20 million in my pocket I might even be tempted. Not saying it’s hubris, just going for the main chance. It’s too bad for the current crop of wannabes that they got caught in a nut-cruncher of a downturn. For me, it’s not so much schadenfreude, but something closer to what Shelley expressed, in Ozymandias:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.


Where’s the rest of me?

  1. Cult wine is more about exclusivity and inspiration than wine quality. A lot of the current cult leaders arose from the .com boom [crashed] and real estate boom [crashed]. The new source of inspiration are the social media phenoms.

    Exclusivity is now more measured by followers and fans than scores in the spectator/enthusiast/advocate, .com options, or acres in napa.

    More people would want to brag to their friends that they had dinner with vaynerchuk than Harlan, the crushpad founder than peterson, or Steven colbert than the pope.

  2. Steve – Spare a moment of pity for those famous consulting winemakers…

    Love the Ozymandius quote, but I will bet that for cult Cab as a phenomenon (though perhaps not for individual brands) a couple of years from now Twain will be more au courant: “The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

    I would be interested in knowing how much of the cult Cab economy is/was driven by direct-to-retstaurant sales, and how much by the collector-investor. The two are linked, with “collectors” flipping their mailing list allocations to retailers at marked-up prices. But where in the secondary market is the split between restaurants, and other collectors?

    Just musing… but with the wealth bubble deflated, it is surely the secondary market that has taken the biggest hit, with cellars full of cult Cab marked to market at zero value, since there are few or no buyers.

    But a few years from now? I seriously doubt cult Cab will go away, because according to Cardiff Giant investor David Hannum: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

  3. What goes up must come down, but it seems to always go up again if we are talking about business cycles. The Bordeaux prices are sharply down this year and so are high end wines from California and Italy.

    One thing I have learned is never underestimate how much money people have. High end wine keeps selling to the affluent according to those I know in the high end market. I think what the high end market has lost are the consumers that you might call “afficianados” People who are not wealthy, but spend a disproportionate amount of their income on wine because it is their hobby. They have been affected by the stock market, job market, and home prices far more than the millionaires who will ride out this economic bump in their cellars drinking 1st growths.

    So while I enjoy schadenfreude as much as the next guy, I don’t think the high end wine drinkers or cult winery owners (millionaires and billionaires all) will have too hard a time getting through this until the next boom.

  4. Paul Gregutt says:

    A side issue, perhaps, but I wonder what is the ageability of these monster cult wines? I would surmise that for most it is under a decade – well under in some instances. Drinking up the cellar is a short-term strategy; but along with deflating values will come another sort of deflation, as the wines fall apart. Will that encourage restocking more quickly, or simply become one more reason to leave the cult wines to the cult followers, and focus on the pleasures of drinking less grandiose and far more affordable bottles?

  5. Well, I do not find any pleasure in seeing failure, misery, or decline, but the trend of Cult Cabs going down does do one thing for me- it makes me LESS PERPLEXED about the UNMERITED SUCCESS of NOTHING SPECIAL!

  6. Christophe Hedges says:

    Wine should never be about image. Unfortunately, the goal of these cult wines was to promote a high image margin to it’s high image clientele. Terroir is what determines the value of a wine, and that is what the cult market lacked. Price should only be determined by the history of the place, and the demand the place has garnered over time. it takes many generations to ask the prices these cult wines demanded.

  7. JD in Napa says:

    As a consumer with something other than unlimited resources, I find the whole cult wine thing to be a snore. If I had one of these Cabs blind against a good $100 bottle, would the difference, if detectable, justify the difference in price? Unlikely. It’s just bragging rights, in my view.

    My friend has a “bucket list” with a number of Screaming Eagles, Harlans and similar, and I just don’t see the point. I’m looking for value. The Napa wine shop where I work on Friday nights has a bottle of Marcassin Chard, one of those $300 things. Aside from the fact that I’m not a big Chard fan, could I buy it? Sure. But for the price, I can pick up 8 bottles of Laetitia Reserve Pinot, which we love. Such an easy decision. OK, fine, I did spring for a Gaja Sori Tildin, but that’s different. Isn’t it?

  8. Steve’s comments remind me of a friend’s comment the morning after a bachelor party where a couple strippers showed up late in the evening; “Never have so many paid so much for so little”!

  9. What’s the line between pride and passion?

    My belief is that pride is when you believe you are at the peak of your form, which is higher than everyone elses, and there is no more room for you to grow beyond this point. As for passion, I believe this is the building block of pride, it is which pushes you further and further. Pride is often the finish line to a somewhat short-lived and meaningless journey. Yet, as long as passion remains a building block and you never truly cross the finish line of your endeavors, a place you can proclaim you can travel no further, then you will not fall from such a fate.

    I understand the basic resentment put forward here against people who just throw their large sums of money around only to make image instead of wine in order to make even more money to throw around. I consider that type of behavior the festering offspring of an affair between decadence and opulence. However, the problem with any mold is that it only fits to that shape.

    Is it possible for a winery to have some of the aforementioned qualities, and yet, not be a product of their own undoing through pride? Of course. At least under my belief, there’s a start to every passionate journey regardless of industry or endeavor. This should be welcome and not immediately slighted by prejudice. As long as a winery’s focus maintains humility and constantly seeks out something beyond what has already been achieved, it will flourish.

    I say this because the vineyard & winery where I work is in the pursuit of ultra-premium Bordeaux blends from Sonoma Valley, but I don’t see an inkling of pride in any members of the team. Are they proud of the work they do? Yes. But, they are not prideful. All of them, in their vast experience of wine knowledge and practice, still treat me as an equal and enjoy listening to my fresh perspective on things as I learn. They truly believe that what they’re pursuing is something that, no matter how many achievements are made toward it along the way, will still outlive their time walking among us. They can always learn more, they will never be done with their commitment to advancing. I truly believe that their entrance into the market will be able to break this mold set forth. At least, I would never wish to see them fall ill of a sickness like pride.

  10. Along the same lines as Paul Gregutt’s comment, why pay these prices for wines that may (and probably will) fall apart in less than 10 years, when you could spend a similar amount on some wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy that most assuredly will age well? It all comes down to value, doesn’t it? No matter how much I’m spending, I want to make sure I get the most bang for my buck. To a wine DRINKER, that is the most important thing IMHO.

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